From remembrance to starting over on Birthright

I didn’t feel so much like an impatient kid waiting for the next thrill but like an adult curious about finding something greater than myself.

By MATTHEW HERNBERG
April 16, 2015 16:13
Taglit-Birthright group

The writer's Taglit-Birthright group at the Western Wall giving a dedication with the Vulcan salute to Leonard Nimoy, who died in February.. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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It’s been almost two years since I graduated from college, and I thought I knew everything – but I’m smart enough to admit that I don’t. In college, I studied financial accounting while minoring in political science. I was president of a political organization on campus and appeared on national television to discuss key generational issues, held multiple internships, and began volunteering my time on the Institutional Review Board for human subject research at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Right after college, I landed a full-time job just as I hoped I would, trained to run a marathon and qualified for the world-renowned Boston marathon. Despite all of this, there was an unsatisfied gnawing inside of me. When I was a kid, I was always eager to learn the next big thing; meanwhile, as an adult I’ve grown to have this need to be always moving towards something – anything.

After a close friend urged me to consider participating in Birthright-Taglit, it occurred to me that it could be an important journey. Before heading off to Israel for the free 10-day trip, I didn’t feel so much like an impatient kid waiting for the next thrill but like an adult curious about finding something greater than myself. Yet I didn’t have the words to describe what exactly I was hoping to find on the trip.

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A family story here, another story from friends and school there, but where did my Jewish history and heritage come from? Moreover, if where I grew up is only “where I grew up,” then where exactly does my heart call home? Where I grew up in the States I attended a myriad of bar and bat mitzvas, celebrated major Jewish holidays with traditional foods, but still felt at a loss for what it all symbolized. Any deeper meanings of rites and rituals were lost on me. My secular ritual is running, a practice that allows my mind to escape the grind of daily life while my feet cover miles of terrain. While on Day 2 of my Taglit trip, I went on with my usual morning routine with a run. But this time it was not down some street in my New Jersey beach town but along the shores of the Sea of Galilee – a place of ancient history and beauty. As it turned out, there was nothing routine about that run as I was accompanied by a warm burst of sunlight that pierced through the cobwebs of my inner self and awakened me.

While running I felt a growing need in my heart to be matched with an informed mind. The evolution that took place was a realization that this 10-day journey was not only just about myself being a man who is Jewish but also about discovering what it means to be a man who is also connected to his Jewishness.

IN VISITING the mystic city of Safed and roaming the streets of Jerusalem, I saw where modernity met antiquity and where prosperity coincided with political conflict.

I went swimming in the Dead Sea and eventually came to a museum where we were forbidden to use cameras or devices – Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum. Throughout our entire time crisscrossing the museum, we were forbidden to use any film or take any photos, requiring us to use only our own minds to record the images and words of everything around us. Left only with our minds, hearts, and senses, we put aside the materialistic accessories of our daily lives.

Our guide led us on a tour and continually reminded us that there is no precise figure for the number of Jews murdered during the Holocaust, but “remembrance is not about the numbers.” There are no precise numbers of my Jewish ancestors that I will really ever get to know, but I realized that my part in remembering the Shoah was not about feeling like a helpless victim. Instead, it was about acknowledging past traditions and integrating those traditions with my daily life. In this way, my ancestors and family can live on by means of my own living traditions. As we continued through the museum, each exhibit hall conveyed a deepening sense of loss along with pockets of resilience and stories of hope – like shimmering stars of light seen through a veil of thick shadowy cloud cover.



As our Birthright group shuffled solemnly towards the end of the main exhibit hall and out from the Hall of Names, I looked back and examined the design of the museum. It really hit me, the light at the end of a cold dark tunnel. Upon entering the museum, we started from a cold dimly lit room in the corner, and then our pathway through the museum emerged to a sprawling sunlit room with window panels spanning from wall to wall that overlooked the vast modern city landscape of Ein Kerem from the top of a ridge. From the dark room at the start of the tour to the open sunlit room at the end, this all presented to me a metaphysical and spiritual representation of the chthonic forces (darkness) of the past giving way to returned order (light).

THE 10-DAY journey of my Birthright-Taglit experience started off with a yearning of something more than what I was experiencing in my own life here in the States. My heart desired a home, and I felt the need to move towards something, or some kind of an answer. However, what I found were many questions and a starting point. I am not sure if I can call Israel home – not yet at least – but this trip has encouraged me to seek out more pieces of my Jewish past, in turn, to help direct me to a better future that would make my Jewish ancestors proud. There are some things that time cannot mend, but remembering the Shoah means to understand that there is no going back. We must look towards the future and evolve with the traditions of the past. Like the expansive sunlit room with the panel windows at Yad Vashem that looked out to a robust metropolitan center, I similarly felt that my Birthright journey shed new light on an eager soul looking to find meaning to my Jewish life.

■ The writer is from a suburb of Atlantic City, New Jersey. He graduated from The College of New Jersey with a degree in accountancy, and currently works as a corporate tax consultant for a pharmaceutical company based in Princeton, NJ.

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