Natalie and Katherine Dubin reported coming out of their Mayanot Birthright Israel trip with a better understanding of what it means to be a Jew, as well as a stronger desire to become more involved with the Jewish community back home, to learn more about Israel and Jewish practice, and to return to Israel with their father.

Originally from Cumberland Gap, Tenn., Natalie, 26, lives in Asheville, N.C., and works as a speech therapist. Katherine, a 25-year-old financial analyst, lives in Cincinnati. They decided to go on Birthright this month after their grandmother encouraged them to do so and heard good reviews from their cousins.

According to the sisters, they grew up in a “small, impoverished” town with “not much available for us.” Other than their cousins, they didn’t know any other Jews growing up and were teased for being the only Jews in town. They were familiar with Hanukkah from celebrating it with their dad’s side of the family when they were younger, but “not more than that.”

The only religious people where they grew up were Christians, Catholics or Baptists, Katherine told JNS. “There were no opportunities for any Jewish education,” she said. “Our mom is Catholic and our dad is Jewish, so our mom called us her little cashews,” she laughed.

At the beginning of the trip, they said they knew little about Israel. Katherine had heard that it was “not a very safe place,” and Natalie recalled 10 years ago when “a bomb went off” by their aunt’s home—an aunt they had never met.

After their first few days there, Natalie reported enjoying the food, the people-watching and seeing a “Chassidic Jew with [side]curls” for the first time. She liked learning about Israeli innovation, especially about the Iron Dome security system, and “getting insight from the locals.”

“I’m not a history guru in any country, let alone my own, but Israel pulls it out of me,” she said. “Israeli pride makes me want to reach out and explore my background and my roots, she said, impressed with the Israelis on the trip who “seem the same age, but are years younger than us.”

Natalie reported interacting with Israelis who seemed “nice, mature and helpful.” As she told JNS, “they have opened my mind to see how fortunate we are [in the United States] and how much we take for granted. The Israelis are so mature. A 22-year-old in America is not this. The Americans are friendly, too, but nothing compares to the Israelis. I love them!” she declared.

‘Proud to be Jewish’

Visiting Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum and memorial, touched both girls, especially because Israelis were there to tell their families’ stories and offer their input.

By the end of the trip, they said that while before they “wouldn’t advertise” that they were Jewish, now they would proudly wear a Jewish star, recognizing it as part of their heritage.

“Now I get it,” said Katherine. “I’m going to identify myself as Jewish. When I get back, I want to sit down with my Grandma and hear all of her stories. And I want to share this experience,” she said before adding that when she returned, she was “going to look around and see about getting involved.”

Natalie (right) and Katherine (center) Dubin pose along the waterfront in Israel. Credit: Natalie Dubin.

Natalie related that “when people ask about  my religion, I say I’m not religious, but I’m Jewish. It’s something to be proud of, to show off. I stand out, but that’s a great thing. Everyone should be so proud to be Jewish.”

The two also stressed the importance about learning about Israel. “Americans need to know and be aware of what’s going on in other countries. We take things for granted,” said Katherine. “I do feel this [Israel] is my homeland. And I want to learn more about Israelis, and their life; I want an annual trip here,” she told JNS.

She added that she would like “to get more involved and look for Jewish events” once home. And while Katherine had never heard the word “Shabbat” before the trip, she said she would consider keeping the weekly Jewish holiday if she were in Israel. The dancing-centered Shabbat that the group had at the Western Wall in Jerusalem made Katherine want “to go to synagogue to meet people [back home].”

She told JNS: “This trip is so not what I expected; it’s so much better. I saw it as a free trip—like I’m going to go to Israel and see what they show, but I didn’t expect to be interested in Jewish practice. That’s really changed. I’ve fallen in love with this country, this people, and I’m intrigued by religion and will follow up with the speakers. Now I see really what this trip is about. It’s about finding yourself and your identity. We are Jewish, that is who we are. It’s in our blood and our genes.”

Katherine concluded, “I realize how lucky I am. I’m going to change my life. I’m going to be a better person and educate others about Israel. People are so wrong about it just being dangerous.”

Natalie, who adopted a new Jewish name on the trip, Netta, also reported feeling “changed,” saying she rarely gets this passionate. She described feeling accepted in Judaism, “becoming a part of something bigger,” and “loving the outlook of being a good Jew” as being a good, humble person. “Judaism always takes something negative and turns it into positive. If that’s what Jewish is, then I’m more Jewish,” she said.

She added that the more she knows about Israel, the closer she feels “to the religion and the Jewish people. Learning what we’ve been through, where we came from; it’s pulled it all together for me.”

The 26-year-old reported “feeling like a different person” who plans to “make better life changes and connect with more mature people” after the trip. “I feel different here, I feel connected. I feel even more connection because it’s by choice. I can’t express my gratitude towards the program; it’s changed my entire view.”

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