Vegan Birthright Blog
Personal Stories Written by Participants
This past August, Jewish Veg partnered with Mayanot Israel to take 40 young adults on the first-ever vegan Birthright trip. Participants traveled across Israel and explored their history, their Judaism, and their veganism. Follow this blog to hear from the participants themselves.
I’ll be the first to admit, I was extremely hesitant about going on Birthright. To me, there were so many unknowns: what kind of group I’d be living with for 10 days, what kind of activities we’d be doing, what I would think of the whole experience. Not to mention, being somewhat of a non-observant Jew, I was predominantly worried about whether or not this kind of experience would be the right fit for me.
Essentially, I tried to talk myself out of signing up, making arguments such as: “I can always visit Israel on my own later on,” or, “another year might work better.” However, as cliché as it sounds, something was telling me to stop making excuses and finally sign up for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
As I scrolled through the Birthright Website, I was genuinely shocked at how many types of trips there were being offered and how many cities around the world you can leave from.
Immediately, the Jewish Veg trip for vegans and vegetarians caught my eye. I had been vegetarian for over a decade and somewhat of a self-proclaimed wishy-washy vegan for years.
While that wasn’t something that defined me at the time, I was intrigued by the idea of not having to suffer through being the only one with such food restrictions on the trip. Being the only vegan on a trip, I was sure would include annoying people to help me find vegan options at meal times, or munching on a piece of bread while everyone else gorged themselves with the non-vegan foods made available. That being said, I selected Vegan Birthright and put my name down without giving it another thought.
A day before leaving for Israel, I started to panic, “What if everyone’s more observant than I am?” “What if everyone on the trip is a hardcore vegan and I don’t fit in?” These were a few of the questions that were running through my mind. The following day, I called a cab, sped to the airport, and began my 10-day journey through Israel.
Fast-forward to four days post Vegan Birthright and I’m sitting at home depressed as ever that it’s all over. All 40 individuals on this trip, right down to the staff and medic, were compassionate, loving, inspirational people with diverse backgrounds, as well as varying levels of observance and veganism/vegetarianism. They motivated me to delve deeper into why I became vegan in the first place, as well as what Judaism really means to me.
In terms of veganism, I came to realize that I had beein trying to suppress that part of me for the sake of blending in over the years. This made me discover that I had lost sight of that component of my identity. When people would ask me about it, or rather make fun of my veganism, I would just brush it off and explain it away, claiming that I would eat dairy from time to time and that I wouldn’t impose my views on them.
Now, having looked into the eyes of beautiful cows, sheep, and pigs at Freedom Farm Animal Sanctuary in Israel and having engaged in many meaningful conversations on the topic of the meat and dairy industries, I can say with conviction that I once got into this whole thing for the animals, and I plan on honouring that by being a full-fledged vegan.
As for Judaism, in a world so divided by race and religion, I made somewhat of a conscious decision to stray away from my faith over the years. Being what I would call an atheistic Jew, I never dreamed in a million years that I could reconnect with my faith in such a way. What I learned more than anything on this trip is that being Jewish means being a part of a community; one that is accepting, diverse and most of all resilient.
I can now say that simply seeing Israel on my own wouldn’t have been sufficient. The bonds I made while munching on vegan shawarma in Tel Aviv, or weeping uncontrollably in a circle under the stars in the middle of the desert are irreplaceable.
If I can tell everyone out there who may be considering going on Vegan Birthright one thing, it’s that I couldn’t imagine having chosen a better trip for me. If you’re at all passionate about animal welfare, sampling the yummiest food on the planet, or simply learning more about all that the vegan-Jewish community has to offer, then you really can’t go wrong!
On August 22nd, 2012, I made the decision to follow a vegan lifestyle. I remember I was sitting in my dorm room, and a breeze was blowing in through my window. It was very quiet outside, and I was excited, but terrified. I knew no other vegans. I made my choice without the expectation of ever finding a community.
Five years later to the day, I found myself in the Negev desert, in the Makhtesh Ramon, the largest erosion crater in the world, staring up at Jupiter, so overcome with a peaceful fullness that I couldn’t even speak. Sitting beside me were 39 other young Jewish vegans who understood me, and whom I had grown to love.
