JERUSALEM – Arel Moodie, the son of a white Jewish mother and a Black father, experienced a core identity struggle through most of his teenage years.
“It was one of the biggest pieces of turmoil in my adolescence,” said Moodie, who was raised in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Brooklyn and attended Jewish camps every summer.
“I asked myself, ‘Who am I? Where do I fit in?’ I felt like I had to make a choice between the Jewish side, the white side, the Black side.”
Moodie, now 37, began to find some answers during a Birthright Israel trip several years ago, where a chance encounter changed the way he thought about himself. Excited at seeing a Black Israeli soldier wearing a kippah, Moodie decided to approach him.
“I went up to him expecting that this incredible, long-lost brother would hug me,” he said. “It was like, ‘Omigosh there’s more of us!’ I sort of pantomimed, ‘You’re a Brown Jew, I’m a Brown Jew. That’s amazing!’ But he told me, ‘No, we’re just Jewish.’”
Moodie said the encounter led him to “own” his Jewishness, whereas previously he would elide the issue by telling himself and others that he was simply raised Jewish or that his mother was Jewish.
“I had always put a qualifier to my Jewish identity,” Moodie said. “I realized I can just be Jewish while honoring my African-American identity. I don’t have to choose between my identities.”
Today he goes to synagogue regularly and his children attend Jewish day school.
Since its inception in 1999, Birthright has had a mission to ensure Jewish continuity by strengthening the Jewish identity of Jewish young adults as well as their connections to Israel and each other through an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel.
Birthright’s open-tent approach to recruitment has meant that many of its participants have a hyphenated identity, either ethnically or religiously, or both. So being a Black Jew or Asian Jew or Latino Jew or Persian Jew has made their lives richer — but often more complicated.
“For some Jews of color, what seems to be society’s insistence on choosing one identity over another — for example, you’re Black in one space and Jewish in another — has led to internal identity struggles,” said Tema Smith, a diversity advocate and Jewish community builder. “What is needed now is for the Jewish community to broadcast loudly that Jews can hold multiple identities and that there is no conflict between a Jewish identity and being from another group.”
From its outset, Birthright enthusiastically welcomed Jewish young adults regardless of their racial or ethnic background, affiliation with Jewish institutions or religious observance.
Zohar Raviv, Birthright’s vice president of educational strategy, described it this way: “We believe that whereas unity among Jews has always been a value, uniformity between Jews has never been a value.”
Amy Albertson, a Chinese-Jewish resident of Sacramento, California, who came on Birthright in her early 20s and ultimately lived in Israel for several years, said the experience exposed her to a Jewish diversity she never knew existed. Ultimately that made her feel more comfortable in her own identity as both a Jewish and Chinese American.
“I grew up around Jews who looked a certain way: Eastern European,” Albertson said. “Until I went to Israel I didn’t know there were so many other types of Jews. In Israel, there were Jewish people from everywhere: I was able to interact with Mizrahim, Russians, Ethiopians and so many others.”
For Albertson, now 30, the opportunity to meet a diversity of Jews in Israel was a happy revelation.
“I didn’t grow up with a lot of Jewish tradition, and I would always get nervous in Jewish spaces because I didn’t know how to do this or that” religious ritual, she said.
Although Albertson became very Jewishly active in college, it wasn’t until she traveled to Israel for the first time with Birthright that she realized “to feel Jewish, all you have to do is exist. In Israel, Shabbat feels like Shabbat. It doesn’t matter if you go to shul or light Shabbat candles.”
Albertson recalled a Birthright activity with the Israel soldiers who accompanied the group.
“We were asked to share a Jewish memory, but I was like, ‘I don’t have many Jewish memories,’” she said. “The soldier I was paired with said, ‘I guess all my memories are Jewish, but I’m secular.’ That’s when I realized that I don’t need to do anything to be Jewish. I am Jewish.”
Benjamin Sklar, 29, visited Israel several years ago on Birthright Excel, a 10-week professional experience designed to foster economic and social partnerships between Jews from the Diaspora and Israel. An experience on the trip inspired him to decide to move to Israel and join the Israeli army (he later moved back to the United States and become a lawyer).
The group met with the Arab-Israeli CEO of Jerusalem’s YMCA and learned about how the Y builds bridges between Palestinians and Israelis in Jerusalem.
“It was valuable to be exposed to an Arab living in Jerusalem and not just Ashkenazi Jews,” said Sklar, who is Mexican American and was raised in an interfaith home in Houston by his Catholic mother and Jewish father. “I felt the organizers made an effort to expose us to Reform, ultra-Orthodox, Sephardim, Ashkenazim. We experienced all the different angles of Israel.”
Even as he decided to join the army, Sklar said he wanted to devote his career to helping the Palestinian-Israeli relationship.
“I just had a feeling on Birthright that I wanted to be an Israeli soldier; I felt they were superheroes,” Sklar said. “I wanted to serve the country and be part of the team. I thought to myself, ‘Are they more Jewish than me?’ I served in the paratroopers.”
For Emily Nassir, whose mother is an American-born Ashkenazi Jew and her father a Persian Israeli, growing up in a diverse home helped her appreciate the various customs and rituals practiced by different communities.
“It taught me to respect other people’s ways of living,” said Nassir, 25, of New York.
Nassir’s trip to Israel with Birthright in March 2019 exposed her to an even wider swath of Israeli culture.
“My favorite part of the trip was sleeping overnight in a Bedouin tent, engaging with Arab culture,” she recalled. “It was the most eye-opening experience, immersing for a time in another culture, watching someone in their own space. I realized that so many peoples and cultures exist in this one small country.”
At a time when antisemitism is rampant, Nassir said that engaging with Israelis with different viewpoints, as she did during her Birthright experience, “is the only way to understand” Israel as a living, breathing place.
Albertson said experiencing Israel and Israelis firsthand has enabled her to fight antisemitism and anti-Zionism with facts.
“When people are yelling lies about Israel, I can feel more confident that I know they aren’t true,” she said.
“Israel as a Jewish country and homeland is not just a story or an idea. I’ve seen it, tasted it, touched it. I’ve witnessed and felt the Jewish connection to the land, and that is a powerful feeling.
“When I face antisemitism,” Albertson said, “I know that I am part of this legacy and this nation. And I know that in the worst possible case scenario, I always have a home as a Jewish person.”