A ‘Hinju’ explores her roots

Birthright participant Kesha Ram was born to a Jewish mother and a Hindu father.

Kesha Ram 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Kesha Ram 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)

Since its maiden voyage over a decade ago, Birthright Israel has brought over 250,000 young Jewish adults from all walks of life on 10-day organized and funded trips to Israel so they can discover and connect to their Jewish identity and heritage. Many of Birthright’s participants are college students or recent graduates – young professionals just starting their “real world” experiences.

One recent participant, 25-year old Kesha Ram, is already making a difference in society as a second-term Democratic state representative for Vermont.
Ram, who grew up in Los Angeles, is a unique Birthrighter not only because she is the youngest state representative in the US but because she is in her words a “Hinju,” born to a Jewish mother and a Hindu father, raised to some degree as part of both religious groups and cultures. Another twist is the fact that in Judaism lineage is based on matriarchal blood lines, while in Hinduism the father’s background determines the spiritual identity of his offspring.
When asked which religious group she most identifies with, Ram says that it’s like “asking who you love more, your mother or your father.” She has traveled to India to explore her Hindu roots but since she had never visited Israel she always felt that she was missing a deep connection to the country and to her deep Jewish traditions.
Her first exposure to Israelis took place not in Israel but while on a post-high-school trek through Peru.
Just 17 years old at the time, Ram and a friend were hiking up Peru’s Mount Wayna Picchu when she heard a group of other travelers on the trail speaking a strange but somehow familiar language. Only on the top of the mountain did she realize that the language being spoken by a group of 25 Israelis who were on a post-army expedition in South America was Hebrew.
Ram and her friend decided to tag along with the group, since she found them to be “fun-loving but fearless, and fluid with their traveling.” She says that her contact with Israelis taught her that “even though young people in Israel face so much, their attitude is not to worry about the small things in life. On one hand they have a deep spiritual core, but also are a lot of fun.” Spending time with her new friends aroused her curiosity to explore Israel as a country.
While she was introduced to the Birthright program through her brother, who came home from the trip raving about how great Israel and its people are, she decided to put her own Israel experience on hold to pursue higher education at the University of Vermont.
With a double major in natural resource planning and political science and a stint as the university’s Student Government Association president, Ram decided to throw her hat into the political arena and run for the Vermont House of Representatives.
One of the focuses of her campaign, which involved knocking on every door in her district, was her belief in access to quality and affordable education for all.
That message resonated with voters and on January 7, 2009, Ram was sworn in to office at the age of 23.
Since then, in addition to focusing on education, Ram, who personally experienced economic difficulties when her parents’ marriage ended in divorce, concentrates on helping people living in poverty and “making sure that everyone has access to the basics to help them realize their potential.” In addition, outside the legislature she works to help victims of domestic violence obtain legal protection and helps their families lead safe and improved lives.

Even with an intense work schedule, this year Ram decided that she could no longer push off her dream of visiting Israel. She chose a Mayanot Birthright program based on the advice of the University of Vermont’s Chabad representatives, with whom she had developed a close relationship while she was a student.

She still visits the university Chabad for Shabbat and High Holy Day services.
Being a Vermont state representative, Ram might have chosen to make an official visit to Israel, but instead she chose Birthright since she admits that “I don’t get many opportunities to be a young person and meet other young people.” She adds that “while I would have been honored to meet Israeli politicians on an official visit, it was just as great an honor to meet and spend time with Israeli young people, particularly Israeli soldiers.”
She says that the highlight of her self-described “whirlwind” Israel experience was Birthright’s “Nifgash” (Encounter) program in which IDF soldiers spend five days traveling on the buses along with Birthright participants, showing them the country from their perspective as young enlisted men and women. She says that the soldiers “taught me so much about life.” She adds that she developed very close relationships with some of the soldiers, who she now feels will be her friends for life. “It was a tearful goodbye” when the soldiers returned to their bases, she admits.
In terms of connecting to her Jewish spiritual side, Ram says that she felt her greatest attachment while visiting the mystical city of Safed, where she explored the roots of Kabbala. She admits that she had the misconception that “seeking enlightenment, finding spiritual centers in body, and meditation,” were exclusive to Hinduism. “But now that I know they are a part of Judaism,” she adds, “I am hungry to explore more.”
While Safed was spiritually uplifting, Ram says that Tel Aviv was simply “sababa [awesome], and just an awesome place, and so wonderful to walk around the city.” While aliya is not yet in the cards due to her political responsibilities at home, she says that if she did make aliya, Tel Aviv would be her city of choice to settle in.
Even though she says her trip was personal and not political, she did have the opportunity to learn about Israel’s state of affairs in the midst of a dormant peace process and other upheavals in the region. She says that touring Jewish holy sites and learning the history of how Israel has been forced to fight for her survival “helped me understand how important Israel’s needs are and how important the relationship is between Israel and America.”
She also says that after seeing the country for herself she now believes the mainstream media’s coverage of the situation is “superficial” and doesn’t delve into the complexities of the situation that Israel faces, “being forced to fight for every inch, while also trying to seek peace.”
Despite her celebrity, Ram says that on Birthright she is just like everyone else. Her group’s counselor, Bruria Gellman, concurs, saying that while the media has approached Ram for interviews all week, “she is not receiving preferential treatment – all of my hanichot [group participants] are stars simply because they are Jewish.”
Overall Ram says that “everything about this trip has been incredible – truly life changing.” She adds that “experiencing the country with Israelis in my own age group made it that much better. I now feel like I have a home away from home here in Israel, and understand why Jews from all over the world want to come back.” She hopes that she’ll return to Israel for a visit in the near future and when she has children she will encourage them to visit as well.