NEW YORK — Growing up in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, my Jewish identity was menoras on the mantelpiece and dreidel-infused door wreaths in December.
After learning about the nuances of Judaism and experiencing the beauty of its practices in Israel on the MASA Israel Journey-accredited World Union of Jewish Studies (WUJS) Jerusalem Studies program, I have become deeply committed to my heritage. I now work at an Israeli venture capital firm in New York and look forward to returning to Israel in the spring.
(MASA is an organization that enables Jewish youth to spend a semester or a year in Israel engaged in over 160 programs and building a lifelong relation with the Jewish state.)
As a child, bullies taunted me with the name “Jew-boy,” and I rejected my identity. When my grandmother brought my family to Israel in 2001, I began to see the significance of my background. While standing beside my grandmother in Yad Vashem as she tearfully mourned our relatives who died in the Holocaust, I felt not just the burden of mitzvot and nearly 3,000 years of tradition, but a searing connection of tragedy befallen on the children of Israel.
As a film student at New York University, I became involved in the Jewish community, traveled to Israel with Birthright and enrolled in Hebrew courses. Upon graduation, I wanted to continue my Hebrew studies through an Israeli immersion program and traveled to Israel.
Without a formal Jewish education, I had Jewish pride but did not know how to ingrain that feeling in my Jewish practice. When I first arrived in Israel, others continued to define me: To a kibbutznik, my kippa signified a level of religiosity that I “shouldn’t be so proud of.” To a rabbi at a Yeshiva, my wish to travel to Southeast Asia made me a “hedonistic idolater.”
When I enrolled in the WUJS Jerusalem Studies, a program for college graduates that includes Jewish and Zionist studies in a pluralist environment, I arrived at a crossroads. Like so many Israelis, I was stuck between the Haredi and the extreme left, unsure if I could find a place for myself in Israel.
Ironically, my routine trips to the grocery store sparked my excitement for the immersion process. Stocking my shopping cart with bagged chocolate milk and riding the Egged bus every day that allowed me to see that Israel is not just a collection of rights and wrongs, but also a home.
On many afternoons, I sat with friends on the roof of my apartment building, smoking Nargilla (water pipe), chomping on sunflower seeds, playing Shesh Besh (backgammon) and speaking a broken Hebrew. Beyond WUJS’s classes and field trips, I immersed myself in Israel and realized the beauty in the simultaneous complexity and simplicity of daily Israeli life.
For the first time in my life, I also found that Jewish holidays could be reason for mirth and not just obligatory practices. At the Kotel on Rosh Hashana, a stranger approached me with a smile and a “Shana Tova,” inviting us to her family’s meal. By no means was this an isolated event during my time in Israel.
It is an understatement to say that my WUJS experience in Israel changed my life. While welcomed into the beauty that exists for all types of Jews in Israel, I fell in love and am now engaged to another WUJS participant.
Since returning to the United States, I found a way to combine my passion for media and Israel and now work for an Israeli venture capital firm that develops Internet social media outlets. After my WUJS experience in Israel, I am a more committed Jew and look forward to many more Israel experiences.
(Samuel Thompson, a 2004 graduate of Shaler Area High School, and member of Adat Shalom, recently graduated from New York University. He works for the Israeli firm Decima Ventures.)