Over thousands of years, Jewish people have spread throughout the world, and as a result of this geographic branching, distinct ethnic subgroups were formed. For example, Ashkenazi Jews originated from Central and Eastern Europe and make up the majority of the Jewish community, while Sephardic Jews, like myself descend from the Iberian Peninsula, and represent the minority constituent. But regardless of their cultural and linguistic differences, the Jewish community maintains a form of interconnectedness with its members all over the world. All Jewish people, whether Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform, are raised with similar traditions, ethics, and central ideas of Judaism that were developed thousands of years ago. Israel represents the foundation of Judaism, as both a religion and a culture; it is where it all began, and is what continues to tie us together.
I believe that every Jewish person should go to Israel. That being said, I have never been very religious. Instead, I held a greater value for my Cuban ethnicity, and found individuality in the traditions of the Sephardic culture. A few summers ago, a friend invited me to go on Birthright, a program that provides Jewish young adults with the opportunity to take a free trip to Israel. I wont deny that my original intention was purely to have a good time, and enjoy an all expense paid vacation to another country, but my experience turned out to be far more than I could have imagined.
While at Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem, the burial place for soldiers in the Israeli Military, I felt an emotion unlike anything before. The vastness of the cemetery is indescribable; it went on for miles. I sat down near one of the headstones in a daze, and as I read it’s engraving, “He left his home to come defend his homeland.” I realized that this 20 year old boy was an American and not in fact an Israeli citizen. His dedication to his Jewish heritage, and understanding of Israel’s value to the Jewish people, was so strong, that he was willing to lose his life to protect it.
I was also surprised to learn that although some Israeli Jews define their culture in large part around their religion, there is a growing trend of secular Jews for whom Judaism is more a cultural and ethnic identity than a spiritual practice. Their identity is neither exclusively defined by ancestral heritage nor simply by religious affiliation, but more so as a combination of both. The inherent connection and pride I felt towards my Cuban heritage related more to elements of Jewish Sephardic tradition than I had realized.
My trip opened my eyes to aspects of my Jewish heritage that I would not have understood if I had not experienced them first hand. Judaism is so much more than a spiritual practice; at its core it is a cultural heritage, one of a people whose existence has lasted longer than any other in history. I believe the experience of journeying to Israel, and obtaining the first hand knowledge of their heritage, will have an equal impact and value for all Jewish people as it did for me.