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A Jewish Identity Centuries in the Making

December 31, 2019 at 8:58 am
by Alejandro Mansbach • Washington, DC 2015 Birthright Israel Alumnus

We want to take you back in time to the 15th century. Imagine a small village in Spain, with stone pathways, the smell of Pescado Frito coming from the windows on Friday afternoons and Ladino was spoken on the street corner.

This was probably daily life for the Jews of Spain centuries ago, that was until they were forced to convert or flee. Around 1391 pogroms became a reality for the thousands of Jews in Spain which would eventually lead Jews to become “Conversos” (converts to Catholicism) or flee the country in order to save their lives.

Faced with persecution and death for showing any signs of Judaism, many of Spain’s Jews did, in fact, become Conversos but managed to maintain their Jewish identity in secret as they moved place to place trying to find a safe haven.

Like, Alejandro’s family, who ended up immigrating to Mexico to flee persecution. Alejandro’s background would eventually lead him to a desire to learn more about his people.

This is the story of his Jewish identity, centuries in the making…

At the beginning of 2015, I was given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel to Israel on one of Birthright Israel’s winter trips. In Hebrew, Birthright Israel is known as Taglit. To add a little bit of context, the Hebrew word “Taglit” actually means “discovery” in English. 

Alejandro with his Birthright Israel group in an alley in Tzfat.

My family comes from an extremely diverse background, with half living in Mexico (mother’s side) and the other in Israel (father’s side). When I was notified that I would be participating on the trip, I had only recently turned 18 a few months prior and had never been to Israel—this would be my first time stepping on Israeli soil. The transformation that occurred in me was almost like night and day. Going on Birthright Israel created something special in me. It created a deep and burning passion for the State of Israel and my roots.

I recall to this day, arriving at Ben Gurion Airport and thinking to myself: “Wow, this feels amazing.” I was unsure at the time what exactly made me feel that way. I understood only fragments from the nearby conversations. However, now looking back, it was the simplicity of everything, the realization that I was finally in Israel. The trip coordinators and IDF soldiers gathered the group (over 40 in total) and made us sit down in a circle just ahead of the escalators on the second floor. I appreciated that they did this because I previously had not communicated with my peers—only via our Facebook group, which was made in preparation for the trip. Everybody quickly went around the circle and introduced themselves before being given some time to gather our things, exchange currency, etc. Following the touchdown, we were taken to our hotel (it was shared rooms throughout the trip) and were told to wake up at a certain time for breakfast, all while analyzing the itinerary carefully.

“My father served in the Nahal Brigade during the 1982 Lebanon War and the feelings I felt at Mt. Herzl and Masada, in particular, are indescribable. I further understood what my father was fighting for. I was speechless.”

I will go through all the incredible sites we were able to see, but first, I must mention Mt. Herzl and Masada. It was here I learned that there is so much to be appreciative of in Israel. Most importantly, to the IDF for protecting Our People and ensuring a Jewish State now and forever. My father served in the Nahal Brigade during the 1982 Lebanon War and the feelings I felt at Mt. Herzl and Masada, in particular, are indescribable. I further understood what my father was fighting for. I was speechless.

Furthermore, being raised in Mexico and South Texas for most of my life, I had never met my family in Israel in person- almost all of them speak Spanish. When I saw them in person (my parents actually met up with my sister and me in Israel after the trip) it was so surreal- we did a Shabbat dinner with them.

By this point in my trip, I had had enough time to reflect on everything. And I learned just how diverse the country is. Everywhere you go, there are people of all types of backgrounds who at the end of the day all work and collaborate together for the advancement of the nation.

So, as promised here is a list of activities my group and I were able to do with the help of the program:

[Safed]: Tour the ancient city of Safed, located in the upper Galilee of Northern Israel. Safed is the center of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism.

[Mount Bental]: Hike up to Mount Bental located in the Golan Heights, overlooking the entire region, and into Syria.

[Yad Vashem]: Visit Yad Vashem, Israel’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.

[The Shuk]: Explore one of the most colorful and exciting sites in Jerusalem, often referred to as “The Shuk.” The marketplace is popular with locals and tourists.

[Israel Museum]: Visit the Israel Museum, Israel’s national museum with the largest cultural institution focusing on art and archaeology.

[Jerusalem]: Explore the streets and alleyways of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City as they tell the stories of Jewish history past and present.

[Mt. Herzl.]: Visit Mt. Herzl, Israel’s national cemetery and memorial for the leaders of the country and people that sacrificed their lives for the country.

[Western Wall]: Pray and connect with G-d at the Western Wall, also known as “The Kotel” with tefillin.

[Bedouin Tents]: Spend a night in the desert inside tents, enjoying food, bonfires and Bedouin hospitality.

[Mt. Masada]: Hike Mt. Masada, the remains of the most complete Roman siege system in the world. Masada tells the story of the tragic events leading to the last chapter of the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans.

[Ein Gedi]: Hike to Ein Gedi Nature Reserve, an oasis in the desert located near the Dead Sea.

[Dead Sea]: Visit the Dead Sea and float inside of it.

[Ben Gurion]: Visit Ben Gurion’s Gravesite, the desert getaway of Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion.

[Jaffa]: Tour Jaffa, Israel’s oldest port city, and exploring the first neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, taking into account the stories of the pioneers that built them.

[Independence Hall]: Visit Independence Hall, the modest Tel-Aviv home that became the site of the Declaration of Independence, announcing the establishment of the State of Israel in May 1948.

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