Mom, what’s a Jew?
By Aubrie Jaworowski
You’re a Jew. That’s pretty much the only description I got growing up when I asked my parents where my family came from or even who I was. The answer was consistent, I’m a Jew.
I always wondered, what does that even mean? What does it mean to be a Jew, to be Jewish? My mother really didn’t have an answer for me and we were never an observant or practicing family, so it was kind of just a word I labeled myself with at that point in time. To me being Jewish was like being from a country, like being Canadian or Italian. I felt pride in being Jewish because it was always a permanent part of my identity, just like a Puerto Rican would be proud to be from Puerto Rico, regardless if they have been to their country or not, it was who they were and they would be proud of it.
That’s how I felt about being Jewish. That being said, I attended a public school and there were so many people with all kinds of backgrounds there and when someone asked me what my ethnicity was, I would typically shrug and say something along the lines of “Jewish and Polish”. The response I normally got from my peers was that Jewish isn’t an ethnicity, it’s a religion.
This confused me more. If my answer was wrong, what does it mean to be a Jew?
Another thing to keep in mind is I was the only Jewish person in my school, so I had no exposure to anyone Jewish and had barely any knowledge of Jewish customs or culture. I mean I knew what a menorah was, I had a couple dreidels and I knew that guys wore yarmulkes but that was pretty much the extent of my knowledge - until I left my rural hometown to start college in the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia.
My first year at Temple University is where it all started, I began to dive into my Judaism and this is where I took my first strides in understanding this word, “Jewish.” This is the first time that my constant wonder of what it meant to be Jewish started to give fruit. I got involved with Hillel and Chabad, started talking to Rabbis, conversing with super Orthodox Jewish people and started attending Shabbats. The Hillel at my school is where I met my Rabbi and he is responsible for bringing me to my first Shabbat, which was with a few different orthodox families and I kept Shabbat for its entirety.
I can’t begin to describe how amazing of an experience it was. No one was on their phone or hidden away in their rooms. They were there and they were so present, consumed in conversation, song, pray and laughter instead of being consumed in their technology, school or work. When I found out that Shabbat is every week, it made me thrilled that this was part of my culture. As time dwindled away and Shabbat was coming to an end, I felt honored to be welcomed into a warm home and to be accepted as a Jewish person even though I had no prior experience or knowledge of Shabbat. Then when we closed Shabbat with Havdalah, I have never felt more connected to anything else in my life than I did to Judaism.
To someone who grew up being very observant, this would be so miniscule, but to me it opened up a door to a whole new world that I feel so lucky to be a part of.
I feel lucky to be part of the Jewish People not just because of my Shabbat experiences but because of our history. The fact that over and over different groups of people have tried to rid the world of Jewish existence, but somehow the Jews somehow always found a way to prevail, the fact that I am, a Jewish girl, who is alive and able to share my Jewish experience, is an incredible accomplishment. The simple fact that Jews are still in existence today, is what makes me feel so lucky that I belong to such a strong and resilient group people.
That being said, as I kicked off my Jewish journey and exploration, there was one word that I kept hearing - “Israel”. At this point in time, I’m not well traveled and my geography of the world was awful, I didn’t know much about Israel at all besides it’s in the middle east and, well, it’s the Holy Land but it was everywhere I went, Israel, Israel, ISRAEL. After a while I started thinking to myself, “man, I got to get to Israel”.
I started asking questions about Israel, doing my research on what makes this land so unique and important to not just to The Jews as a group but to me, personally. So I did what any other person would do and turned to the good old world wide web to find some clarity on the matter. The articles I found, along with the blog posts and social media rants, all seemed to be negative. This was very alarming to me. I could not believe there was such strong distaste for the land of Israel and I did not know how to digest all the pessimistic outlooks on the land of my people. The media was not giving me conclusive answers and I felt the need to keep searching for my personal answers about Israel.
During this quest for the truth of my Judaism and Israel, a friend told me about a program called J-Internship. This program helps get young Jews to Israel and then helps them find an internship within their future career paths. I was provided with a few internship options and the first option on my list was Israel Forever. I read the description and felt instantly connected because even though a majority of everything I have read online was not in favor of Israel, I still felt connected to this land because I was Jewish and because I’m aware of the brutal history of my peoples past and regardless of all the hate I came across and not yet having my own first hand experience, I believed in Israel.
I wanted to support Israel however I could and the Israel Forever Foundation was going to give me the opportunity to see Israel in a positive light and to be a part of culture and beauty. I felt almost as if it was a calling to further the understanding of Israel, not just for myself but for other Jews who have had the same questions I had but, like me, don’t have the right sources to find those answers.
To me the media I consume is overly rooted in the negative and does not provide a relevant source for understanding Israel. No source, media, teacher or group was offering me a personal look on what’s going on in Israel without getting too political and/or controversial. I like that Israel Forever offers me a way to explore new topics in a way that isn’t being overpowered and saturated by politics. I think it’s the perfect place for other Jews who want to look into the issues of Jewish identity and Israel on a personal level, in a positive way, without being fed any political agenda.
So, obviously I decided to take my chances and go to Israel for Birthright and extended my trip so I could take this amazing opportunity to become one of the Israel Forever Foundation interns. After coming to Israel I realized just how much this land has to offer. One of the first places I went when I arrived was the Kotel also known as the Western Wall. I was raised very secularly and I honestly didn’t think this place was going to have any real significance to me until I stepped off the bus and walked into Old City. My first impression was a tingling sensation all over my body.
As I continued to walk through the Yaffo Gate, I could feel goosebumps climb my arms. By the time I got to the Western Wall I felt overwhelmed and I honestly don’t know why but I had to touch the wall. This sounds bad because I tend to be the person who only looks to God, when things in life go south, but I felt the need to pray!
As I started praying I honestly teared up, this is one of the first times instead of asking God for something, I thanked him for everything that he has given not just to me, but to the Jewish people. This was the moment I knew I had a real a connection to Israel.
After I left the Old City and the more I saw of the amazing country, I just kept becoming more and more infatuated with Judaism, the culture, the sights and the people. I fell in love.
Now I realize that you don’t truly understand this land until you come and experience it for yourself. Israel gives me a sense of hope and belonging. To all my fellow Jews living in the Diaspora, in America or elsewhere, you need to come to Israel too! Come and feel the atmosphere in the land that our ancestors prayed and so desperately longed for, for thousands of years. Israel is the home of the Jewish People and that includes all of us who currently live in diaspora as well. This is our land and we, as Jews, deserve to experience and embrace our culture and our people, in our country.