As both a vegan and a Jew, I am a minority within a minority: the intersection of one tiny venn diagram. Naturally, then, many of my struggles have been exceptionally niche. I’ve cried at the thought of never eating gefilte fish at Passover again, which is ironic considering 5 year old me cried at the thought of eating it, or having an eggy, buttery slice of Challah French toast.
I’ve lost sleep wondering if, by committing to veganism, I am betraying the culture of my ancestors, my grandparents, my parents, and even my future children. I have incredible, beautiful friends who are vegan, but very few who are also Jewish, so after five years, I began to believe that I would never find “my people.”
In the Negev desert on August 22, 2017, however, I no longer felt alone. The greatest gift that Mayanot Jewish Veg Birthright gave me was the gift of community and a sense of belonging. For 10 days I wandered up and down Israel with men and woman with whom I could debate what it means to be a Jew, a vegan, an American, an Israeli, an imperfect person reaching for kindness in an imperfect world.
No one needs me of all people to tell them that this world is a frightening place. It seems that every day we close ourselves off from each other a little bit more, retreating angrily into our own “camps” to rail against “the enemy.”
And while I believe this withdrawing can be, and often is, detrimental, I’ve also learned that when your “camp” is a warm, open, compassionate, forgiving place filled with vibrant minds, pausing there to recharge and reassess one’s views is what gives us the strength to return to our “enemies” and no longer see them as such.
It is important to venture out into the great unknown; it is important to come home. The world is frightening, yes, but it is also tremendous. In Israel, I learned that we all have the power to imagine, like our astounding organizer Naomi did, our ideal communities into being.
Once you’ve done it, envelop yourself in it, and then step back out into the world with open eyes and ears, until you look up and see manifestations of love spread out around you, as plentiful as the stars in the desert sky.
I initially signed up for Birthright in January of 2017. My itinerary planned for me to depart May 17, 2017, but i never went to the airport that day. A week before I was supposed to be on a 14 hour plane ride flying over the Atlantic ocean, I got nervous, I panicked, I cried, and I called Mayanot and canceled my trip.
Then I changed my mind. I immediately went online to search for another trip. While I was scrolling through Mayanot's website trying to find the next available Birthright I could go on, I came across Jewish Veg's Vegan Birthright trip. I read the description which was something like, “Do you care about animals?” Yes! “Do you want to connect to your faith with like minded people?” Yes! “Do you want to explore the country with the highest percent of vegans in its population?” Yes, yes, and yes.
I called Mayanot back, asked to be signed up, received the email confirming my new Birthright trip, and then proceeded to celebrate with a hearty plate of grass and dirt, because thats all that vegans eat, right?
I had been vegan for almost a year when I signed up for this Birthright trip. I watched all the documentaries, read all the studies, and even changed my Instagram name to @Tofuslutt...yes I am shamelessly promoting myself, follow me! What I hadn't learned in my vegan journey so far was how to be apart of a vegan community. No one in my family was vegan and none of my friends were vegan, so the closest thing I had to hanging out with like-minded people was watching videos of vegans on YouTube stuffing their faces with mangos.
Little did I know, in three months from when I signed up for Vegan Brithright, I'd be knees deep in the vegan capital of the world, riding a bus crammed full of 40 other vegan Jewish adults from multiple different countries, listening to our tour guide sing songs way too loudly over the microphone, with a belly full of vegan shwarma, falafel, and hummus.
Even though we never had bathroom breaks, only had 45 minutes to choose only one vegan restaurant to eat at, and drowned in our own sweat in the humidity of Tel Aviv, I have experienced my favorite memories in these past ten days, memories a lifetime.
We cried against the Western Wall on shabbat, cried while watching some of my new best friends get bar and bat mitzvahed, cried at the Holocaust museum, and cried under the milkyway while sitting around a campfire. And amongst all this crying, I have never felt a more immense amount of joy. Because with every tear we shed as a group, there were ten moments filled with laughter. We laughed while petting rescued farm animals, laughed while clumsily biking on the beaches of Tel Aviv, and laughed over vegan burgers and ice cream.
