Being an active participant in my fraternity has been one of the highlights of my college experience and will be one of my fondest memories after I graduate. Aside from the social benefits, being part of AEPi has helped me to enrich my Jewish identity through educational, inspiring, and meaningful interaction with fraternity members that come from a wide variety of Jewish backgrounds.
My experience in a Jewish fraternity has definitely helped me find my place at the University of Maryland, College Park, home to one of the most vibrant Hillels in North America. I came to the University of Maryland after spending a year on the Young Judaea Year Course program in Israel. I have spent time in Israel on a number of different programs including my high school trip to Israel guided by the Alexander Muss High School, Alternative Break, and trips with my family.
For the past year, I have wanted to lead a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. I wanted to be with students who had never been to Israel so I could help them to explore their own Jewish identities.
On the trip, many of the participants were surprised to hear that although I am a modern-Orthodox Jew, I live a “normal college life.” I also shared that I had spent two of the past four years in Israel. Immediately, the students were able to better relate to me, and I was able to answer a lot of their questions. And, I challenged them with questions that they would need to answer themselves. It was a great experience getting to journey through Israel with them and see and learn what they discovered about themselves along the way.
When asked about how the trip went, I usually tell a story about the interaction between Israelis and Americans — between soldiers and students. A group of Israeli soldiers spent a mere four days with us, but made meaningful connections with the students during their stay. The day the group left, many of the students began to cry. It was such a powerful moment because it was a testament to the strong connections made between the soldiers and the Americans, most of whom had only a small connection to Judaism prior to the trip.
Looking back, the defining moment for me occurred on the second to last day of the trip, during our visit to the Kotel. A student, who had the least connection to Judaism, began the trip by making fun of certain aspects of Israel and questioning why the trip was “so educational.” It was easy to see that all of the participants in the group were moved by being there for the first time, but for this one particular participant, it meant something more.
“That was the first time that I really felt Jewish,” she said, after walking away from the Kotel in tears. She recently graduated and is now making plans to move to Israel.
On Birthright, I was a leader, and I was a friend. I was there to answer any questions that the students had about what Judaism meant to them, and what their role could be in contributing to the broader Jewish community. The experience helped me understand the broad spectrum of other’s connections with Judaism. I have learned how to connect with people from all different backgrounds and have learned varying viewpoints on Judaism and Israel.
Moving forward, I believe I have strengthened my ability to connect with all different types of Jews around the world and have gained new understanding of my own Jewish identity.
I look forward to returning to school in the fall, so I can share my Birthright experience with my fraternity and with others in the Jewish community, and I hope it will also strengthen their appreciation for Israel. Most importantly, I hope it will inspire others to go on a Taglit-Birthright Israel trip to explore their own Jewish identities and connection to Israel.
Find out how a Jewish college student can experience a free 10-day trip to Israel this winter. Go to www.freeisraeltrip.org. Registration opens in early September.
Jonah Weisel is a junior business major at the University of Maryland, College Park. He grew up in Potomac and attended the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville.