by Alexandra Kiosse
Old Hollywood actor John Abbott once said “every man’s ability may be strengthened or increased by culture.” Although I’m not exactly sure what he meant by that (and despite Abbott’s exclusion of women’s abilities), I came to agree with this after my experiences over winter break from college.
On my most recent break from school, I decided to delve into the unknown and go to Israel on a Birthright trip. This funded excursion operated under the assumption that it is a right that every single person with Jewish roots should visit the Holy Land. More practically, it was a chance for millennials to reconnect with their families’ cultural and religious backgrounds. I had no inclination to go because I felt as though I had no culture to return to.
My family, like many others, had come from the Soviet Union. In the old days, citizens of the USSR’s satellite states were prohibited from practicing religion. Anti-Semitism was rampant and the people’s identities were limited to the Soviet standard. This was the only remnant of culture passed on to me.
After reluctantly giving into my mom’s pleas of “just go, it’s a free trip!”, I decided to give it a shot. What I found in my ten days abroad was not only an opportunity to see a new country, but to make 48 new friends and acquire new insights into my own identity.
The trip consisted of an unimaginable amount of sightseeing, bonding with the other Birthright participants, and of course, some Jewish history; before I left America, the anticipation of the latter was responsible for more than a few eye rolls.
However, after a few days something strange happened. With the sunsets over the Sea of Galilee, the rich stories of the founding of Jerusalem, the overwhelming views from the top of the Negev Desert mountains, and the beautiful, passionate people surrounding me, I fell in love with a country I had previously no connection to.
Needless to say, I had a great time. But more than that, I learned about what it meant to have Jewish roots, although they had not been a significant part of my upbringing. I learned about the importance of community, the need for remembering history, and the importance of forging intimate connections to people in order to learn from them. These lessons would not have come from the relatively new, seemingly emotionless city I called home.
Again, I’m not sure what John Abbot was talking about when he issued his own thoughts about culture. But I do know that after Israel, even though I probably won’t incorporate religion into my hectic life, I will focus on Judaism’s emphasis on community by expanding my existing networks, while continuing to build new ones.
When my friends ask about my trip, I tell them the most important lesson I’ve learned: explore your roots, no matter how distant and obsolete you perceive them to be.