Gordon Sutker (2009-10)

Growing up in rural Virginia without a Jewish community, I had very little to connect to when it came to religious identity. My education on my heritage and religion was pretty dismal, by high school I had never been to Friday night service or had a Bar Mitzvah. I don’t hold it against my parents that my siblings and I grew up the way we did, it simply wasn’t the focus of our lives. My parents preferred to live the example of Jewish values and celebrate a few holidays rather than try to pass it on through weekly services and Sunday school. As much pressure to convert as I received from some of my closest friends in school and university, I never wanted to leave my Jewish identity behind, even when I was at the point of being ashamed of it. Something inside me made not want to be the last of the line in my family.

Until I came to Israel on Birthright, all I knew about the Jews was that we were weak, trodden on by everyone throughout history who saw the chance to dominate and suppress. I was ashamed. Why didn’t I eat pork? Why don’t I believe what all my friends believe? These were questions that I simply answered with: I’m Jewish because my parents are.

All of that changed with my first trip to Israel. For the first time, I met and connected with young Jews from around the country and world in a less-religious-more-cultural setting. I learned from the first time coming here that being Jewish is more than synagogue and matzo balls! I saw a strong, proud people with an army that for the first time in thousands of years is capable of defending the Jewish people. I immediately wanted to learn more about it and to become a part of it. Throughout the rest of college, more trips back, and a lot of studying, I decided to come back for a full year to volunteer and learn Hebrew.

A certain degree of boldness mixed with a little crazy (a.k.a. chutzpah) is needed in order to put a temporary hold on one’s life and move to a country on the other side of the world for a year with people you don’t know and do work you don’t know much about. But sharing the experience with a group of people who meet this description this led me to have the best year of my life so far. In the beginning there was a high degree of uncertainty. What kind of group is this going to be? What is the work going to be like? Where are we going to live? All of these things we simply decided to trust our coordinators to handle for us and not stress over. This allowed me to sit back in the beginning and realize that for the first time, I was not the token Jew in a group but part of a larger Jewish community.

What I gained from the experience can hardly be put into words. For a year I lived, worked, and learned with some people of the highest caliber. Through an excellent teacher we learned Hebrew (I started with the aleph-bet and now am not too bad.) We learned subjects ranging from the current state of foreign workers in Israel to the role of women in the IDF. In a group setting we discussed issues ranging from Israeli history to Jewish identity versus Israeli identity, sometimes getting very passionate with our opinions.

I viewed the volunteering as an opportunity to step outside my comfort level, which I did on many levels. For the first time I worked with children with developmental disabilities, something I had never felt comfortable with facing but view as one of my most meaningful experiences from the year. I also had the opportunity to be an older brother to an adopted only child, teach English to a class of religious boys, and work in an afterschool program in a poor neighborhood. For all the shortcomings in the education system it can be easy to point to the people working with the kids and blame them, but standing in their shoes for a year helped me understand the difficulties they face and learn how hard it can be to grow up in Israel. I am glad I chose the places I did because I found that I enjoyed the most what was furthest from my comfort zone.

I also learned a lot outside the classroom: exploring the exciting city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa by bike, foot, or bus and getting lost most of the time in the beginning offered me chances to explore and get to know the place on a more personal level. Activities ranged from cooking with friends, exploring the shuk’s together, learning guitar, and letting ourselves be absorbed into the Tel Avivian lifestyle. Not only did I learn a lot about the city life and culture but also how a country boy from rural Virginia fits into it all.