Be proud

Adopted into a Jewish family from South Korea, Sloane Tabisel was surprised at how connected she felt to Israel.

asian jew 521 (photo credit: courtesy)
asian jew 521
(photo credit: courtesy)
They say that life is a journey. For Sloane Tabisel, a 25-year-old Jewish woman from Plainview, Long Island, who participated in a November Taglit-Birthright Israel trip, that journey started in a unique manner, especially when compared to the other members of her tour.
Tabisel was born into a Buddhist family in South Korea and, after being given to an adoption agency by her biological parents at birth, was flown to the United States at the age of five months, where she was adopted and converted to Judaism by a family from New York.
While Tabisel describes her childhood as “amazing,” she admits that at times she had difficultly being accepted and finding her true identity due to being Jewish but having distinct Asian features.
“As a child, I was bullied,” she says. “The kids would say that I didn’t belong, and that my eyes are not the same. Or they would say I look funny and that Asian girls are not Jewish.”
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post from Tel Aviv during a three-day extension to her trip during which she has a chance to spend more time with her new friends, Tabisel reflects positively on the experience.
She says that the most significant aspect of the trip was “how accepted I was made to feel, more than any other time in my life – both by the Israelis and my American peers throughout the trip, even while being visibly different.”
While she didn’t attend a Jewish school and her family was by no means religious, it was known to her classmates that despite her outward appearance she was in fact a Jew.
Her perspective on being different changed as she got older. She pinpoints an influential second-grade teacher, who was also Jewish, “who always told me to be proud of how I looked and to be proud of my religion.”
While she was growing up, Tabisel’s mother encouraged her to take charge of the situation and not let people upset her.
“I took my teacher’s advice and my mom’s advice and, as I got older, I decided to make light of my reality. So I would make fun of myself as the ‘Asian Jew’ before anyone else could make fun of me.”
She says that when she meets new people she uses her background as an “icebreaker” so that “I can take control of the situation.
It makes it easier how people perceive me if they understand my story.”
WHILE HER family never belonged to a particular synagogue, Tabisel speaks fondly of observing all of the Jewish holidays when she was growing up, describing them as “especially joyful times during the year when our extended family spent time together over festive meals.”
As a teenager, she continued to do some soul searching. She dreamed of returning to South Korea and meeting her biological mother. (Her biological father had disappeared before she was born.) At the age of 16, she traveled with her mother to South Korea for three weeks on what’s known as a “roots” trip for adopted children. She arrived only to discover on the very first evening that her biological mother had died.
Despite her disappointment, Tabisel says that the trip to South Korea made a tremendous impact on her. “Upon returning home, I really grasped the fact that I was different. I truly became proud of who I was and I always let people know straight away – I’m Asian and I’m Jewish.”
As a student at Bryant College, a small university in Rhode Island with a strong Catholic influence, Tabisel educated her peers about “Judaism – but the light version.”
She introduced them to the various customs, especially those affiliated with the holidays.
She graduated in 2009 with a degree in business marketing and started to work in marketing and management in her mother’s medical practice, which focuses on helping women with sexual dysfunction.
Several of her Jewish friends started traveling to Israel on Taglit-Birthright trips and came back insisting that she go, so she and a cousin signed up. “I was really nervous that people would not take me seriously,” she says. “I thought that at the airport it would be like, ‘Who brought the Asian?’” But she says that was not the case at all.
“Not once on the trip did anyone ask me, ‘So, how are you Jewish?’ It was a degree of acceptance that I had never found in the States as an Asian Jew.”
She adds that “the Israeli peers on the trip that I would share my background with, they had no problem accepting who I was.” She says that when she visited Jerusalem it really hit her “that I’m Jewish and it’s OK. I realized that I don’t always have to make light, or laugh about it all the time. These people automatically accepted me for who I am.”
While still unsure if her attachment to Israel or Zionism has changed with the completion of the program, she says there is no doubt that she would recommend Taglit-Birthright to her friends back home.
“Everyone comes on this trip for a different reason, but we have something in common – we have a want or a need to be here and explore what Israel has to offer. Perhaps it’s that commonality which made people so accepting.”
She is already considering coming back to Israel next year.