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A Birthright Story

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I headed for the airport on January 2, 2013 with a lot of questions: Will I stand out because I didn’t go to Hebrew School or have a Bat Mitzvah? Am I really “Jewish enough” to go on this trip? Will people think differently of me because of my prior religious experience? I had no idea what I would be walking into when the doors swung open …but when they did, I saw 37 other young adults awkwardly making small talk and trying their best to stay out of the way of the general public. As soon as I walked up to the group I was met with smiling faces and warm introductions. Having received no second guesses or doubting looks, I began to relax. It was now or never – and I knew had to give this experience my all.

As many members of the group soon learned, my religious background was slightly more complicated than others. My mother, grandmother and great-grandmother are all Jewish. My father and his side of the family, however, are not. Unfortunately, when I was 10-months old, my mother was involved in a terrible car accident and suddenly passed away. My father did the only thing he knew how to do – he turned to his church. As I was growing up, that never changed. I was signed up for Sunday school at the Methodist church every week, Youth Club on Wednesdays, and was even sent to a Christian horse camp during the summer. As fun as these activities could be, something always seemed out of place. I didn’t believe in the fundamental values of the Church and I felt like a fraud pretending to for his sake. For many Christians, including my father, this was a problem. Eventually, I began to reject religion altogether, and when I was about 12- or 13-years- old I stopped attending church. Spiritually, I was lost.

I re-connected in my early college years. My father moved to Georgia with my family, and my closest relative in proximity to school was my maternal grandmother. I spent many weekends at my grandma’s house watching her observe the Jewish holidays. I started to ask questions about Judaism and our culture. I realized that all those years that I had dismissed all religion I had never doubted G-d, only certain aspects of the things I had been taught. I discovered that Judaism allowed me to ask questions and have some doubt…and still be accepted. Eventually, I realized I believed all of the things my grandmother did. At some point I stopped calling myself “Jew-ish” when people asked. I was Jewish… and I tried to learn more.

I did not apply for the Birthright trip on a whim. A colleague of mine had taken the Atlanta community trip during the summer of 2012 and I heard nothing but great things about his experience. He came back from Israel with a connection to the country and community that he couldn’t fully describe, and I longed for that same feeling. I wanted to feel closer to the Jewish community in Georgia, as my grandmother and great-grandmother still live in Michigan. When the application date/time came, I was at my computer and ready to go. Several interviews and a $250 deposit later, I was extended an offer on my trip of choice. To say I was excited for this experience would be an extreme understatement. I was ecstatic...and I tried to prepare for it all.

I pictured what it would be like to walk through the markets and sleep in a Bedouin tent. I knew I wanted to see the Golan Heights, Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem for myself. The only thing I did not anticipate and could not prepare for was the connection I made with the people of Israel. I never felt out of place, and I was never treated as a stranger. To them, I was a long-lost friend that found her way home. I may have seen all of the places I wanted to see (and had the time of my life, even in the crazy, freezing weather), but the relationships I made while on that trip and the bond I now feel to the State of Israel are the things that will never fade. This trip brought me closer to my people. It brought me home. And, for the first time, it made me complete.

I truly cannot thank the donors enough for allowing me to have this experience. Because of this trip, I am more committed to Judaism than I have ever been. I have committed myself to the Jewish community and faith – to continue in the steps of my grandmother, great-grandmother, and those before them to raise my children Jewish. I want to be the best person I can be – to be a better daughter, sister, cousin and friend. Looking back, I know that I did give this experience my all, and my doubts and questions the day of departure were unnecessary. Israel became my second home, and I will always love and defend it and its people…mishpacha.

Sincerely,
Stephanie Neville
January 2013 Atlanta Community Birthright participant


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