Back in elementary school, I vaguely remember my classmates and I being asked whether we celebrated Hanukkah or Christmas.
A very small number of my classmates said they celebrated Hanukkah. I was one of them.
I’ve also been in settings where people would always hype up holidays such as Christmas and Easter but would make no mention of Hanukkah or Passover— whether it was intentional or not.
When I was younger, I questioned whether I was proud of being Jewish and if I was happy observing Jewish holidays. I used to think that I had to be like everyone around me and have the same hobbies, interests and values.
Eighty percent of the world identifies with a certain religion. However, approximately 71 percent of the U.S. identifies as Christian.
Even though those who practice Judaism make up a small portion of the U.S. and other countries around the world, I’ve grown to be very appreciative of my religion as I’ve gotten older.
We have our own traditions that make us unique and special, such as celebrating the new year in the fall, having eight nights of celebrations during the holiday season, being Bar or Bat Mitzvahed at 13 years old, wearing costumes in the spring, running around the house trying to find Matzah, learning another foreign language — the list goes on.
During those traditions, we get to spend time with the people that are most meaningful to us and have a huge feast like most other people do during their holidays.
May 4, 2013, is a day I will forever be grateful for.
Being Bar Mitzvahed is one of those moments in life where hard work pays off. I gave up sports games, hangouts with friends and free time to prepare for a night that will never be forgotten. I learned how to read the Torah, read Jewish blessings and feel more connected to God in exchange for one of the best parties I’ve been to.
I was surrounded by my best friends and family. As Benjamin in “Keeping Up With The Steins” said, I was the “King of the Torah.”
Yet, after that night, I lost the motivation and passion to further my Jewish education.
Eight years later, I was still figuring out my summer plans. Many of the companies I applied to for internships either rejected me, never notified me about the result, or waited until the last minute to tell me my standing.
Then one day, I stumbled upon a potentially life-changing opportunity: an eight-week internship and cultural program in Israel.
At 20 years old, it felt crazy to me that I hadn’t been to one of the holiest places in the world and the birthplace of Jewish people.
Not even a 10-day war or a pandemic was going to stop me from traveling there this summer.
While I was able to get professional experience through this opportunity, the program itself and being in Israel are what I will remember most.
Residing in a foreign country for almost two months, living two minutes away from the Western Wall, having influential speakers come in and educate us on the religion, floating in the Dead Sea and hiking up Masada were only a handful of the amazing moments from this past summer.
One of the most influential aspects of the program was how welcoming everyone was — strangers made us feel like their best friends. I was even invited into strangers’ homes for Shabbat, where I discovered we had a lot more in common than I realized.
Yet, I was amazed at how different Israel’s lifestyle is.
Going to the army at 18 years old and seeing soldiers walking around with machine guns on public transportation would seem terrifying here in the U.S. However, this is the norm in Israel. One of the soldiers I met told me they have an easier time putting their political and religious differences aside there, which seems very challenging today in our country.
There’s one thing that brought me closer together with everyone I met from the summer: being Jewish in a predominately Jewish country.
Living in a Jewish home made me fully appreciate the religion that I observe.
Being Jewish has taught me the importance of giving back to other people, finding similarities and the essentials of family.
Religion is something that’s part of my life every single day, even though I may not always take the time to reflect on that. It will always be part of who I am.