Israel Bound

I filled out my secondary application last week. On Friday, right before Yom Kippur, I got a call from a very…rushed New Yorker.  He wanted to meet me for my interview on Monday at noon.  Thankfully, I had the day off as a government employee.

I arrived early.  I recognized him immediately by the black velvet kippah–not too common in these parts.   He moved our location and pushed back our time due to running late on a video conference.  Cool.  I can totally wait.

When I arrived at our new spot, it was obvious he had not read my application.  He started into one of the standard questions. “Ah, so which of your parents…. wait.  This says neither.”

“I brought my conversion papers with me if you need to see them.”

The conversation and tone changed immediately.  He grilled me for 10 minutes.  How could I believe in Conservative Judaism when it is dying out? When it cut off its nose to spite its face with allowing people to drive? When Emet v’Emunah says Oral Torah did not come from Sinai?

I wasn’t prepared to justify my affiliation, so these questions caught me off-guard.  No research I had done about the interview for Birthright had turned up this kind of questioning.  And I’m not one to publicly debate religion, especially in a mall food court of all places.

But worse than the line of questioning is that I didn’t feel like I could even answer any of his questions, because as soon as I opened my mouth, he would find something wrong with what I said and try to attack that too.  It finally ended with, “What kind of Jew would you say you are?”

“I’d say I’m an active, seeking, striving Jew–”

“Hmm.  Good answer.  They were looking for Reform, Conservative or Observant.  I sense some tension between us.”

Gee, ya think?

“But, Mikvah Bound, I like you.  I’m going to recommend you go and call the office myself.”

I was in shock.  I was so sure he had thought I wasn’t Jewish.  That even if I were a Conservative Jew in his eyes that I was a horrible Conservative Jew at that.  That I had a speech impediment or something due to my inability to speak coherently as a 20-something.  And of course he hates the agency I work for because we are enviro-nuts who try to impose “our religion” on others.

He changed my application to say that I had a Jewish mother.  This way, apparently, Birthright will be more likely to accept me.  I wish they’d just come out and state that publicly–that either this trip provider or Birthright gives preference to those born of at least one Jewish parent.  I’m not into lying.  I want to go, but not at the expense of my integrity.  Worse, what if this comes back to haunt me in some way?!

But, by the time I got back home, they had offered me a trip.  I had the email in my inbox.  I am going to Israel.  I leave December 25th and I’ll be back January 5th.  Pretty cool that I’ll get to spend secular New Year’s in Israel.  I’m not thrilled about it being an 18-26 trip (I really wanted 22-26 so I wouldn’t feel like the cool mom interrupting the party.) but beggars can’t be choosers and did I mention I’m going to Israel?

In case I didn’t, here it is one more time: I’m going to Israel! Woot!



11 thoughts on “Israel Bound

  1. Mazel tov! I agree that it sounds like the conversation was about as inappropriate as it gets, short of demanding to know who you voted for in the last election, but at least you got in. I agree that it’s ridiculous that there’s apparently a secret preference given to halachically Jewish folks; whether it’s Birthright (though I don’t think it is- I know a number of patrilineal folks who have gone with no issues) or this program, they should just come right out and say so.

  2. We’re going to Israel!!! That’s sort of insane he asked you all of those questions-I was under the impression that converts would have no problem going on a Birthright trip! I can’t wait to hear all about your trip. I leave for mine in two weeks!

  3. The conversation and tone changed immediately. He grilled me for 10 minutes. How could I believe in Conservative Judaism when it is dying out? When it cut off its nose to spite its face with allowing people to drive? When Emet v’Emunah says Oral Torah did not come from Sinai?

    What the—freaking modern orthodox.. ‘how can you believe in conservative judaism when it’s dying out,’ what the heck.

    Anyway, too bad you’re not going next summer, I might be going then. Weird, we talked to a black velvet guy too.

    • Because of my date of conversion (15th of Iyar, 5771) and my birthdate (December of 1984), the winter 2011/2012 trips were my first (I’m finally a Jew! woot!) and last (shit, I turn 27 this year!) opportunity to go. I think I would have preferred summer trips for the slightly different itinerary (from what I understand, they spend more time in the north than the south of Israel), but I’ll take what I can get.

      I’m also trying to decide if I should risk taking my own kippah and tallit on the trip since their packing list specifically says “kippah (men)” . Or if I should risk pressing for the opportunity to spend my Shabbat in Israel (which I assume will be in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem) with the closest Masorti synagogue instead of the Orthodox shul I know they plan on taking us to. How much do I want to rock the free boat I’m in… hmmm…

  4. what sorts of questions did you get asked once you arrived in israel? Did they ask you more questions about judaisim?

    • Who is they? I was asked a lot of questions (more than my born-Jewish peers) before getting on El Al’s flight by the security team: they scanned my conversion papers and asked me about 20 minutes’ worth of questions when most people had 10 minutes or so.