At the end of our ten-day adventure through Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and many stops along the way, the entire group had a closing ceremony. We played games and exchanged memories, but at the very end we were asked to go around the room and share what our highlight of the trip was and what we would take away from it.
As I sat in this random hostel, sleep deprived from camping the night before in the middle of the Negev dessert, I looked around the room. I saw vegans, I saw Jews, and I finally saw a community. But this time, it was a community I was apart of. No longer was I “that Jewish girl” who had to explain what a Bat Mitzvah is. No longer was I the only the only one at the table not eating because the restaurant had no vegan options. No longer was I alone.
I was devastated when the ten days that felt like a lifetime, but also were over in a blink of a second, came to an end. However, as I sit here typing this, wide awake at 3 a.m. - thank you jet lag - I don’t feel alone. I know these passionate, caring, vegan Jews I have been blessed to meat - sorry MEET- are out there. Thank you to everyone who was on this trip, because every single one of you encouraged me to reconnect with my Jewish roots that I have neglected. I have now become unapologetic about who I am, and am inspired to spread love to all of those around me. These are truly the reasons why I am Jewish. These are truly the reasons why I am vegan.
Alright, confession time: I made a lot of jokes about going on an all-vegan Birthright trip before leaving for the adventure that would end up transforming my identity and lifestyle. And when I say a lot, I mean A LOT of jokes.
Surely you’ve all heard the vegan stereotypes, so I doubt I need to repeat them here, but as a vegetarian who had only ever briefly dabbled in veganism - solely for the purpose of showing off my self-discipline, might I add - I didn’t think I would have much in common with anyone on the trip. I even went so far as to tell my parents that I had already accepted that I probably wasn’t going to meet anyone I would vibe with and that I was just going strictly for the sight-seeing. I wasn’t vegan and I also wasn’t exactly what you would consider an observant Jew.
You see, Vegan Birthright actually wasn’t my first choice. I had initially signed up for a different niche trip that didn’t get enough support and was cancelled, so instead I ended up in the Vegan Birthright group. Honestly, I was a little heartbroken that my first-choice trip didn’t work out.
Looking back now, all I can do is laugh at my ignorance. I’ve been wrong a lot in my life, but this instance may have topped the list. The Jewish Veg trip completely changed my perspective on so many things in the best way possible. It’s funny how things just seem to work out like that, isn’t it?
The staff and participants who I initially wrote off as people I would never be able to connect with, ended up making this trip one I’ll never forget. They made me laugh harder than I have in years, until I literally cried.
In addition to eating our weight in falafel and hummus, they ate tons of new vegan foods with me that I never even knew existed...still dreaming about the vegan cheese from the Dan Jerusalem hotel! They made me reflect on who I am, who I want to be, and what kind of impact I want to have on this world. They cried with me as we faced harsh realities at Mount Herzl. They floated in the Dead Sea with me, covered in mud. They helped me examine and challenge some of my longest standing beliefs.
One of the biggest things the people on Vegan Birthright helped me do is explore and come to deeply appreciate my connection to my Judaism. Having rejected religion from a very young age, I didn’t have many expectations as far as feeling close to the religion I was raised with while in Israel. Visiting the Western Wall on Shabbat, however, made me feel connected to Jewish culture and history in a way I can’t adequately articulate.
Learning about the Arab-Israeli conflict only strengthened my sense of connection to not only the Jewish people but also to the land of Israel.
Hearing about how Jewish traditions and veganism are not at odds with each other was both illuminating and thought-provoking. The collective experience of this Birthright trip made me realize how important it is to me to be active in this culture that will always accept me no matter how unconventional my beliefs are.
I’m not sure if it was the amazing vegan shawarma, the rescued farm animals at the Freedom Farm Sanctuary, walking through the Old City in Jerusalem learning about the historical site’s history, or all the people along the way who shattered the misconceptions I had about both veganism and Judaism, but somewhere along the way, Vegan Birthright changed me and my beliefs for the better.
