When I was growing up, I went through the usual phases of things I wanted to be:
- An astronaut—because didn’t we all?
- A doctor—specifically, a reconstructive plastic surgeon until I realized I’d be doing more "boob jobs" than skin grafts on burn victims in order to stay financially solvent
- A spy—I had some legitimate potential for a career in intelligence when I was still fluent in both Arabic and Chinese with ambitions to pick up Russian. I still hold onto hopes of becoming an international woman of mystery regardless
- A CEO of a major company—this one looks like it won't be a passing phase.
But there was also the phase—no joke—when I really wanted to be a rabbi. Mind you, I wanted to be a secular rabbi, “a cool rabbi," whatever that would mean.* I have dark, curly hair and would probably look good in the black hat often worn by Orthodox Jews, but I’d probably have to be a Reform rabbi: I don’t think I could ever grow the nest of sideburns or feel comfortable in any denomination of Judaism that would prevent me from reading from the Torah just because I’m a woman.
Most people who know me in Boston or even from college don’t know I’m Jewish (being gluten-free is hard enough without keeping Kosher). But people who know me from my childhood know that in the past, Judaism used to be everything for me.
My parents wanted to make sure that I felt at home with the Jewish community wherever I went in the world. So they sent me to a Conservative Jewish day school until the fifth grade, “The Gerrard Berman Day School Solomon Schechter of North Jersey” was tiny and there were never more than 18 people in my entire grade. I spent my day half in Hebrew and half in English for seven years.** I had classes in Biblical history along with American History. I knew—and still know—more about the State of Israel than the State of New Jersey. We got off of school for every Jewish holiday you’ve probably heard of (Yom Kippur and Passover) and many you probably haven’t (Simchat Torah and Purim). We prayed 3 mornings a week, and if you had asked me before age thirteen what I’d save from my house if it were burning down, I’d have said the first siddur (prayer book) I ever received with a glittering Jewish star and my Hebrew name carefully stenciled with neon fabric paint..
Nearly twenty years since receiving that siddur, I have a lot of conflicted feelings toward Judaism. I think it’s a beautiful religion and culture in many ways and I certainly wouldn’t be the person I am without being brought up in it. But I don’t want it to be the first thing people identify with me: there's a lot of misinformation out there. I don't want to be associated with religious beliefs I don’t necessarily have, cultural norms I don't necessarily observe, and political views I don’t necessarily agree with. Judaism somewhat informs but far from encompasses the brand of my belief.
The last time I really dared to directly engage with Israel or my sense of Judaism was in college. When I was younger, I always knew that I was getting a skewed perspective on the story of Israel given that my first Hebrew teachers all served in the Israel Defense Forces. In college, I decided to study Arabic in pursuit of the balanced perspective my early education lacked and did my junior independent work on the portrayal of Israelis in Palestinian poetry during the 1960s and 1970s. The poetry was full of anger, introspection, and compassion, and reading It irrevocably assigned human faces and heaps of bodies, both Israeli and Palestinian, to the wars I was told about in elementary school.
It’s one thing for me to study Israel in classes and read all the books on it. It’s another to go to the country and see places where all the things I’ve learned over the years actually happened. And it’s another thing entirely to have ten days on Birthright to reckon with my head, my heart, and my heritage and figure out how I connect to this country that I've romanticized for twenty years but never thought I'd visit.
I don’t know what will unfold between now and when I come home for the New Year. The only thing I’m sure of it that nothing is off the table: I could return with renewed ambitions to become a Rabbi and making it my mission to convert my goyfriend. I could return even more disillusioned by the realities of the Middle East. I could even return completely unmoved.
It remains to be seen, but for now, I’m excited to embrace this trip in all its clarity and confusion, to go completely off the grid with regard to technology, and to dive deeply into Israel and into myself in search of the Promised Land.
Traveling East to the Western Wall,
*Thinking back on it, the rabbi path makes some sense based on the person I am today and the things I’ve done and want to do: regularly speaking to motivate and inspire others; bringing communities of diverse individuals closer together; scrutinizing literature and making it relevant to the people and circumstances of present day; calling attention to the little things we all take for granted and celebrating the bigger picture. All the things I want to do in leading a company are essentially the skills I saw myself using to lead a congregation.