      As far as questions from my trip, TONS of people asked me why I did it. What I saw in Judaism that they didn’t, as people born into it. There were definitely comments from the rabbi that I didn’t agree with, but hey, he’s Orthodox and I’m not and that’s to be expected. We’d “debate” but there’s not really any point in doing so. Besides him and the two chaperones (a married couple from his synagogue) I was the second or third most educated Jew on the trip… and out of 40 others, that says a lot. My peers were a half-black, half-Ashkenazi who was tired of the racism, but who had been schooled in yeshivot. The other was a young man raised in both Orthodox and Conservative shuls simultaneously since birth. What I’m trying to say is that no one on my trip really COULD ask me questions–I was more knowledgable than them.

      And the general Israelis that I met thought it was really cool. They don’t really have liberal Judaism there. For many, I was the first that could actually talk about the differences in world views, approaches to halakah, etc. They were fascinated, apprehensive, curious, welcoming, and some, yes were clearly not open to the idea of non-Orthodox. That’s okay. Most asked about what the process was like and how I liked being in Israel. I’d explain how Israel viewed me and most were shocked by the discrepancy. So yeah, nothing too painful.

      • That’s interesting! So they have el-al do the questioning and if you don’t “pass” they “tell on you” to birthright? Funny that they get the airline involved. Were there any questions asked as you entered Israel by passport control, or is everything done by El-Al? What sorts of questions did they ask aside from the judaisim questions? (e.g. what did they ask people who were clearly jews?) Just wondering because I’m in a similar situation! Thanks!

      • My Birthright trip organizer decided that on this trip of theirs in the winter, one of the forty slots was going to be mine. That is after filling out both applications and having an in person meeting/interview.

        Israel handles all security screening of passengers for all inbound flights to the country. So, whether you fly El Al, Turkish Airs, United, Air Canada….whether you fly from Montreal, New York, London, or Tokyo… before you are allowed to check in, check your bag, get your boarding pass, and head through airport screening (TSA), you will be “grilled” by Israeli government officials trained to screen people pyschologically. If you don’t meet their standards, you don’t get on the plane. But that’s for all passengers, not just Birthright. It’s a security precaution. The type of questions asked are to get you talking, and individual to you based on your answers. They’ll probably start with why are you headed to Israel, who do you know in Israel, what are you planning on doing in Israel. Based on your answers, they’ll start asking you about your knowledge of Judaism: where did you have a bar mitzvah, where did you go to Hebrew school, who is your rabbi, what’s your favorite holiday, what is the upcoming holiday about. Answer honestly and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know and you’ll be fine. Look them in the eye, but not aggressively. Speak confidently and clearly. They’re not testing you on your knowledge: they’re reading your psychological response. The born Jews in my group ahead of me in the line had easier questions but couldn’t answer them–what holiday are we about to celebrate? What are the main mitzvot associated with it?; ; I think Israelis have come to expect that from many American Jews, unfortunately. They’re suspicious of me for being a convert, and if you are a Jew of Color, you might also raise some flags, but that I actually knew the answers and sailed through security (meaning it was less stressful for me than the interview with the rabbi that said I would get a spot on the trip)…no biggy. They took my conversion certificate copy and made a copy of it for their records, claiming to “never have seen one before”, so if you have one, bring a photocopy and not the real thing.

  5. Awesome, thanks for the advice! So birthright just has a deal with them to tell them if they think you’re lying about converting? Obviously normally they wouldn’t care if you weren’t really jewish, right?

    • I’m not sure if I’m not explaining myself poorly or something and I’m sorry if I am, but I think there’s some misunderstanding. Birthright and Israeli security both have their own concerns. But they’re distinct concerns for separate organizations.

      Birthright cares if you lie about converting because Birthright is footing the bill to send young Jews to Israel. If one of the movements of your country considers you a Jew, you are a Jew for Birthright’s purposes, however. I am considered a Jew because I converted and thus, according to Birthright’s rules for converts, I was required to provide my conversion certificate to my trip organizer prior to the interview. During your interview, if they think you’re lying they will either a) call your rabbi for some personal reference-type conversation or b) just not let you go. They have so many applicants that who really cares, move on to the next. My hunch is approach B is more common. So, just be honest. Read Birthright’s rules for eligibility. If you are eligible, apply. If you’re not, don’t be a jerk and steal someone else’s spot on a trip. Pretty simple. It annoys me how many friends I have who want to “fake” being Jewish to spend 10 days in another country that “looks cool”.

      Israeli security does not care if you are Jewish or not. Regardless of which airline they screen for, they let Christians, Muslims, atheists, Buddhists etc into the country that do no pose a threat to Israel or Israelis. What they’re worried about is terrorism. They ask you about Judaism because you say you’re Jewish. If you were to say “I’m visiting Tel Aviv for the gay pride parade” they’d ask you questions about that. If you said you were visiting Bethlehem because you’re Christian.. they’d ask you about that. As I said before, the point of this conversation is NOT to hear your answers. They’re reading your psychology. Are you fidgeting, nervous, evasive, etc. Israeli screening officers aren’t going to say to Birthright “look, chick didn’t know we fast on Yom Kippur… you should probably really make sure she’s Jewish.” If you say you want to go to Israel because you want to protest Zionist occupation… yeah. You may not be allowed on your plane ride with other Birthright trip members. But then, you probably shouldn’t be going to Israel anyway, in the eyes of the Israeli government.

      TL;DR: To Israeli security screeners, they have a plane full of people to get through security and you’re just one more passenger.

      Hope this helps clarify a bit more.

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