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Zionism, After Miss Porter’s

After an anti-Semitic incident at boarding school, I denied being Jewish for years. Israel is changing things.


I was 15 years old when I left home for the first time. I had been accepted to the prestigious Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, Ct., with promises of impressing college admission offices and future employers and, of course, the unshakable identity of being a “Porter’s Girl.” I excelled socially that first year, meeting girls from backgrounds very different from my own. I became loosely involved with the Jewish club at school, although I found it strange that the faculty leader was an active Jews for Jesus participant. My activity in the club waned the following year when I received numerous remarks from other students that put down the club, its members, and its purpose.

During my junior year, my second year, I lived in a dormitory with a girl who was Haitian-American. I never thought twice about living with someone who so obviously came from a different culture than me. In fact, I thought it was pretty cool. But near Thanksgiving of that year, my roommate and I had an altercation and she ultimately moved out of the room. What ensued perhaps changed the course of my life.

My roommate spoke negatively about me and my Judaism to the other students at Miss Porter’s. I returned to my room one afternoon after field hockey practice to find a swastika on my door, my room broken into, and possessions stolen and broken. Frightened, I called my parents. They threatened legal action against the school if the situation was not addressed. It was not. The anti-Semitic sentiment and harassment continued until June when I left for the summer.

A letter arrived at my home at the end of the summer addressed to my parents. It described me as delinquent, “intimidating to other students,” and a poor fit for the school. My standing as a student at Miss Porter’s was revoked. It was two days before my senior year of high school began. I scrambled to get together the appropriate paperwork to attend the local public high school, where I knew nobody.

I left for college in 2005 and attended Denison University, a small liberal-arts college in central Ohio. Like Miss Porter’s, there was a very small population of Jews at Denison, and Hillel was commonly known as being “uncool” to be a part of. For four years I denied being Jewish to anyone who asked. I desperately wanted to be a part of a good sorority, and being Jewish would not help me during my rush. It’s likely that by the time I graduated in 2009, most people who knew me did not know that I was Jewish.

I was what some people might call a “self-hater.” Please bear in mind that during some of the most impressionable years of my life, I was a part of a community that was intolerant of my identity. It was not until years later, when I made the decision to become a registered nurse and attended nursing school, that I discovered people who not only liked the fact that I was Jewish, but were curious about what that meant. I have patients who are Jewish, and with my background, I feel that I am able to communicate therapeutically and provide for them a sense of comfort that a non-Jewish nurse might not be able to.

Birthright is changing my life. As I write this, I am on a bus with 48 other Jews, perhaps some of whom have stories similar to mine. Many of these people know far more about their Jewish roots than I do, and some of them know less. We’re getting to know each other, we’re laughing together, we’re crying next to one another at Yad Vashem. Just as my experience at Miss Porter’s altered the trajectory of my life, I am finally changing course once again. And this time I’m headed to Tel Aviv.

Seventy-Two Hours in Jerusalem

Shabbat in the shadow of the Knesset prompts political reflection

(Photo by Margarita Korol)

The shape of our Birthright Israel trip is taking form, and it resembles the classic three-act structure of any good yarn. In Act I, there is an initiating action and a rough encounter—in our case, arriving in Israel, closely followed by an epic amount of hiking and an epic lack of sleeping in the harsh southern Israeli desert. In Act II, by contrast, the hero (that would be the 48 people on the bus, including the Israeli soldiers) retreats, quietly meditates, lulls, usually reforges some kind of broken weapon, and prepares for the climax. That might describe the past 72 hours in Jerusalem—minus the weapon. (more…)

Talking to a 20-Year-Old IDF Spokeswoman

The Haifa native explains why she decided to come on Birthright

(Photo by Margarita Korol)

At our first meeting, or mifgash, with the eight IDF soldiers who joined our group this weekend, our Birthright cohort was asked to share a set of caricatures we had drawn of the Stereotypical Israeli Soldier. Unsurprisingly, they had each also been asked to draw a caricature…of the Stereotypical Birthright Participant.

Our crude but only lightly offensive drawings—think heaving breasts, big muscles, and a tendency to shoot anything that moves—beg an obvious question: What do we want from one another? These soldiers offer a diverse set of interests, backgrounds, and conflicting opinions, but they also give us a glimpse of how Birthright looks from the other side. Why would a young Israeli want an opportunity to spend a week with a set of privileged, historically ignorant adolescents from across the globe?

The Haifa-born Adar—named for the month in the Jewish calendar in which she was born—sat down with me in the lobby of Jerusalem’s Park Hotel for a quick chat, and some initial perspective. Though otherwise confident and self-possessed, Adar apologized (unnecessarily) for her imperfect command of English. She is 20, which gives her seven months until her release from the army. She has read all the Twilight and Harry Potter novels.

