A Non-Believer in the Holy Land

I am hovering in the skies somewhere over the Mediterranean, having concluded a 10-day adventure with three dozen strangers who, with me, have but one thing in common.

Our parents—and, by extension, we—have a unique and divinely ordained right to a home in the land of Israel.  We are Jews, God’s preferred tribe, and returning to the land of our fathers after thousands of years in exile is our birthright.

The adventure to which I refer—a program whose Hebrew name, “Taglit,” translates to “Birthright”—is an initiative, partly funded by the Israeli government, to send to Israel young Jews who have never been there before.  The trip runs for 10 days, traverses a significant portion of the country and is free of charge.

It is to Birthright’s great credit that your humble servant was deemed qualified to participate.  I made it as plain as I could in my application that, while I self-identify as Jewish, I live a secular existence and firmly do not believe in any sort of God.

I should begin, then—in point of reflection—by noting that my views on the God question were not at all changed during my trip.  In fact, they weren’t even challenged.  At no point was a belief in the supernatural required of me by my many guides.

What the Birthright experience explored, rather, is the simple proposition, “What does it mean to be Jewish?”  The question is a vital one, as Jews are very much a “people” as well as members of a religion.  If we are indeed entitled to a state of our own, the answer had better be a good one.

One way my group approached the matter was to debate the relative merits of various facets of Judaism—observing the Sabbath, keeping kosher, marrying a Jew and moving to Israel were but a few examples—under the heading, “What is most essential to ensuring Judaism’s survival?”

A lesson we drew from this exercise is that Judaism means different things to different people.  One of Birthright’s objectives (and definite strengths) is to enable its participants to better explore and understand the roots and purpose of their heritage in the context of their own lives—if, indeed, any such meaning exists.

Not all the games we played were so serious or seemingly on-point.  Numerous evenings were spent on various ice-breakers to allow members of our rather large group to know each other better and bond over matters beyond our common ancestry.

These nights of merriment served to lighten the load of what was otherwise a fairly exhausting ordeal.  But it was here, as well, that I realized what very little I had in common with my Birthright fellow-travelers.

It was not merely that my team was composed of a disproportionately high number of heterosexual males whose late-night tales of conquest I could not quite appreciate or relate to.  Or that everyone else on the bus seemed to boast resumes of accomplishment well beyond their years (or at least beyond mine).

Things just seemed to not quite click between me and the gang at large, and I never became fully engaged by it.  I was in the group without being of it.  An odd man out.

This, to my way of thinking, is the whole story of Judaism.  Collectively, Jews are natural outsiders, shunned from the cool kids’ table, left to wander alone in the wilderness waiting, perhaps in vain, for a moment of redemption.

It is an irony of my life, then, that I find myself identifying with this Jewish outsider ethos in the company of fellow Jews, an outsider amongst outsiders.

The key, and the challenge, is to accept this state of affairs and not view it as some kind of a problem.  Rather, to take a bit of pride in not being like everybody (or anybody) else.

For me, to be a Jew is to be forever a misfit, to not belong, and to not want to.

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