On a Camel and a Prayer: Discovering my “Jewishness” in Israel

by Ashley Hufford

I was raised Jewish.  I went to Hebrew pre-school, then a bi-weekly Hebrew school. I had a bat mitzvah and even a confirmation, but I never considered myself that Jewish. I always said “I’m Jewish with a focus on the ‘ish.’” It often garnered a laugh, but I also thought it was a pretty great description. When I thought about going to Israel, I didn’t think it would have such an impact on my life. I figured it would be, well, a free trip—which is why the whole experience took me by surprise.

I was incredibly nervous about the trip. I had done a fair amount of traveling during a semester abroad, but I had never been so far from home, let alone with 40 people I didn’t know. The first few hours in Israel were rough. We arrived at 4:30 in the morning. I was cranky and nervous. I didn’t really know how to speak to my trip mates, and, frankly, I didn’t want to be there.  On the drive from the airport in Tel Aviv to our hotel in Jerusalem, our tour guide had us stop just outside the city. I was frustrated. I wanted to get to our hotel and go to sleep.  He made us all get off the bus and walk through a small park. We climbed a set of stairs and at the top, I lost my breath.

We were overlooking the most beautiful scene I had ever witnessed. Thousands of white buildings gleamed in the large hot sun. I could see the golden dome of the Old City. I could even see the desert far off in the distance. This was Jerusalem.  This was where the Jews had directed their prayers for years and years and although I had said those prayers hundreds of times, I had never really thought about what that meant.  But this was it. I was in Israel. And in this second I realized that I hadn’t made a mistake. All this fear and worry and paranoia were worth it because I was basking in the sun and heat and dust of my ancestors’ home. I was looking at the city of Jerusalem. For the rest of my life, I will remember that moment.

During the next 10 days, I did things I never thought I would or could. I hiked a mountain; I white water rafted; and I got to know the amazing people who were on the trip with me. We were 20-something Jews living all over the world, but in those 10 days we came together as if it had been months. The days seemed to both fly by and last forever as we went south to ride camels in the desert, and north to the hike in the Golan Heights. At the end of those 10 days, as the plane took off for home, I couldn’t explain my feelings. In 10 days, I was a changed person. For my entire life, I had heard that as a Jew, my homeland was Israel, my second home, a place I would always be welcome, and until Birthright, I nodded and smiled, but didn’t feel it. Now, I can say with certainly that I do.

My brother, Axel, just got back from his Birthright trip over winter break. Since coming back, we’ve had a ton of great conversations about our shared experience in Israel. With all the controversy coming out of Israel lately, we both feel as though we have become advocates for the country. Now, we both feel we can take an active part in any conversation because we have been and seen and felt what it is like to be there and we know it’s our job to represent Israel accurately.

I now know that I am Jewish, emphasis on the “Jew,” and I know I will raise my (way far in the future) children Jewish and will expect them to raise their children Jewish. I will send them to Hebrew school even when they complain, and I will make them go to temple even if they don’t want to, and then one day when I decide they are ready, I will take them to Israel and just maybe it will all make sense for them too. Because as far as I’m concerned, Judaism is more than a religion, it’s a culture, it’s a people and—most of all—it’s a community, and that is why I love it.

Ashley Hufford participated in a KESHER Birthright trip last fall.  A graduate of New York University with a degree in film and television production, she is a writer for Business Insider and maintains her own website.