A second chance in Israel
by Eric Blatt
My relationship with the Jewish homeland started off with confusion and ignorance.
Being raised in a Secular Russian household, there was never much space for education on anything Jewish. My parents grew up in Soviet Russia where religion was suppressed and Jews were heavily targeted with anti-semitism. In this atmosphere, my parents did not have the opportunity to learn about their Jewish heritage and developed a strong sense of fear of anyone discovering their Jewish backgrounds. My parents fear eventually lead its way back to me.
For most of my life I had no idea what Judaism meant to me and knew next to nothing about Israel. My family emigrated to a large Jewish community in Baltimore, Maryland so I was always exposed to Jewish culture but never felt confident enough to ask my friends what being Jewish meant for them.
In high school, I began to become more aware of my ignorance about Judaism and felt a growing desire to know more. Although I was not knowledgeable about my Jewish roots, my Russian background demands that i live my life without leaving my questions unanswered so I went in search for answers.
I started my journey by being involved through Jewish youth groups, meeting students my age and hearing their experiences. A common thread that I heard in many stories was that after going to Israel, they felt deeply impacted and developed their spark for Judaism. After hearing from so many friends how powerful the land of Israel is I knew that I needed to find a way to get there as soon as possible.
My first semester of college raised many questions on what I wanted in life but the one thing I did know is that I was going to apply for Birthright as soon as i got the chance. I sent in my application on the first day they opened and flew out to the Holy Land in December 2015.
When I arrived in Israel I expected to experience a major connection to the land and to Judaism right away and to a small extent I did. As my group traveled around the Jewish State I started to gain a better understanding for the importance of Israel in my life and that of other young Jews, A place where Jews from all walks of life can find a home in their ancestral homeland but I still could not feel the spark that all of my friends described.
I thought if I would find that spark anywhere, it would be at the Kotel. When I was finally there, I rushed to find a clear spot at the wall, to place my notes and pray. After about 5 minutes I walked away, feeling nothing.. After hearing from my friends about their powerful experiences at the wall, I could not understand why I had not found my connection. I was surrounded by people with tears in their eyes after seeing the place I always dreamed about and I had to walk away with even less clarity than when I started my experience.
I left my Birthright experience feeling a new sense pride for being Jewish but also with many questions on who I truly am as a Jew. Why couldn't I connect the same way that all of my other friends spoke about? What was missing from my experience?
The following summer I was approached by my Penn State campus Rabbi who suggested I go on an Israel trip with the group Aish HaTorah. My experience on Birthright was positive enough to warrant another trip back so I jumped on the opportunity but this time decided to go with no expectations and to just have a good time.
After my first shabbat in Israel I finally realized what was missing from my Birthright experience. I was welcomed with open arms by strangers into their home. Without even knowing me, they had such a love for the fact that I was there with them, having a shabbat dinner. To them I wasn’t a stranger.
I began to take more notice of the people around me and the love that they had for one another. Israel isn’t just a place, it is also a family where millions of strangers will welcome you as if you had always been there and they were just waiting to see you again. On my Birthright experience, I was so stuck on finding a connection to the land that I missed out on fostering that connection with the people. After truly understanding what the state of Israel represented, I realized why I didn't have the experience I dreamed of. I was fixated on fostering my connection to Israel and did not take the time to truly understand the significance of the places I was seeing like the Kotel.
The connections that I fostered enabled me to understand why this small sliver of land is so important. It’s a place where Jews from around the world can come together and live free and happy lives regardless of their backgrounds and become one community in the land that their ancestors had lived before them.
I have had the opportunity to come to Israel four times and each time have been able to meet people and visit new places that make me fall in love with the land all over. At first I was not ready for the full beauty of Israel, but now I feel an eternal bond with the land.
Eric Blatt is a student at Penn State. When he began college he knew one of the very first things he wanted to do was sign up for Birthright. Since his Birthright trip Eric has been to Israel four times through various programs and each time he deepened his connections to the culture and the people of this Israel.