There was the ten-shekel falafel pita, the freak snowstorm that shut down Jerusalem, and the dance party in the middle of the Shuk; but my favorite part about going to Israel with Taglit-Birthright was the feeling of closeness. Closeness with my tour group, closeness with the Israeli soldiers, but most importantly closeness to my Judaism. In Israel it is inherently easier to be more Torah-observant than here in the US because the majority of people are Jewish. If that wasn’t clear to me before the trip, it became obvious on Friday in the mid-afternoon why Israel is truly home to the Jewish people.
As the impromptu dance party commenced in the snowy streets, the Shuk emptied. What was a crowded, cramped market no more than thirty minuets earlier now could hardly be recognized. Vendors were bringing their merchandise into their stores and the fresh produce stands were being hosed down. After looking at my watch the realization hit me: everything was shutting down and people were going home for Shabbat. In that moment, the feeling of being a part of something, of being in the majority, of being in a place that not only accepted my religious beliefs but also operated around them was overpowering. This feeling of closeness is something I have never felt and is the reason I went to Israel.
Growing up, I never had the opportunity to learn Hebrew or have a Bar Mitzvah; it is something I have wanted to do since coming to college and becoming more in tune with my Judaism. Thus, when asked if I was interested in becoming a bar mitzvah I quickly said yes.
Though four years of French made some of the Hebrew sounds difficult, after a lot of practice I was ready. Originally, we were to have the B’nei Mitzvah (one of the girls in my group, Jess, wanted to have a Bat Mitzvah as well) in the hostel’s Synagogue. Shortly after arriving in the Synagogue— mid way through rehearsing one last time— the owner of the synagogue arrived. After demanding that Jess leave the room, he proceeded to, in Hebrew, inform us that we were not allowed to use his Synagogue because neither B’nei Mitzvah were going to be conservative and thus he would not allow it.
Though this did not stop us from continuing on with the ceremonies in a different room, it was an eye-opening spectacle. Neither Jess nor myself really minded where we recited the aliyah and gave our speeches, but it was baffling to see with my own eyes how much we – two kids from Minnesota who were just trying to explore and enhance our Judaism—angered him. We may not all observe in the same way, but aren’t we are Jews together? Don’t we all share the same belief in God? The feeling of family and heritage is something that has always made me proud to be Jewish.
This experience, while eye-opening, didn’t change my views on Judaism or my Bar Mitzvah. I am proud to have had the opportunity and courage to learn a prayer in Hebrew, recite it in front of more than fifty people I had known less than a week, and choose a Hebrew name that had significant meaning to me. Though it may not have been a conventional ceremony, it was an experience I will hold onto for the rest of my life.
Overall, going to Israel with Taglit-Birthright was a life changing, potentially once in a lifetime experience that I recommend to everyone who is eligible. Whether you are deeply religious looking to visit the Kotel and pray, or are more culturally Jewish looking to explore what else is out there in the Jewish world, Birthright is a great opportunity to make new friends, explore your Judaism, and visit many diverse places within the Holy Land.
Taglit-Birthright registration is now open, and spots remain on the Minnesota Hillel Trip May 26th-June 6th. Registration can be found at http://freeisraeltrip.org/, or, email [email protected] with any questions.
The Minneapolis Jewish Federation is also sponsoring a Taglit-Birthright trip for post-college eligible adults. Find more information and register at http://jewishminneapolis.org/birthright/, or email [email protected]
Vincent Blonigen is a senior from St. Francis Minnesota majoring in chemical engineering. Vince has been very active on campus during his time at the U of M, serving on the Chabad board, as an active member of Hillel, as well as the Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity. Vince will be graduating next fall, and is planning on staying in Minneapolis and working as an engineer.