What do you do in the IDF?

I’m a spokesperson. My particular job is to be in the situation room, taking care of everything in operations. If a reporter asks us about IAF (Israel Air Force) targeting in the Gaza Strip, or things that are going on in the West Bank, I check with the Army what happened, and give a comment.

You speak directly to journalists?


How did you hear about Birthright?

It’s very common in my unit to go to this program. I think it’s because a lot of us can speak English. It’s a very, very good experience. We all want to do it. We often talk about it between us. It’s something we want to do. It’s very meaningful for us.

Does that make the process of qualifying for Birthright very competitive?

We have an oral test in English. They ask us a bunch of questions. We have a list of questions about our selves, our habits, our lives outside the army, our hobbies, things like that. And they decide whether or not you can go on Birthright.

Why did you want to do it?

I feel really connected with Jews in North America. I have family in Maryland and Virginia, and have been there three times. I feel obligated to know this community. They are a very big influence on us, and we are a very big influence on the Jewish community in the U.S.

Two of the soldiers I spoke to had never left Israel before, or met many Americans.

Yes, for them it’s more of a cultural experience.

What do you want to do after the IDF?

I want to learn in university. I think I want to go into medicine.

Any desire to live outside of Israel?

Maybe for a brief period. I’m thinking about working in an Embassy, as a job between the army and university.

Do Bar Mitzvahs Happen on Every Birthright Trip?

Our tour educator explains why he performs bar mitzvahs during the 10-day experience.

(Photo by Margarita Korol)

The auspiciously numbered 13 aliyot at our Birthright Israel group’s extremely truncated Shabbat Torah service this morning are not the sort of thing you see on every Birthright Israel trip, according to Yoav, our tour educator. While he knows a few other group leaders who offer participants the chance to be called up to the Torah and be named a bar or bat mitzvah, it’s not an official part of the program. “There’s nothing really formal in Halacha,” he told me, referring to Jewish law. Officially, one becomes a bar or bat mitzvah whether or not one is every called up to the Torah, and that it is only the bris, marriage, divorce, and funeral rites that are specified, formalized, and required in Jewish law.

Birthright Israel is ostensibly about connection to Israel. But is a religious service in a hotel basement really about Israel, even if the hotel is a couple miles from the Western Wall? We’re coming across another one of those tricky paradoxes of Israel, Zionism, and Birthright Israel itself. But Yoav was crystal-clear when I asked him what he felt the b’nai mitzvah ceremony is about: “Connection to Jewishness.”

Birthright’s Bar Mitzvah Class

Twelve participantssome raised Catholic, others with little Jewish knowledgeget called to the Torah

The bar mitzvah class of 2012. (Margarita Korol)

It certainly wasn’t like any bar or bat mitzvah I’ve ever been to. Seated in the smelly multi-purpose room of our Jerusalem hotel, we watched as 12 of our trip mates undertook the most storied rite of passage in a young Jewish life. Yes, they were getting bar mitzvahed on Birthright Israel.

Our trip leader Yoav, clad in a white t-shirt and grey hat and tanned from our days of hiking, explained to the group what a parsha was—this week’s Torah portion was Shelach from the Book of Numbers. He jumped into his new role of impromptu cantor with an enthusiasm matched by none of us at the ungodly hour of 11:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and the service started.

There was only one tallit, which the b’nai mitzvot passed amongst themselves when they were called to the Torah for an aliyah. People pronounced torahto like the city Toronto, without the ‘n,’ while reading from transliterated cue cards that Yoav had written. And sure, it was probably the first time in Jewish history anyone showed up to their bar mitzvah service sunburned and a little hungover. But there was no doubt that this was a special moment.

Special mostly because many of the 12 participants in the service had very little interaction with Judaism growing up, and most hadn’t considered getting bar mitzvahed at all when they were teenagers. This morning each of them opted to take part in a Jewish ritual that had been a requisite part of my Jewish upbringing.

A few nights ago, Yoav asked the group if anyone who’d never been bar mitzvahed wanted to have one on the trip, and it all went pretty quickly from there. The seamlessness with which our trip transitioned to include adult bar mitzvahs would be impossible in any other context; it was meant to feel like a big deal, ritually speaking, while also being a very accessible undertaking.

Matt, who grew up in Bergen County, N.J., was raised by a Jewish father and Catholic mother. (He calls this combination “cashew.”) Baptized and confirmed (all of which he revealed in his Birthright interview prior to the trip) he was nonetheless identified as the Jewish kid in his largely non-Jewish town, complete with all the taunting that accompanies such a designation.

