by Lisa Berman, Mikveh and Education Director
I became a Jew (by choice) in December, 1980. I’ve been Jewish for 36 years — so long that many who know me don’t realize I wasn’t always Jewish. My observance, knowledge, and confidence about Judaism has grown each year. But, to be honest, for most of those 36 years, there was one Jewish connection I did not share with my friends who were born Jewish: I did not have a relationship with Israel – not the state, the land, the concept, the politics, the issues, or the people. Is this perhaps more common among “new” Jews than we realize?
Today we mark Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. Next week we will celebrate Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day). Until recently, these special days held little meaning for me. I wonder — is Israel often the last big concept that a new Jew embraces?
My path to Judaism was typical in many ways. I read, embraced the candle-lighting opportunities of Hanukkah and Shabbat, was nervous at my first seders, struggled with Hebrew, loved Friday evenings in synagogue as prayers became more familiar, and felt empowered to choose certain wedding rituals and create a baby naming ceremony for our daughter. It was all new, but it wasn’t very complicated — I’d seen some of it in movies, read about it in books, and had lots of family and friends around to help and support.
Just as new were the connections to Israel, but unlike Shabbat and holidays, they weren’t as practiced in my circles. It’s easy to learn Shalom Aleichem when you sing it every week. It’s hard to learn HaTikva or Yerushalayim Shel Zahav when you hear it once every few years. I can “feel Jewish” when I know the Friday evening liturgy by heart. But I feel uncomfortable and more than a little guilt-ridden because I lost no family in the Holocaust. I didn’t grow up in a home where the critical importance of the state of Israel was a spoken, or even unspoken, imperative. No JNF (Jewish National Fund) tzedekah box graced my kitchen counter, no Israel bond certificates were given at birthdays. These are little connections that, for some others, could create the strands of a relationship with the State of Israel — even if tenuous, oversimplified, or superficial.
Unlike the other ways we live Jewishly — daily, weekly, yearly rituals and observances — I found it harder to personally connect to the ones about Israel. For me, Israel was abstract, and fraught at that. It was — is — complicated in so many ways.
But the abstract became real for me when I went to Israel. First a standard congregational bus tour, then more visits as our children studied there over the years. Visits where we lived in neighborhood apartments instead of hotels, shopped in the shuk for food to cook ourselves instead of just for gifts, chose where to pray, and struggled with issues of transportation on Shabbat.
I cried upon seeing the expansive beauty of the Negev, felt the pull of the Old City, saw parts of the West Bank up close to try to begin to understand the issues. And I was changed. For me, I had to be in Israel — in the land — to connect to it, whether emotionally or intellectually. Nothing else — no movies or discussion groups or rallies or books — came close. Yes, having children who lived in Israel several times for 5-10 months was an incentive to feel connected. But even just my first 10-day visit created a new relationship for me.
Over the years, I’ve jokingly said many times that there should be “Birthright for Converts.” I don’t joke about it anymore. I actively encourage anyone who has become Jewish to find the opportunity to go to Israel. I mention the idea to Jewish professionals. And now I invite our blog readers to share their experiences with this topic. Mayyim Hayyim has welcomed nearly 2,700 individuals becoming Jewish or affirming their Jewish identity here: a diverse group of individuals in every way, likely about their Israel connections, too. Let’s start a conversation about new Jews and Israel. Who knows, maybe this will be the beginning of something really interesting.
Lisa Berman is Mayyim Hayyim’s Mikveh and Education Director.