My Jewish experience is very different from the ones of my close circle of friends. My parents immigrated from Moscow to Tel Aviv to San Francisco. They were raised in circumstances where they had no choice but to be secular. Where they were from, they were shamed for practicing Judaism. This was the world they grew up in. They never learned much about what it meant to be Jewish.
The story is the same for other children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union: I don’t keep kosher. I don’t celebrate Shabbat each Friday night with my family. I barely manage to celebrate the most important Jewish holidays. The last time I was in a synagogue for a proper and formal service was for a Bat Mitzvah. Oh yeah, I never had my bat mitzvah.
To be fair, not many of my close friends keep kosher, go to services each week, or celebrate Shabbat. But still, they make sure to practice the high holy days. Many know Hebrew. Those who don’t, they attend a Jewish school where part of their curriculum involves learning about Judaism and building their identity. I’ve never known much of a Jewish identity my entire life.
I sometimes feel embarrassed about this. I know that I am Jewish but society made me feel like I wasn’t Jewish enough.
Whatever sense of Jewish identity I had I certainly have taken for granted.
This Spring, I applied to Ambassadors to Germany—a special BBYO travel experience to Germany to connect with the community today and learn about Germany’s rich Jewish history. I applied on a whim and really wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into. I had never gone on an international program with BBYO besides International Convention. Going into the experience, I knew no one. I didn’t know the plan, but I thought why not give it a shot? It was the first of many risks for me that ended up beyond worth the reward.
We spent several days sightseeing in Frankfurt and Berlin, building context for the history of Jewish life in Germany. For the first time, I was able to understand and visualize the tangible weight of what the number six million really means. I was able to picture the richness and the pride of Jewish people before the world completely changed for them, and for us.
I have been taught this part of German history—the Holocaust—for many years. It becomes very easy to get absorbed in the past and project it onto our present. I would have never believed I would come to Germany and be welcomed by a Jewish community that was thriving and proud.
Our final leg of the journey was at a ZWST Leadership Seminar in Bad Sobernheim. ZWST is the Central Welfare Organization for Jews in Germany and BBYO’s youth Movement partner.
The ZWST teens could not have been more warm and hospitable. They were so excited to hear about our travels up to this point. Many of the teens at the seminar were children of immigrants from the Soviet Union—just like me. I didn’t think that this seminar would change my perspective on my Jewish identity but speaking with the teens did just that.
At lunch, I overheard a girl name Sophie talking about her Jewish experience. “My parents did not grow up being ‘Jewish.’ ZWST is the only reason I have a Jewish identity at all.” I immediately jumped into the conversation, incredibly excited that someone else felt the same way about their Judaism. I told her about my experience growing up with parents who never got to experience a vibrant Jewish community, and though I completely understand why it had to be this way, it makes me afraid that a big part of our history is being lost. Other girls at the table jumped in, saying that the organization they are a part of is what allows them to grow the future Jewish community. I feel very similarly about BBYO. If it wasn’t for the organization, I don’t think I would’ve known anything about this core part of myself.
Later that night during services, the cultural barriers between our groups suddenly disappeared. My sore throat kept me from fully participating in the prayers. Instead, I was able to sit back and listen to the group welcome Shabbat. At that moment, I realized the significance of what we were doing. We spent a week learning about Judaism in Germany. After the Holocaust, no one believed there would ever be a Jewish community here again. But here we were, praying together, in a country that once believed that Jews should be extinct.
I left the seminar with an immense feeling of pride for the global Jewish community. I understood that no matter our backgrounds, we all have a place within it.
Be proud of your Jewish identity. It is proof of the strength and the spirit of our community. It demonstrates that we are more alike than we are different. That to me is a beautiful and hopeful message for the future. For our future.
Thank you BBYO, ZWST, and Genisis Philanthropy Group for making this this trip possible for teens like me. I'll cherish this experience forever.
Emily Leyfer is a BBG in Jerusalem Shel Zahav BBG #1516 in Central Region West.More Stories
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