For him, the bar mitzvah was part of a larger encounter with Judaism that he sought through this trip. “I’ve never been around actual Jews,” he explained, “People who’ve been bar or bat mitzvahed, or people who pray; it’s culture shock.” Getting bar mitzvahed on Birthright Israel—however rudimentary the ceremony—was just one component of this journey. Also raised Catholic, Kat said it was meaningful that the bat mitzvah ceremony took place in Jerusalem. Both admitted they didn’t really feel so different after the service.

“I feel like I’ve had a bar mitzvah, which is more than I thought I might feel,” said Leon, who was born in Moscow and grew up in Chicago, adding that the option was never really on the table for him at 13. What was special about doing it this way, he explained, was that instead of having no choice as a teenager, today he elected to become a bar mitzvah.

For Zach, the trip funnyman who always felt a little shame at not having been bar mitzvahed—“It’s like I’m a basketball player but I’ve never played basketball”—the morning’s events were very much a rite of passage, if only culturally.

So what happens next? Tiana, whose mother is Jewish and father Rastafarian, wasn’t nervous until she started reading the Hebrew transliteration aloud. Even after the service, she said she still doesn’t really consider herself having been bat mitzvahed. Instead, she plans on following up with a full bat mitzvah service when she returns home. (Given the choice when she was younger, and having turned it down, she says she wishes she’d been forced to do it then).

Zach said that he’s had similar experiences in the past, which made him think he’d revisit his faith (a trip to Auschwitz was one such event), but he’s never followed through. Will this time be different? He says he hopes so.

The Roll Pics: Bonding With IDF and Meeting the Sabbath


Suzie, center, bought our new IDF friends roses at the Mahane Yehuda market today.


The original Extremities plus our eight Israeli soldiers.

At the Israel Museum, contextualizing the country through abstraction.

Kicking off the Sabbath in the Holy City before the all-gold menorah behind us, the Wailing Wall before.

Observing the Old City's habits with local spectators.

Soldiers in plainclothes, "they're just like us!"

Female fashion homogenizes Friday nights.

Signing off for Friday night, going to have some l’chaims in the lobby in pre-bat/bar mitzvah celebration.



Loving Our Tour Guide at the Israel Museum

The Dead Sea Scrolls, modern art, and a guide who hails from Jerusalem


We went to the Israel Museum today, the first activity in our Mifgash, where we saw the Dead Sea Scrolls and modern Israeli art. Our tour guide, Ella, was the first Israeli we got to spend real time with, which probably explains why we were more interested in talking to her than looking at the art. “Stop paying attention to me, pay attention to the art,” she politely requested.

Oh, and she’s totally a Miranda. (We asked, in Hebrew.)

Meet Tal, a 19-Year-Old Soldier

The Tel Aviv native talks nineties T.V.with an American participant.

Zach, the American, and Tal, the Israeli.(Photo by Margarita Korol)

This morning, eight Israeli soldiers joined our group. I sat down with Tal, a Tel Aviv native, to talk—mostly about T.V.

Do you watch T.V.?
Of course I watch TV.

What’s your favorite show?
I think Friends. And I used to watch Lost, but it’s over. What else? Some Israeli shows.

What are some Israeli shows I should know about?
We have Survivor in Israel. We have Big Brother.

So, you like reality television?
Yes, it’s the best.

How is your army experience so far?

So far, really good. I’m already one year and three months … in the army. My job is really hard. I do a lot and see a lot. And I’m studying new things every day.

What would you like to do when you leave the army?
Eh … traveling. Then, psychometry.

Say what?
It’s like the test before the college.

Like the SATs?
Exactly. Then, I’ll go to school.

Do you know what you want to study?
I think psychology and management.

OK, one more. Who’s your favorite Friends character?
Rachel, duh.

Ordering Late-Night Domino’s Pizza in Israel

My trip-mate opted for a late-night delivery snack that tasted like matzo with tomato sauce

Dominos Pizza. (Margarita Korol)

Eating on Birthright has been something of an afterthought. The meals come on a regular schedule, and there’s never really a shortage of food, but overall it just hasn’t been the focus, and every time we sit down to eat, it feels first and foremost like a break from activity, rather than an activity in and of itself. Yesterday, for instance, began at 3:45 a.m. with tea and graham crackers at the Bedouin camp. Then, around 7:30, we were given a brown-bag breakfast at the Ein Gede nature preserve consisting of a cucumber, a small apple, and a cheese, lettuce, and pickle lettuce sandwich. Lunch was at the spa by the Dead Sea, where Yoav gave us big red coupons good for a plate of schnitzel, fries, salad, and a bottle of water for a reduced rate of 35 shekels. The day ended with a relatively elaborate buffet-style affair at our hotel in Jerusalem, where we filled up on rice, sampled a variety of meats, and even took our pick of multiple desert options.

