When asked prior to my Honeymoon Israel (HMI) experience what I was looking to get out of the trip, my answer was “meeting awesome new people, drinking great wine and eating better food in a country I’ve never been to before.”
My answer was much simpler post-trip: “It was absolutely life-changing.”
So how did I go from casually drinking wine with cool new friends halfway around the world to having my life changed in a matter of 10 days? I’m so glad you asked. Let me start at the beginning.
I am not Jewish. My husband, Adam, is. But not like, super Jewish. In our six years together, he’s never gone to temple, never actually acknowledged a High Holiday (so much so that we booked our non-religious wedding over Passover without realizing it…oops) and actually bought non-kosher matzah because it had better seasonings than the plain, kosher kind. However, he feels a tie to his Jewish identity that he adamantly wants to pass down to his children. As a 100 percent Polish, self-declared “quasi-Catholic,” I was completely fine with this, so long as we could celebrate Christmas too. He said yes, so I said yes and that was that.
Then came Israel. Having gone on Birthright with his brother several years back, Adam fell in love with the country of Israel and has said repeatedly since that he could not wait to bring me there someday. I fell in love with traveling the world long ago, so deciding to apply for HMI was a no-brainer for both of us. A few months later, it was time to boogie! We arrived in Israel super excited and ready for our next adventure. The first few days absolutely lived up to my aforementioned expectations: the people, food and wine were indeed awesome, and I found myself declaring that, “I could live in Tel Aviv,” by the end of day two.
Throughout the trip, we had five of what HMI calls “Conversations.” Essentially, this is code for five one-hour deep life chats between you and your partner, then a subset of couples and eventually the group as a whole on a series of topics surrounding Judaism. Our second Conversation had Adam and I discussing how we planned on integrating Judaism into our lives once we had children, and it was then I realized for the first time that I had absolutely no idea what I was signing up for by agreeing to raise our kids Jewish. Over the course of this hour, I heard about all sorts of ridiculous-sounding things ranging from having a rabbi come to my home eight days after birthing a son to perform a “bris” while my whole family watched (um, no) to carting my kids around to Hebrew school five nights a week (um, hell no).
So, in my typical Susie-feels-uncomfortable-with-religion fashion, I became incredibly defensive. I started pushing back, saying if we sent our kids to Hebrew school, we should also send them to Polish school because that’s just as much a part of their heritage as Judaism. I tried to hold it together as I realized that, for the first time, my husband and I were disagreeing on one of the “big things” a couple has to agree on. Our smaller group shared their thoughts and advice with us, about how Judaism is all about making it work for you, and not having to follow strict tradition. While it was welcomed and appreciated, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had gotten myself into something I wasn’t sure I believed in. If I was going to really commit to raising my kids Jewish, I damn well needed to have a better reason for doing so than “it’s important to my husband.” I left that Conversation upset and confused, with the feeling of uncertainty lingering over the next couple of days. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure of the path forward.
And then we went to Yad Vashem.
For those who don’t know, Yad Vashem is Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. Having toured Auschwitz during my time in Poland, I knew we were in for a heavy day, but what I didn’t know was that I was in for one of the most life-changing days of my life. Upon entering the museum, we saw a map of Europe showing the Jewish population by country prior to the Holocaust. I noticed that the highest concentration of Jews was actually in Poland, at just over 3.3 million. Our subsequent walk through the museum was as emotional and gut-wrenching as you would imagine, and as we finished, we came upon the same map, only this time it showed the Jewish population by country after the Holocaust. What I saw absolutely crushed me.
My beloved Poland went from 3,325,000 Jews prior to the Holocaust to 325,000 afterward. Of the 6 million total Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust, half of them were Polish. Half of them. My entire family is Polish, both my mom’s side and my dad’s side, and I’m looking at a map that’s telling me my country’s entire Jewish population was essentially wiped out.
You guys, I totally lost it. Already emotional from the day, I started sobbing and couldn’t stop. I’m talking shoulders-heaving, can’t-see-straight, ugly crying. But while my body was viscerally responding to this newfound knowledge, my mind was clear, and I will never forget what went through my head as I stood there weeping:
This is it.
This is my connection to Judaism. This is the connection I needed to feel not to just support raising my kids Jewish, but to want to. Their dad might be Jewish, but their mom came from a country whose Jewish population took the single hardest hit during the Holocaust, almost ceasing to exist, and they should be so proud to be part of a people who can survive something like that. I remember standing in front of that map thinking how lucky we are to have the opportunity to raise our children Jewish, and that we absolutely had to do so.
And so we will. We will instill in our children how lucky they are to be Jewish, and what that means to us. We will explain how parts of both their dad’s and their mom’s lineage came together to make this the absolute right choice for our family. Our friends were right: the ability to do this our way (or, let’s be serious, the ability to do this my way) is something I love about Judaism.
When I say HMI was life-changing, I mean it. Yes, we made incredible lifelong friends. Yes, I drank some awesome Israeli wine and ate hummus so good, it’s basically ruined for me back in the U.S. because it is just NOT the same. But I also found something unexpected: a connection I didn’t even realize I was looking for; the connection I needed to honestly say I want to raise my kids Jewish and really mean it. Not because it’s important to my husband, but because it’s important to me too. Because too many people died for this for us to do anything but honor them, their sacrifice, and continue to teach the next generation what it means to believe in something so fully, so wholeheartedly, that you would truly give your life for it.
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