I have always had a deep appreciation for my Jewish heritage, but am not particularly religious. And so, it was surprising when my youngest daughter expressed an interest in Judaism and participating in a Birthright trip, which is a two-week Israel experience provided by a foundation for young adults who have a Jewish parent. My daughter told us that our son recommended that she go on her Birthright trip, something I didn’t realize until after she returned. It made sense; prior to his deployment to Afghanistan, he communicated that, should anything happen, he wished to be memorialized in a manner consistent with Jewish tradition. He intended to go on his Birthright trip following his enlistment in the Marines. Sadly, he died in 2015, which made my daughter’s visit even more meaningful.
She fell in love with Israel and became more committed to Judaism. Upon her return, she applied for a teaching fellowship there starting this fall. Once she was accepted, it was decided that my wife, my eldest daughter and I would accompany her to Israel. So off we went last month, for a two-week trip to the Holy Land. We explored the religious, historic and architectural wonders in this country, a fulcrum point of world affairs for more than 2,000 years. Everyone I know who had been there and who was surprised that I had not, said I absolutely must go. They were correct. The experience was amazing, of course, but not only because of the things we did and saw. And not because of the deep meaning and connection I felt to the country of my people.
What made the experience so amazing is that my family was with me, who were able to gain insights into my background and how important my Jewish heritage is to me. My wife is not Jewish and did not know much about the religious and historical aspects of Judaism and Israel. Throughout our 30-plus-year marriage I sometimes talked about my family members lost in the Holocaust, but never delved into their stories very deeply.
On this “bucket list” experience, my family was present as I found the city that is my grandfather’s namesake, “Lemberg,” among the Valley of the Communities, a massive 2.5-acre monument commemorating more than 5,000 Jewish communities which existed for hundreds of years but today, in most cases, nothing remains of them as a result of the Holocaust. Our tour guide took us to places many hear about on the news, such as the Golan Heights and West Bank. It became very clear to my wife and daughters, the complicated feelings I have about the events that resulted in the creation of the State of Israel, and the complex state of affairs that exists in the region today.
It wasn’t all about me, though. The land holds intense significance to Christians and Muslims as well. From the place where Jesus was crucified and buried, to the site of the first and second Jewish Temples on which now stands a Muslim mosque, we talked about the importance of these religious and archaeological sites, and how this experience affected their perspective on things. I am particularly proud of what my daughters gained from the experience, and how it might shape their social and world views.
The trip was also not all about the heavy stuff. We experienced some fun and amazing things, too, such as rafting down the Jordan River, floating in the Dead Sea (can’t help but float, because the water is 35% saltier than any ocean), shopping in centuries-old markets in Jerusalem and Tsfat (the birthplace of monotheistic religions) and relaxing on a pristine beach in Tel Aviv. This was, to say the very least, an event of a lifetime that I am grateful to have shared with my loved ones. I also feel grateful that my children drew me closer to my faith; something that likely would not have happened since my parents and grandparents are no longer around to influence this important part of who I am.
My big takeaway is, had we not gone on this amazing trip, my daughters and wife may never have known the true extent of my connection to my heritage and faith. I never really discussed it with any authentic emotion. Conversely, we likely would never have discussed the things we did about the past and present, or the future. I would urge people not to wait to talk about things that matter. Don’t just dream about the big trip — take it! Whether you’ve read a book or watched a movie that caused you to think or feel a certain way, or if you’ve been on a trip or experienced something meaningful, use it as a way to start a conversation about what’s important to you. It will become part of your story — your Talk of a Lifetime.