In every case, we knew we were eating authentic Israeli fare, but we weren’t beaten over the head with the fact, like you might expect. It was remarkably easy to get used to—so much so that when I heard this morning that our trip-mate Joey, a 21-year-old from Long Island, closed out his evening at 1:30 in the morning with a pizza from Domino’s, it kind of threw me for a loop. What does a pizza from Domino’s look like in Israel? Is it as generic and straightforward as American Domino’s, or do they make it in some special way? And how did Joey get his hands on a Domino’s pizza at 1:30 in the morning, anyway?

It turned out Joey and his roommates had been hanging out at the hotel bar when they realized that, despite all the schnitzel, olives, and hummus they’d consumed throughout the day, they still needed a little something before going to bed.

“I’d had a few drinks, and I was on my phone on the Wi-Fi, and I was just like, ‘I’m hungry—how can I eat?’ ” Joey told me. “So, I call up Domino’s and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I need food right now.’ ”

They asked him where he was and he told them. Some time later, a fellow arrived bearing a large cheese pizza, for which Joey handed over a whopping 90 shekels—77 for the pizza itself and 13 for the tip. The purchase, which amounts to roughly $24, turned out to be a disappointment.

“It literally tasted like matzo with like, tomato sauce and a little parmesan cheese on it,” Joey said. “It was horrible. But it did the trick.”

When Joey finished eating, he took the empty pizza box and, perhaps in an act of vengeance, “threw it in the middle of the hallway, college dorm style.”

Some stories always end the same way, no matter what country you’re in.

Why the Jews Aren’t in Uganda

Israel as our homeland because our ancestors were here. No religion required.

Yoav talks to us at Mt. Scopus.(Margarita Korol/Tablet Magazine)

Yesterday at around six in the morning, our tour educator Yoav told us that the destruction of the Second Temple was, in his opinion, a greater Jewish tragedy than the Holocaust. He made the case partly through numbers, arguing that as a percentage far more Jews were killed in far less time by the Romans than by the Nazis. But his prime case was more profound and goes right to the heart of what he, through Birthright Israel, is trying to teach us.

There is much to be said about Yoav, all of it—at least if you asked me—positive. We’ll have plenty more about him in future days. For now, and at the risk of not using extra evidence we will gain today when we tour Jerusalem (or “Yerushalayim” as Yoav insists we will be calling it), I’d like to focus on his pedagogical method and, really, larger theory of Israel.

Yesterday, at Masada, in the Judean Desert, and finally on Mt. Scopus overlooking the Old City, Yoav has used the writings of the Prophets—the Nevi’im, as I seem to recall from Hebrew School—as quasi-historical sources, as well as actual historical sources, to help us understand “just how much Israel is your home.” It’s sort of religious Zionism without the religion, or really without the theism: The use of sacred writings to make the not-necessarily-sacred point that Israel is the proper homeland of the Jewish people.

Take Masada, for example. Yoav only told the story of what happened there in 73 C.E.—the decision of nearly 1,000 Zealots to kill themselves rather than succumb to Roman conquering—after giving a much larger narrative of what the Jews had been up to during the prior millennia. Here he referenced the Temples and the Edomites and the rest and relied on sources like the Book of Samuel. Such books, though not as reliable as your average historical source, do describe basic truths. Namely, the Jews did live in what is now Israel (specifically, largely in what is now Jerusalem and the West Bank, though they also resided in the Negev Desert). Their sense of nationhood—wrapped up, of course, in the religion of Judaism—was dependent on living in or near Jerusalem and the Temples; David was the king of the kingdom of Israel; and so on and so forth.

Why is this important? Get into any discussion about Zionism and you will quickly run into what could generously be called a paradox and, less generously, a contradiction. Because, sure, many might say, the Jews deserve a national homeland as much as any other people—perhaps, given their history of being persecuted, a haven is a downright necessity. But why not put it in Galicia, which used to have a ton of Jews? Or Uganda, where they can really do the land some good? Or Alaska, where they won’t get in anyone’s way? How instead did Theodor Herzl and the earlier Zionists—nearly all of them secular—decide that what was then a small slice of the Ottoman Empire had to be the Jewish homeland? Zionism is, at least in its original conception, an avowedly secular ideology that nonetheless commanded the Jews to redeem the land allegedly promised to them by God. How does that work?

