For most Jews (as well as for those from a variety of other religious backgrounds), experiencing Israel for the fist time is a transformative experience. The Jewish community has already acknowledged this fact with the growth of the birthright israel program for young adults and the impact the trip has on their Jewish journeys.
Mitch Cohen, a Jewish communal professional in Atlanta and friend of the Jewish Outreach Institute, realized the potential of such a trip to positively impact another demographic group just beginning their Jewish journeys, Jews-by-choice.
In a recent cover story in the Atlanta Jewish Times, Mitch chronicled the activities and experiences of Israel Encounter trip for Jews-by-choice from Atlanta and Massachusetts as well as his inspiration for coordinating the program. Mitch writes that after hearing a Jew-by-choice, Janie, speak about her first experience traveling to Israel and the impact that it had on her connection to Judaism, he discovered a missing link he had not identified in his own research about conversion to Judaism or in the support groups for Jews-by-choice that he facilitates in Atlanta. Janie recounted that:
She had felt alone and abandoned after conversion because her pre-conversion meetings with her sponsoring rabbi had ended….She decided to go to Israel to experience the Jewish homeland in an effort to deal with not “feeling” Jewish and to confront her lack of connection to Israel. Janie told us that her trip changed her life and eased the pain of the difficult transition to a Jewish life. After her return from Israel, she felt much more Jewish, and she realized how important Israel was to the Jewish people - and that she was one of those people.
The Jewish community must be more aware of Janie’s and other Jews-by-choice feelings of abandonment. Connecting with Israel is one way for Jews-by-choice to find entry and comfort in Judaism. Support groups, such as the ones Mitch facilitates, are another option for bridging the gap after conversion. The Jewish Outreach Institute has developed our own program, Empowering Ruth, for women who have chosen Judaism who seek additional education and support after their conversions.
Congratulations, Mitch, for a wonderful and transformative Israel experience!