“Zionist” isn’t a dirty word.

Being raised Catholic in South Texas means that Israel was never on my radar. My family didn’t, and honestly still doesn’t, have any strong opinions or stakes in the questions of the Middle East. Even when I began studying Judaism in high school, Israel still never really crossed my mind. It wasn’t until I was in college at a liberal arts school, that has the goal of getting students to “think globally” in the mission statement, that I began to learn about Israel. Most of my classes revolved around ancient Israel and it wasn’t until  I became interesting in visiting Israel that I pushed myself to learn about the modern state of Israel and the Middle East.

Even though I knew little to nothing about modern Israel, the negative side of the State was the majority of the information I learned. I quickly learned numerous reasons for boycotts and sanctions against Israel. With these thoughts in the background, which are voices I still hear on a fairly regular basis, I felt supporting Israel meant being judged as someone who was against human rights, uneducated and noncritical.

“Zionist” became a dirty word. It was a word associated with the extreme political right, and a word I dreaded being associated with. I distinctly remember a conversation during my first trip to Israel, studying abroad in the Summer of 2011, where I became apologetic for thinking about moving to Israel for school or work in the future. I had to explain that I was drawn to the land, culture and history but NOT a Zionist. I didn’t want to be mistaken for having the ideals  traditionally, and negatively, associated with Zionist ideals. I knew I wanted to dwell in the Land, but didn’t want to keep others from also making this Land there home. I wanted to live freely as a Jew in Israel, but not if that meant others couldn’t live freely in the same Israel. I wanted to gain every opportunity the Land had for me, the hopes and dreams of the past 4,000 years, but never at the expense of another human being.

These are all things I still want, and even though there are caveats to  each, I have realized that this doesn’t mean I am not a Zionist. Zionism doesn’t have to been colonialist or racist. It doesn’t have to deny other people rights or support dispossession. At it’s best, Zionism does none of these things and still promotes a Jewish (Democratic) State in the Land that has become defined as Israel.

This doesn’t mean I can’t be critical. It doesn’t mean I can’t hold the same values I did before, i.e. justice, equality. It does mean that I encourage a Jewish State that at it best holds true to the Jewish value of dignity of the human person.

I am reaching a stage where I am not ashamed to say, “My name is Elisheva, and I am a Zionist.”

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The Blood That Flows Through My Veins

The Angel of Death was present what seemed like more often than not in the weeks leading up to my departure for Israel. In the span of three weeks, I lost three people that I loved and cared for very much. Still, months later, not a day passes that I don’t think about them. I think of how much I miss them. I think of how I am a better person because each of them was in my life.

I want to slowly share glimpses into the impact that each of these three men, two my professors and the other my grandfather, had on my life and religiosity. It has taken me time to even begin to be able to write about them, because at first, the pain was just too fresh. My experiences with my professors are related to the way my religious identity has transformed over the past few years. My grandfather, on the other hand, is related to the part of me that has remained consistent. In his life and in his death, he showed me that there is a part of me that remains despite all the changes. It seems appropriate for me to share some of my moments with my grandfather first, because he reminds me that I there is a spark within me that remains unchanged.

My grandfather was the one person in my family who didn’t know that I converted to Judaism or even thought about converting to Judaism. When I went from thinking about conversion to actually being in the process of converting, I talked to my mom about how we should tell my grandfather, her father, that I was no longer a practicing Catholic and was going to be Jewish. My mom felt that he would not be able to understand what it meant for me to be converting. He, like the rest of my family, had never met a Jew. I said that I wouldn’t hide it, but I also would not have a formal, sit-down conversation with him. My religion never came up in the visits I had with him, so it was left unsaid. In the moments following his death, one of the first things I thought to myself was, “Now, he knows.”

The Catholic services that followed his death were something I wasn’t quite ready to face. In the moments leading up to his death, there was no denying the strong Catholic faith that lived within him. In his last few days, his hospital room was filled with prayers and rosaries. I was there as our family priest came to give him the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. I helped my cousin prepare the Divine Chaplet that was prayed immediately following his death by his bedside. And in the moments of his lasts breaths, I stood by his bed holding him as he held his rosary. I stared down at his hands gently carrying a crucifix attached to beads that had been rubbed endlessly as he prayed.

Part of me felt the guilt, that I may always carry, about leaving a beautiful tradition that has been with my family and in my culture for generations. How did I walk away from what he held so dear even in his last moments on earth? But the other part of me, the part of me that I knew he would be proud of, realized that there is still continuity among the rapture. It is the faith, commitment and love that he had running through his veins that continues in me. It is the passion and fervor that I saw him living every day for his family, community, and G-d that has been passed down to me, will continue to live within me and will hopefully continue on in my children, their children and their children’s children, with the help of Hashem. I may have gone down another path. I may have a different way of living it out, but it is the same fire within us both.

My First Christmas… as a Jew

Merry Christmas to all those who are celebrating, including my much missed family!

