Standing in a circle of light on a small, bare stage, Greg Aguela told an audience of nearly 50 people how he'd found God at the Western Wall.
"It wasn't necessarily cool to be a Jew" growing up, he explained in a rhythmic, spoken-word piece. Aguela told how he never particularly embraced or identified with his own Jewish heritage, but when the opportunity arose for a trip to Israel he took it; after all, the trip was free.
But somewhere between his "12-hour flight to reclaim my birthright" and praying at the Western Wall, he said he felt a change in himself, an awakening of his dormant faith, and he left the wall "never wanting that day to end."
Aguela's epiphany came with the help of Birthright Israel, which provides free trips to the Jewish state for Jews between 18 to 26. So far, the group has sent more than 160,000 young people from 52 countries on the trip.
Aguela was in Philadelphia recently as part of I.D. — a performance of monologues, either spoken or done as hip-hop performances, by Birthright Israel alumni. The pieces are based on performers' experiences in their trips and explore various themes of Jewish identity.
The event was held at the Tin Angel in Old City, and sponsored by Birthright Israel Next, which keeps in touch with alumni by hosting trips, reunions and other activities.
'It's About Identity'
Production manager Lauren Eisenberg said that the show was conceived by Next's vice president David Brenner, and was unlike anything the organization had ever attempted before.
"We've collected pictures and asked for essays, but to actually see the emotions people portray in their pieces and how impacted they were by this gift they were given is really powerful," she said.
The show was cast by placing ads in Backstage magazine in New York and sending e-mail via a listserv, looking for interested alumni. After completing casting late last summer, rehearsals were held right up to first performance in November.
Though the original plan to perform at the 2007 Birthright Israel general assembly in Tennessee fell through, Eisenberg said that when the piece started taking shape, organizers realized that what "the actors were creating was very, very powerful, and it would be worth it to do it in more communities."
After the initial performances, she said, "we decided to refine the show a bit." After a second run in New York in March, it went on tour.
"Everybody can identify with one of those pieces, and relate it to their own experience and their own culture," said Eisenberg. "It's not just about a trip; it's about identity."
The monologues varied from the humorous to the dramatic. Farrah Fidler's piece centered on one of the most germane topics of Jewish identity: assimilation. Fidler, a second-generation Israeli-American, spoke about her own personal search for Jewish identity, including teaching herself Hebrew and prayer, and trying to keep Shabbat "to see what it's like."
Lindsay Arienne Weiner began her story by explaining how lost she felt prior to her trip. At various times in Israel, she said she felt "a greater presence" that seemed to be saying to her, "You belong here" — here being both Israel and the world as a whole.
"What I love about the show is it puts the transformative experience people have on the Taglit-Birthright trip into an artistic form," said Eisenberg. She felt it helps portray what Birthright Israel is really about, while providing a new perspective on Judaism and Israel that's different from what people get through word of mouth or the media.
The show began under the moniker Birthright Israel Monologues before switching to I.D., though Eisenberg said organizers may revert back to the original name, which is both more accurate and more descriptive.
All 10 cast members are New Yorkers, and were directed by Vanessa Hidary, a star of HBO's Def Poetry Jam. The Tin Angel show followed an April 28 performance at Temple University Hillel. For now, there are no future performances scheduled, though Eisenberg said organizers have looking at Boston; Baltimore; and Washington, D.C.