Right now, thousands of excited 18-32 year olds are preparing to go on Birthright. Often, people return from these accessible trips to Israel with an intense connection to both Israeli and Jewish culture. Fedline Saintina, an Afro-Latina Jew I interviewed for this piece, told me that being in Israel made her “feel this sense of family that [I] don’t feel in the American Jewish community…Everyone here looks out for each other.”
While being in Israel may be an amazing experience for most black Jews, dealing with stereotypes and micro-aggressions from fellow participants is an uncomfortable reality. If you’re worried about racism on your Birthright trip, I’ve thought of a few ways to make your experience as meaningful and enjoyable as possible. After all, an amazing trip to Israel is literally your birthright — you earned this.
1. You will get questioned by El Al. You have nothing to be nervous about.
I don’t think I need to explain why, as an African American, the thought of facing intense questioning by airline security freaks me out. Unfortunately, because of assumptions about what Jews are supposed to look like, Birthright participants of color are almost always flagged for extra screening. Aside from my general horror of flying, the certainty of this scrutiny is what makes me the most anxious about traveling to Israel.
But the process is designed to ensure that Birthright participants are part of the Jewish community, so they’re kind of necessary. Still, it can be infuriating and nerve-wracking to feel that you’re being singled out because of your race or ethnicity.
When this happens to you, Fedline believes that it’s best to keep calm, though that’s easier said than done. And for Birthright participants who weren’t raised in an observant Jewish home, she recommends brushing up on a few things before you fly. “Know your shit. If you don’t know anything about Judaism, figure it out. They won’t pull out a Torah and quiz you… they’ll ask you little things.”
If you’re picturing an intense Fauda-style interrogation room right now, relax; generally, it’s more of a friendly conversation than an intense questioning. They’ll ask you basic questions, like why we sing dayenu at Passover, how you celebrate Hanukkah, if you know how to recite the Shema, etc. Please, please don’t lie and say you celebrate a certain holiday, or know something you don’t – because when you don’t know the follow-up questions, it’s not going to be a fun time. Just be honest and remember that you deserve to be here.
If you’re not going on a trip with your college Hillel or with members of your local Jewish community, you might feel better bringing a letter from your rabbi or something that shows that you are part of the community. This isn’t necessary, but if it makes you feel more confident, you should do it. You can also bring something from your bat mitzvah, conversion documents, or a copy of your parent’s ketubah.
2. Make sure your trip is a good fit.
Not every birthright trip is created equally; each has a different focus and different types of participants. Sometimes, picking a trip with a social justice or cultural focus can make your time with your fellow birthrighters feel more inclusive. Ben Faulding, an African American Jew who went on Birthright with Aish, said his experience was wonderful. Israel Outdoors: Israeli Food and Film and Israel Outdoors: Exploring Israel as a Shared Society are great options. Israel is extremely important to the Jewish community, but it would be inaccurate to say that it is a country without racism and xenophobia. Certain trips may result in you feeling more comfortable while also getting a more nuanced and accurate view of this wonderful country.
3. Extend, Extend, Extend!
Besides the fact that extending your trip is the absolute best way to take full advantage of your Birthright gift, it may be the best thing for black Jews to do. If you can, stay a few extra weeks (or months!) to connect with the Jewish community and experience Israel’s diversity. Extending gives you a chance to explore Mizrahi, Ethiopian, and Russian communities — all of which have their own unique perspectives. Israel Outdoors even offers a social justice extension, where you can work in Arab communities and with asylum seekers. And good news for Latinx Jews — the August 5 sessions are available in Spanish!
4. Bring a friend or go with your Hillel.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m put in situations where I am in the minority, I feel intensely uncomfortable. And when I don’t know anyone, I feel terrible. So, you may want to consider going with people that you know and whose company you enjoy. For instance, if you feel comfortable and safe with your Hillel members and rabbis, consider going on a Hillel-led Birthright trip. Or sign up with a friend. Brittany Morgan-Tiles, an African-American Jew who attends George Washington University, wishes that she had gone with a group of Jewish kids she knew. Fedline credits her amazing experience to the fact that she went with her university’s Hillel because, “[Rutgers University] has a diverse Jewish population… so I surprisingly don’t stick out like a sore thumb.” She added that when she returned, the bond of the trip made Hillel an even more tight-knit Jewish community for her.
5. Be Prepared to Hear Some Bullshit
I hate to tell you this, but you may follow these tips and still experience racist comments or behavior. Of course, this has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the fact that people are shitwagons. You may get people asking if you’re adopted or why you chose to convert. Hell, they might basically demand that you draw them a diagram to explain your Jewishness. Remember that you don’t owe anyone an explanation. Your Jewishness is valid and no one can take that away from you. Don’t be afraid to hold your ground and let someone know when they’re crossing your boundaries or when they’re being offensive. And if you feel like educating them on the diversity of the Jewish community – educate away! Just don’t let a bunch of asshats ruin your special trip.
Your time in Israel will be amazing. You’ll see that it’s a flawed society, but you’ll also experience a sense of connection and acceptance that’s hard to come by in America. There’s something great about being around people who share your values, culture, and history — no matter what your skin color is. Like Fedline said of her time on Birthright, “I feel less accepted by the American-Jewish community. But in Israel, no one cared that my skin was brown. I was on [Birthright] and that meant that I was Jewish. And that was that.”
Nylah Burton lives in Denver, Colorado and works as a writer and sexual assault prevention advocate. You can follow her on Twitter @yumcoconutmilk.