I was raised fully Jewish. Growing up, I went to a Jewish day school and was at the forefront of a large South African Jewish community in Irvine. With a high school graduating class of 41 kids, I knew what it was like to be a part of a small Jewish community of peers. However, through my four years at UCLA, my perception of community changed drastically. UCLA, more so than many other universities, has a strong Jewish presence. That being said, the sense of family I felt growing up became harder and harder to come by. I even became a leader in a few Jewish organizations on campus, and while I got close to what I felt in high school, it was never really quite the same.
Going to Israel this summer was far and away the greatest experience of my life. Not just the experience itself, but the timing came at a pivotal point in my life. As I grew older and became exposed to different cultures and religions, I felt that Judaism didn’t play as important a role in who I was becoming as a young adult. Learning about the culture and history of Israel and participating in all of the incredible adventures we went on revitalized my Jewish identity. These memories have guided me spiritually and mentally, and I will carry them with me for the rest of my life. I can proudly say that for the first time in eight years I finally feel that same sense of family again with this community. I do not feel as though my perception of community has changed as a result of my trip to Israel — instead, the trip has provided me with that community I have been in search of for the last decade.
It is difficult to bring the feeling to words. I remember laying under the bright, vibrant stars in a Bedouin tent. I felt completely isolated — not only separated from the world around me but even from my own internal emotional struggles. A moment like this brought me clarity. It helped me decide to take a chance on myself and leave my job and start a venture of my own. Such a decision had profound implications on my life, and while this clarity helped me make a life-changing decision, it also brought on a lot of anxiety and stress. Sensing a sudden change in my demeanor, my new friends, who had only met me a few weeks prior, managed to talk me through this experience and get me ready for what would be the beginning of a new chapter in my life. This is the beauty of Birthright Israel. Not only was I put in a position to filter through my own thoughts, but also I was provided with the support to actualize my decision. Without this experience, I may not have started my company, Organic Genetics. They say the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Birthright Israel helped me build up the courage to take that first step.
I sit here at my computer, thinking back to all of the different ways that this experience served a fork in the road in my life. I only shared two ways it guided me. There are so many more. All that is left to say is: thank you. Thank you to the Federation, thank you to the donors, thank you to my madrichim and new friends. I can’t wait for what is ahead.
Jared Neutel went on Birthright Israel with one of our Federation’s LA Way buses in Summer 2018. Soon after his trip he became a Kahn Fellow and has since been organizing events for his own Jewish community.
Registration for 2019 Birthright Israel LA Way trips are now open! To learn more, visit www.yaJewishLA.org/Birthright.