Spending this Christmas in Israel was something I looked forward to since last Christmas. Last Christmas went really well, but I knew that this one would be even harder as a Jew. I had already distanced myself from the holiday but of course, celebrated with family. I knew this Christmas would put everyone on edge. My family already pays special attention to what I eat and don’t eat, wear and don’t wear and pray and don’t pray. The truth is, no matter how hard I try, as I distance myself from Christmas and other Christian experiences I distance myself from my family. I knew a Christmas away from family would be sad, but I knew it would be also be less stressful and comforting to be surrounded by so many other Jews in Israel.

Now that it is Christmas, I just don’t know if being away is as great as I thought it would be. I wish I was watching my nephews open there presents. I wish I was eating dinner with my family. I actually wish there were lights up on houses and Christmas trees in windows. It just doesn’t feel like Christmas and after having Christmas be the biggest day of the year for all of my life, it is sad.

Even though I most certainly miss Christmas and my family celebrating Christmas, I decided I needed to do something special in my own way. I have never had a “traditional” American Jewish December 25th. My December 25th is going to consist of a Chinese dinner and a random movie. I am excited for the new experience and celebrating what in my mind is a very Jewish, American social custom.

This is part of what going down “another path” means, and even though it is tough, I am even more committed to it now than I was before.

The dreams that were never meant to be

Life in Israel has been filled with unexpected ups and downs, but even on the most frustrating days, I am still amazed that I am here. I am freshly out of undergrad and in my early 20s. There are various points throughout one’s life that reflection on where one has been and questioning what is ahead is practically built in, and this point in my life is one of them. It is a moment of great transition, which is fragile but full of possibility.

At this moment, I look at where I am and can’t help but be kind of baffled about how I got here. Ten years ago, I would have thought that a Christian girl who converted to Judaism moved to Israel and had a BA in Religious Studies was just not possible, not just for me but for anyone! I was unaware that Judaism was a religion. I didn’t know that people live across the world from their family. I had no clue that someone could have a degree in something that wasn’t a job (e.g. teacher, doctor, lawyer, and engineer).

I love my life now. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. This is the life I was created to live. And yet, I think of the life I dreamed of growing up and living when I was young(er).

There are so many dreams that changed. One of the first things I mourned the loss of when I knew Christianity was no longer mine was the wedding day I always thought I would have. I think I first planned my wedding when I was six. I had colors for bridesmaid dresses, drew pictures of what my dress would look like and had a church picked out. I now know how different my wedding will look from the one I imagined when I was six and from the one my parents, sister and rest of my family had and imagined for me. Now, even when I try really hard, I can’t imagine myself walking down a church aisle. It is almost like my dreams were just that, fuzzy dreams in the middle of the night that were just a distant, fragmented memory by morning. Now, I couldn’t be happier to dream of my Jewish wedding.

I have had time to adjust to the dramatic changes in my dreams, and they were a slow evolution for me. I slowly gained clarity on who I was and the next baby step in my life after each move. My parents (and the rest of my family) didn’t have that benefit. They just had the image of their daughter’s baptismal gown, which they kept safely tucked away, being passed on to her children for their Baptisms. In what felt like overnight, that dream was gone, and the image is getting fuzzy.  It is hard for them. I know that and pray for our patience.

I know that my life and future are radically different from where I thought they would be, but I know that I couldn’t possibly live it differently.  At each step, it was hard to leave the path that was already beaten and had been imagined, but each time there came a point where staying on the path, untrue to who I was, become a more painful thought than the fear of stepping onto my own, destined path.

Those dreams from my childhood were also of a great life but were not meant to be live out, not by me. I don’t know what is next, but I know that this other, unexpected path is my path.

U.S. Election 2012- Hope for Minorities, Like Me

This morning, I woke up and watched the final moments preceding the announcement of the elected U.S. president. Just a few minutes into watching, the magic number of 270 electoral votes was hit. Even though Romney had not yet conceded, I knew that Barack Obama was going to continue to be my president.

I am one of the most apolitical people I know. I would not call it apathy, but I am the first to acknowledge that I am not educated enough on any political issues. I can not even believe I am writing a reflection on anything related to the presidential election right now. Despite my limited attention to politics, I could not help but think of a true shift in the political paradigm of the United States in the days leading up to the election.

For the first time in U.S. history, there was no White Anglo-Saxon Protestant candidate.  And in the days leading up to today, I knew that regardless of the outcome I was excited for this shift. I am not saying that White Protestants can not make good candidates, but the realization that the country was for the first time voting outside of this demographic that has been the vast majority of presidents was thrilling.

Not as a Democrat, not as a Republican but as a young, Jewish, Hispanic, female U.S. citizen, this gave me hope. No matter which way you cut it, I am a minority (even if the female population is technically the majority statistically). The fact that regardless of which candidate would be president, my president, the president of the United States, would also be in the minority was reason to smile and feel more secure in the future of all minorities in the United States.

I struggle with being a minority in both the United States and in Israel, but then  moments like this make me feel the weight of the worth of the historically repressed and underrepresented voice- my own voice included.