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January 11, 2010

“Are you going to take the birthright trip?” a family friend asks me over dinner on my birthday. “You only have two more years.”

“I haven’t really thought about it,” I say, though the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘Israel. Isn’t there a lot of killing over there?’ It seems like something’s always blowing up.

“Oh, you should do it,” she says, fixing me with that intense blue-eyed stare which suggests she really, really means it. “Mitchell loved it.”

She’s referring to her son, who loved it so much that he went and never came back. At one point he wanted to join the Israeli army despite a serious medical condition.  The only reason I know he’s still alive is the occasional Facebook status update; now he toils for an Israeli corporation, doing vague work.

“Well, I’ll think about it,” I say, glancing over at my mother who has made it abundantly clear that she has no desire to step anywhere near the Middle East, and thinks that those who do so must have a death wish.

‘Free trip to Israel!’ the Taglit-Birthright website exclaims. (Minus shopping and gratuities.) Spend ten days with a group of your peers on a tour of one of the most historic regions of the world. See the sights from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, gain insight into the country and its people, immerse yourself in the culture – and it won’t cost a single shekel!

I’d be crazy not to take advantage of this great offer, right?

I have a lot of Jewish friends, and have heard the term ‘Birthright’ tossed around in conversations involving Seder, mitzvah, and challah, but have never given much thought to the fact that because my mother is Jewish, I can go to Israel for free.

Imagine, due to some accident of birth, I get a holiday gratis. It’s all thanks to a Zionist billionaire in New York who formed the foundation which hands out these all-expenses-paid excursions “to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.”1 (Is Jewry even a word?)

Airfare, hotel, and transportation are covered, and the trip includes a genuine Israeli tour guide who will introduce me to the land of my ancestors. All I need to accept my ticket to the past is one Judaic parent, at least eighteen years on Earth – but no more than twenty-six – a functional passport, and a security deposit.

At twenty-four years old, I’ve got a well-traveled passport and a Jewish mother; her mother was Jewish, as was her mother, etc. ad infinitem. If Judaism were measured in blood, I’d be pretty damn Jewish, but all too often I don’t feel Jewish enough.  I’ve never been bat mitzvahed, and there’s a Christmas tree in my living room every December. Yes, we have a mezzuzah; it hangs next to the wreath on our front door. The only Hebrew I know is the prayer for lighting the menorah at Hanukkah; I memorized it phonetically off the box of candles.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that I don’t believe in God.

The various groups that organize these trips to the Homeland insist that they welcome all levels of faith, that you don’t have to be a practicing Jew so long as there’s some Jew in there somewhere. It feels like cheating to take the trip as an atheist. Will accepting the 10-day tour be a sign of surrender? If I take that ticket, am I offering myself up for conversion?

That is the point of this, after all. “[T]o strengthen participants’ personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people.” My Jewish mother and I have had conversations about my quest for a cultural identity, and how our shared atheism impacts our ability to enjoy and embrace even the secular aspects of our birthright. In recent years, with family members passing on or simply slipping away, it would be nice to have a community to embrace when my parents are gone, but I’m not in the market for religion. It’s not as if Taglit-Birthright will make me more Jewish. I’m not going to come back from ten days in the desert and say, ‘Oh, so that’s where God’s been hiding.’

Or will I?

Take Him out of the equation, and it sounds perfect – a chance to explore my heritage, and learn about an important part of the world, an opportunity to see life from a different point of view. As a writer, it’ll give me some much-needed worldly experience. It can fuel my passion. It’ll be a one-of-a-kind experience.

And that frightens me. This trip is going to change me; I’m afraid of having a religious experience, of coming home a different person. It’s only ten days, but a lot can happen in a week and a half (just ask the castaways on Lost.) I like my life, and my belief system, the way it is.

Can I truly get the full Israel birthright experience if I don’t believe in God?

There’s only one way to find out.

1 Taglit-Birthright Israel: About Us

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 11, 2010 4:42 pm

    You should definitely do it! Key word: gratis.

  2. January 11, 2010 5:34 pm

    1.)Jewry is definitely a word.
    2.) If you go, I think we have 5 leftover Shekels for you. =$1.40!

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