Hillel created the program, Tribal Fire, in an attempt to encourage Jews in the Diaspora and Jews in Israel to exchange perceptions about their Jewish identities. It was a an invigorating and emotional journey, spending five days in nature together sitting around the campfire and discussing our beliefs and very personal experiences. I never thought that I could create such a close bond with the Israelis I met in this short amount of time. The connection between us was immediately apparent , which allowed for some serious discussions and exchanges of opinions, thoughts and beliefs.
Over the course of our five-day experience we hiked during the day, camped in the freezing cold desert under the stars (huddling 7 people together in a small tent), spent a beautiful Shabbat in nature, slept in the sun, played guitar and introduced Israelis to American s’mores around a bonfire (which they loved). Personally, (because of a bad ankle the last day) I had the amazing opportunity to explore Be’er Sheva and Netivot with a local and learned through her experiences what life is like in Southern Israel. The final destination for the group was in Sderot, a small city on the border of Gaza that has been the victim of many rocket attacks.
As for Judaism… I had never thought much about my Jewish Identity before coming to Israel. After spending four months living here however, I have developed a greater sense of what Judaism means to me. We won’t get into all that right now, but the point is that it never even crossed my mind that Israeli Jews have a completely different way of relating to their Jewish identity then I do.
For me it was tough to express my Jewish identity growing up.
In America, it is not so “cool” to be Jewish. People would say to me things like “wow I didn’t know you were Jewish…” I would reply with “well I’m not really that Jewish…” or something along those lines. In hindsight, I am a little embarrassed about that fact that I felt the need to keep my identity hidden, not only from my peers, but also from myself. The reality for me though is that it is not quite so easy to be Jewish because in the Diaspora, as we always represent the minority.
The Israeli’s that I have become close with during our trip had a different connection with their Jewish identities. In Israel, it is easy to be Jewish because the environment in Israel is predominately Jewish. There is less worry about things like intermarriage and anti-Semitism. However, I observed that there is a struggle of identity between being Jewish and being Israeli. The two coincide with one another to become one single identity. Israeli’s don’t understand the struggle of Jews in the Diaspora because they have never been subjected to an environment where you have to go out of your way to be Jewish.
For Jews in the Diaspora, it is important to go to Israel to really experience the historical homeland of the Jewish people. Visiting Israel allowed me to become more in touch with my own Jewish identity. However, it is almost equally as important for Israeli’s to spend some time in Jewish communities in the Diaspora so that they can experience the separation and the struggle to practice Judaism in a society that is not constructed around it. This experience can lead to the understanding of the difference between Jewish identity and Israeli identity.
Jewish identity is different for every person. Whether you identify with the cultural, moral or spiritual aspects of Judaism, I believe that your Jewish identity is about finding whatever works for you. But in order to continuously grow as a person, you need to ask the right questions and search for the right answers. The most important thing is to have dialogue with others who don’t think like you. There is no way to expand your own identity without listening to and trying to understand the perspectives of others.