Now that I’m home and finally over the jet lag, I’m still laughing at the ultimate irony of this trip – I’ve since happily become part of the “vegan stereotype” that almost kept me away from this adventure of a lifetime in the first plae. I have Jewish Veg, Mayanot Israel, and the awesome participants and staff to thank for opening my eyes to this new way of life.
A week after returning from the first-ever all vegan Birthright trip, I found myself working at the DC VegFest. Coincidentally, my table was right next to Jewish Veg’s table. If that weren’t enough of a small-world experience, I noticed a photo of my Birthright group on their flyer.
The fact that everything is so connected seemed to be the magical theme during Vegan Birthright and apparently after as well. As my community grows, so do these connections which reinforce my confidence that I’m exactly where I need to be.
I started out the trip as a vegetarian, comfortable with my choice but unwittingly complacent. My parents raised me vegetarian and though I do believe in the values behind vegetarianism, I hadn’t thought critically about my diet in the way many of my peers on this Birthright trip had. I had never made the conscious choice to switch from eating meat to eating fully vegan, let alone take the next step to convince friends and family to join me.
For me, my diet was about health and it stopped there. Growing up, I purposely made the choice to avoid talking about my vegetarianism and part of that was because it was not a core facet of my own value system as it stemmed from my parents' beliefs. I was still defining what the diet meant to me.
I was so impressed with the conviction that my fellow Vegan Birthright members showed in their values towards animal rights. First, my ego felt bruised, “How had I skimmed over the animal rights component of the vegan diet?” Those feelings evolved to a much richer understanding of the importance of veganism and how it relates to the interconnectedness of all beings.
When we went to the primate sanctuary, I was deeply moved by the point the tour guide made, “animals are healed through love.” I heard that message echoed at Freedom Farm Sanctuary as well. At the primate sanctuary, the monkeys healed each other by ushering each new member healing from the trauma of research labs, into a healthy, established community so they would be able to experience normalcy and eventually move past their trauma.
While I always knew rationally that animals experience emotions just like humans do, the sanctuaries gave me so much clarity into what those emotions look like and furthermore, made me reflect on how upsetting it is that we as humans, only choose to see that side of animals as it benefits us.
While clarifying my choice to become vegan through a new understanding of animal rights, I was also gaining a new perspective of Judaism. As someone that grew up in a culturally Jewish household, similarly to my vegetarian diet, I was disconnected from the Jewish faith. I knew what it looked like in my life, but I didn’t connect to it on a deeper emotional level.
I celebrated high holidays with my grandparents, went to the occasional Jewish day camp, and that was that. After college, I worked at a Jewish preschool for a year and it strengthened my sense of community within the Jewish faith. I was so inspired to see the way the congregation’s community came together to support each other in times of need. Even then, it still felt like someone else’s congregation. I hadn’t grown up immersed in it and I wasn’t sure what my role was.
Birthright helped me to see that I have a place in the Jewish community and it starts with my family history. Walking the streets of Jerusalem, I thought of the many families that sought refuge on those same streets. I thought of my grandparents, who survived the Holocaust and sought refuge in America.
Now, years later, in my own hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, I was seeing the anti-semitism that I had been warned about. I naively thought it was nearly gone with so many Jewish people holding positions of power today, as thought leaders in film, politics, and law. How could another Holocaust happen?
In Yad Vashem, we learned about the seemingly benign anti-Jewish comic strips that were printed for ten years before Nazi’s fully took power. In Charlottesville, we have seemingly benign artfully designed statues of oppressive figures. Yad Vashem was both a memorial and an eerie reminder that it’s too easy to fall into the deep tracks of our past.
This Birthright experience made me feel incredibly empowered to be a force for good in the world and to claim my Jewish identity as a statement of activism, as well as faith.
When I had my Bat Mitzvah at the Western Wall, I stood proudly with my peers and saw each of them take on a new meaning to their Jewish identities. Another friend saw a rainbow, and another saw endless butterflies. It was certainly a special day for all of us.
While I can’t say exactly how my Jewish identity or vegan identity will look in the next five years, ten or twenty, I know a seed has been planted and that seed goes far deeper than the label of Jew, Vegan, American, or Israeli. The seed is a leap in the direction towards truly understanding the innate wholeness of every living thing - not just human beings, but all beings.