Jason McDonald of Fair Lawn had a proper Jewish education.
“I attended Hebrew school and was bar mitzvahed,” the 19-year-old student, a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said. But after that, he added, “I felt like I wasn’t being pushed to go to shul, so I only went on the High Holidays and celebrated the Jewish holidays with my family.” If there were organized programs for teenagers, “I didn’t know about it. Some friends were involved in extra stuff, but I wasn’t really told about it.”
If Jason — who recently returned from a Birthright Israel trip — lost touch with his Jewish identity during those years, he came home from the 10-day trip with a completely different outlook.
No one, apparently, was more surprised than the student himself. “I was amazed to find how much this experience allows young adults to reconnect with their Jewish selves and religion in a completely new way,” he wrote in a letter to the Men’s Progress Club at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Congregation Bnai Israel, which helped support his trip.
Jason recalled his first visit to Israel with his family. “I went to Israel with my family when I was little,” he said. “I didn’t really understand the bigger picture. Going now with a bunch of peers” — everyone on the trip was from Bergen County — “put everything into a different perspective. I thought about things differently.”
On his first trip, he said, “I just went around on a private tour, kind of listening to our tour guide. But this time was a different experience. This time I listened, but it was because of him, the tour guide himself. He was a big part of why the trip was the way it was.” His guide, Maxi Katzir, had accompanied Yonatan Netanyahu on the raid at Entebbe. “This man is a huge reason Israel is what it is today,” Jason said. “To have someone as influential as him lead my trip made the whole experience that much more memorable.”
And there was more. “Being older and going into it with an open mind allowed me to experience Israel the way it was meant to be experienced,” Jason wrote in his letter to the FLJC. “The first time I went to the Western Wall, I just thought it was cool. This time when I went and thought about how much this one wall means to the entire country… I was overcome with emotion.”
Noting that he signed up for the trip because two of his friends wanted to go, Jason said, “I knew that they were going to talk about Judaism, and figured I’d just listen. But they didn’t try to force it on you. Being there with Israelis provided a different kind of experience than I was expecting.”
His friends came home with equal enthusiasm. One, the “more religious” of the three, chose to remain in Israel for the summer. But even the other friend, “who wasn’t even bar mitzvahed, came back with the same reaction as me,” Jason said.
A member of Hillel at his college, Jason said that he feels the organization “needs to reach out more. They say, ‘Come to Hillel.’ That’s it. They need more outreach.” He suggested that events, such as concerts, might be more attractive than lectures, particularly if they can get Israeli performers.
Jason — who said he now feels a heightened sense of pride about being Jewish, “even though we may not be the most loved group of people out there” — said he definitely plans to go back to Israel. He looks at Israelis differently now, after spending a good deal of time with soldiers his own age. “I was expecting them to be more military-oriented,” he said. “But they fit in right away.”
“The soldiers were exactly like us,” he wrote. “They partied with us, wanted to get to know us and what life was like in America, and were some of the friendliest and most genuine people I have ever met.” So friendly, in fact, that he and his friends plan to keep in touch with them.
If Jason is excited about his trip, so too is his grandmother, Rosa Sirota of Fair Lawn. A hidden child during the Holocaust, Ms. Sirota said she is eager for people to hear about the effects a trip like Birthright can have, “to encourage people to support this wonderful program.”