Rachel Cohen is the Director of Young Adult Initiatives at the Schusterman Family Foundation. This is the first part of a two-part series. You can find the second part here.
There are thousands of Rachel Cohens in the world today—one went to my summer camp, there is almost always one enrolled at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, 376 of us use gmail and there are 960 of us on Facebook!
Despite the numbers, however, I’m likely the only Rachel Cohen who grew up singing in the church choir, a child of an interfaith marriage and the proud descendent of seven generations of United Church of Christ ministers and missionaries.
If you had asked me 10 years ago if I were Jewish, my answer would have been “Well, my father is.”
Today my answer is completely different, thanks to a free 10-day trip to Israel known ubiquitously as Birthright.
I wish I could say that my decision to apply for the first-ever Birthright Israel trip my junior year at PENN was motivated by a deep sense of longing for an understanding of Judaism or connection to my Jewish roots.
I applied because I had never had the chance to travel abroad and it didn’t hurt that the trip was free. The ad I heard on the radio said a “free trip for anyone with one Jewish grandparent”—but if it mentioned Israel as the only destination, well, I must have missed that part. I was dreaming of a voyage to see the lights of Paris, the ruins of Rome or the beaches of the Greek Isles.
Still, even after learning where the trip would take me, I thought that visiting Israel was better than being at home in New Jersey over New Year’s, so I signed up anyway.
Seated alphabetically on the plane to Israel, the other Cohens in my row were reading travel guides and carrying gifts to bring to their relatives. I was sleeping. At the risk of sounding cliché, I had not even a glimmer of an idea how the coming 10 days would transform my identity forever.
Recognition, however, began to sink in just moments after our plane landed in Israel. Wearily but excitedly, we found ourselves, 300 strangers, dancing the Horah in an airport hangar. As the founders of Birthright Israel walked toward the center of the circle to address us, I got the sinking feeling we were about to learn of the real strings attached to this “free” trip.
You will spend 10 days in a Yeshiva, I expected to hear. You will sign here to accept your Israeli citizenship. You will join the Israeli army.
But what I actually heard was very different: “This trip is our gift to you,” the founders told us. “And it is up to each of you to make sure it is a gift that keeps on giving.”
Um, that’s it? I almost didn’t believe it. These successful philanthropists could have spent their money on anything they wanted, and they chose to buy ME—a daughter of intermarriage with no rooted Jewish connections to speak of—a trip to Israel with no strings attached other than that I recognized the experience as a gift? Shock set in first. Skepticism quickly followed. And then … inspiration.
This final emotion took root during the trip in an incessant barrage of what later became known by my trip peers as the “Rachel Cohen Questions”:
- Why are you taking us to places called the Dead Sea and the Wailing Wall?
- What do you think the people who died on Masada would want us to remember about them?
- Do Israelis consider me as Jewish as them?
And on and on. For some reason, asking every question that came to mind—and hearing the patient responses of my guide and fellow Birthright travelers—helped me unwrap a new layer of the gift I had been given each day. It helped me feel more connected to a homeland I was coming to love, to traditions that felt foreign at first and, above all, to the people around me. I was overwhelmed by a sense of belonging to a global Jewish family—a Klal—that cared so deeply about me, my family and my future.
On January 14, 2000, as I boarded an EL AL plane home from Israel, I promised myself that Birthright WOULD be a gift that keeps on giving for me. But even as I made this promise with intent and determination, a nagging question lingered in the back of my mind: would I keep it?
When I returned to the hustle and bustle of my everyday life, which up until this point had never included space for my Jewish self, would I really carve out the requisite time? And would I even know where to begin?
This is the first part of a two-part series. You can find the second part here.
Rachel Cohen is the Director of Young Adult Initiatives at the Schusterman Family Foundation.