Beyond ‘Jappy’: Reconsidering Jewish on Birthright

Stephanie Zidel participated in a free Taglit-Birthright Israel trip with Israel Outdoors in August of 2014.  Below she describes her experience on the trip, and the assumptions she made:

Stephanie ZidelI almost didn’t take my Birthright trip. For many years, I did not want to. However, last February, when they were accepting applications for the coming season, it suddenly hit me: “How could I pass up a free trip?” In the months that followed my application, I refined that embarrassingly shallow thought. I realized how much I felt I needed to change my opinion, not necessarily about Israel, but about my Jewish peers.

I wasn’t raised in a particularly Zionist household. I didn’t go to Hebrew school. Growing up, I knew relatively few Jewish people. My first real exposure to a big group of Jewish people was on my brother’s Bar Mitzvah tour of Israel. I was 15 years old on that trip, and I was hit with a lot of (again, embarrassing) assumptions I had made about my Jewish peers and elders. Among the worst of my thoughts were, “Jewish people are entitled, Jewish people are boring, Jewish people are ignorant.” I let these thoughts colour the way I saw my Jewish peers. Based on the assumptions I had made about other Jewish people, I thought I couldn’t enjoy a Birthright trip.

My experience on Birthright proved me wrong. I went on a “niche” trip by Israel Outdoors called Israel by Bike. Despite a lot of changes to our itinerary, my group was always energetic and open-minded. We were all adventurous types who took every opportunity to get outside.

On our first Shabbat in Israel my group spent the whole day outside playing Frisbee, doing yoga and chatting by the water. Even though I had just met them a little over a day previous, I knew that I could have the kind of fun I wanted to have with my group. That meant getting playful and getting philosophical, sometimes within the same thirty seconds. The group was nothing like the assumptions I held about young Jewish people. The people I met on Birthright are some of the most daring and creative people I’ve ever met. They’re currently on trips around the world, mountain-climbing through the U.S. and starting businesses I never would have dreamed-up.

I keep saying that Birthright is like pressure-bonding: ten days, a lot of cool people your age, and very little alone time. It’s hard to not make a friend. I was plagued by the stereotype of the Jewish American Princess, which is not representative of the majority of young Jewish people. Because of the stereotypes I held before the trip, I had unconsciously avoided engaging with young Jewish people. I was proud to be Jewish, but I thought I couldn’t get along with other Jewish people. My assumptions couldn’t have been more wrong. I learned some valuable lessons from my Birthright peers, like how to properly use the breaks on my bike and how to get into a headstand. Most of all, I learned how diverse the young Jewish community is. Thanks to Birthright, I’ve realized that there is more to being Jewish than any stereotype.