And Yoav provides a partial answer: Forget religion, he says. The Jews—our ancestors—were here. If we are seeking to restore Jewish self-sovereignty, it makes sense to physically locate it in the last place where Jewish self-sovereignty existed. Add in the fact that this self-sovereignty was taken away from us (twice, with the destruction of the Temples), and you have a case for Israel that—though, like any nationalism, certainly contains mystical and even spiritual elements—isn’t really religious and is therefore compatible with both a secular ideology and with appeals to such things as the universal conscience and morality.

If you apply enough pressure to this logic—pressure that, admittedly, I feel unequipped to apply given the amount of sleep I’ve gotten in the past four days (enter the brainwashing conspiracy theories*)—it can be a dangerously slippery slope. If Zionism means redeeming the biblical Land of Israel, that means redeeming the West Bank. If you believe that, compromising with the Palestinians becomes much less attractive, which should be politically troubling to any good, modern liberal, no matter how religious or spiritual or proudly Jewish.

But there’s a power to Yoav’s argument all the same. And that power becomes overpowering—spiritual, but not necessarily religious—when you are told it not in a classroom in New York City but while standing where the Zealots drew lots over who would be last to die; while hiking in the Judean Desert where David hid from Saul; and, yes, while looking on the spot where the Temple used to stand. It would seem that Birthright Israel—whose CEO told me that it is unafraid to stand up for the right of Jews to have Israel as their own—is working.

* Here’s another anti-Birthright Israel conspiracy theory for you: Is it a coincidence that it’s on the day that you’ve gotten up at the crack of dawn, hiked up and down Masada, swum at the Ein Gedi reserve, and floated in the Dead Sea that you then, surely asleep, make your one drive through the West Bank, up along the Jordan and then west to Jerusalem, passing Jericho along the way? Probably, but eat your heart out if you believe otherwise.

Prepping for Shabbat at the Kotel

A perfect song to get you in the mood


If we were in New York, we’d be getting ready to head into work. Instead, we’re preparing for Shabbat services at the Kotel. Akiva Gottlieb, whose earliest dreams of a transcendent Kabbalat Shabbat at the Kotel were inspired by first hearing this classic by Mordechai Ben David (“The King of Jewish Music”) around the old neighborhood, is watching this on a nonstop loop in his room. Shabbat Shalom, from Jerusalem.


The Mifgash Begins

Eight representatives of the IDF join our group.

A Tableeter and a soldier bond.(Photo by Margarita Korol.)

Stay tuned for profiles of the soldiers. Right now, we’re off to Machane Yehuda market for lunch.

I’m Getting Bat Mitzvahed on Birthright

A Tableteer explains why she’s taking the plunge, along with a dozen others on the bus


Take one look at me and there’s no doubting my womanhood. But when Yoav, our group leader, began tonight’s program with the question: “How many people here have not been bar or bat mitzvahed? Don’t be embarrassed,” I was one of the dozen or so whose hands sprang up unapologetically.

But I was caught off guard when he continued: “How many people would like to be bar or bat mitzvahed here on this trip?” A few tentative hands were raised. Mine was not among them.

While I’ve explored my Judaism through my writing and art, because of my family’s past in the Soviet Union, I grew up in a nonobservant family. Having a bat mitzvah just wasn’t something I had ever imagined doing until tonight. In fact, the first thought that came to my mind was I can’t make this decision myself, I need to talk to my mother—an urge I haven’t felt in a long time.

But the more I thought about it, the more the idea appealed to me. Last year, my 12-year-old sister had the first bat mitzvah in my family since the onset of totalitarian communism in the old country. My knee-jerk reaction to call my mother was not the result of spending the past 72 hours with Jews, but also that my having a bat mitzvah would be a way to further honor her, a single refusnik mother who risked her life to save mine. (This has been a good month for her.)

Having spent a good amount of time in the Northwest suburbs of Chicago as a kid, I know that it’s appropriate to demand presents on this occasion. So, dear readers, this Saturday I’m officially becoming a woman at 26 years old, and I like gift cards.

In all seriousness, when it dawned on me that my ceremony—to take place in the basement of our grungy Jerusalem hotel—will fall exactly a year after the week of my sister’s bat mitzvah, I can honestly say that I’ve never been so excited about my personal Judaism. Birthright mission accomplished?

The Roll Pics: Masada Morning

3:45 am wake up to make sunrise at Masada.




Taking in the view, some with tefillin in hand.


Taking it all in, keeping hydrated.

The Roll Pics: Camel Lights

Taking on the Bedouin preferred method of transportation.




The group trots along.

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