‘Israel 360’: Learning to Come Full Circle Through Love for Judaism


Even just a year ago, I would have considered traveling to Israel with 40 other Jews a long shot.

So there I am reading a Torah blessing, in an ancient synagogue on top of Mount Masada. I am 31 years old and finally having my Bat Mitzvah moment.

It’s December 2012 and even just a year earlier, I would have considered traveling to Israel with 40 other Jews a long shot. I would have considered climbing mountains and perusing museums with this group a pipe dream. The fact that I was doing it with a Jewish man whom I had only recently met — and turned out to be the love of my life — made it all the more incredible.

The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia has been sponsoring Israel 360, a trip to Israel for 27- to 35-year-olds, for the past three years. Jeffrey and I found out about the trip through one of his friends. I’d never been to Israel, was too old for Birth­right — and this was my chance.

We both applied and were accepted. Everybody on the trip was from Philly. I randomly sat next to a woman on the plane who used to teach Hebrew at Jeffrey’s childhood synagogue, Ti­fer­et Bet Israel. Julie taught me a portion of the Torah blessing, which I was hoping to say on Masada. What she didn’t know was that she would be my rabbi for the event.

Following the ceremony (which is on youtube youtube/
GDeUf8pq_Ic,), my newly declared Philadelphia Jewish family rushed the imaginary bimah to initiate a hora. I was showered with candy. The love and excitement that surrounded me that day is unforgettable.

Twenty years ago, my only connection to Judaism and B’nai Mitzvah rituals were the Electric Slide and Coke & Pepsi, dances and games I taught while working at my father’s entertainment company, even before I was old enough to become a Bat Mitzvah. But I never did experience that milestone myself. My mother had converted to Judaism to raise my sister and me with my father’s religion. We celebrated the Jewish holidays with my Jewish cousins, but we never went to Hebrew school.

I felt like an outcast for not having completed the Bat Mitzvah ritual. My parents divorced when I was 7, and all of my ties to Judaism were broken by the time I went to college. I felt my Jewish identity was lost forever, until I met Jeffrey and his family.

In Israel, I began to understand what it means to be a Jew. At Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, in particular, I became very connected to Jewish history, and the nature of the struggle between the Jewish people and the rest of society.

I started to feel like an important part of the greater whole of Jewish history. I realized it didn’t matter how I was raised, or what I wasn’t exposed to; I had the power to create my own traditions. I stood in the doorway of Yad Va­shem with tears in my eyes and a transforming spirit filling my heart. I became settled in who I was and what I wanted to accomplish. I was empowered to embrace my Jewish identity and create a future in my family that would keep tradition alive.

Since returning to the United States, we’ve been participating in workshops created by Federation’s Renaissance Group to further educate us on the political and sociological perspectives affecting Israel and Judaism today. It is clear to me that I am now a part of something bigger when it comes to being a Jew. It’s also clear to me that I can now make a difference by engaging in Jewish programming. I don’t feel that I need to hide behind somebody more Jewish than I am in order to participate.

I am proud of who I am and where I come from in a way that I never have been before. This was the gift I received from traveling to Israel. Jeffrey is the love of my life, and Israel 360 was a trip of a lifetime. Thank you, Israel 360. l

Jamie Berman is a marketing professional who lives in Upper Darby.


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