Every time I’ve traveled, I’ve hesitated so that I may consider how my Jewish identity could be received in the new places I’m going, as well as how I would feel as a young Jewish individual in those foreign locations. As I’ve traveled to Europe and Israel, I’ve developed a few anecdotes about my travels abroad that I’m sure others have experienced as traveling Jews. Here are a few of those anecdotes.
Europe – Poland
In 12th grade, my school took a group of students on a trip to Poland so we could visit the concentration camps and walk from Auschwitz I to Auschwitz II for the March of the Living. I clearly remember that on our few nights in the Polish towns, our teachers told the male students not to wear their kippahs and students were not allowed to wear our March gear, which were adorned with big Jewish stars.
As a 17-year-old, something about this was terrifying to me, especially as this was my first time leaving North America. Nearly 70 years after the last concentration camp stopped killing our ancestors, the anti-Semitism that still remains rampant in Europe several generations later had our teachers worried for our safety.
Despite the canopy of gloom that overshadowed our trip, though, the feeling of uniting with thousands of Jews from around the world to march at Auschwitz was unparalleled. By marching at the place where we once had no power, we reclaimed the very land the Nazis never wanted us to walk on ever again. We had to be careful in the city, but at Auschwitz, we could feel the power of our presence. We were in charge.
Europe – United Kingdom and Ireland
The second time I went to Europe was on a study abroad to the United Kingdom and Ireland through the College of Arts and Letters at Michigan State University. I’m fairly confident that I was the sole Jew of the group, unlike my previous trip to Europe with my Jewish high school. As a result, I got to be in charge of how I did or didn’t market my Jewishness on our travels. Considering what my teachers had instructed my group to do in Poland, I wasn’t sure I would be free from anti-Semitism if I wore my Jewish star necklace in Europe and chose to leave it behind. Though I ended up leaving my necklace at home, two years later I still wonder if and how my experience would have been different had I worn it.
Although there is a Jewish state, Jewish people are not necessarily safe there. From a young age, I was taught by my family and by my teachers that people want to hurt and exterminate every Jew around the world, and Israel is a primary target. It’s a fact I think about frequently.
Now that I’m on my third trip to Israel, that same exact fear still lurks in the back of my mind. I’ve read horrific stories of young Jewish Americans like me traveling to Israel and being murdered by terrorists, and this danger is not lost on me. I wish I didn’t have to feel this way in the Jewish homeland, but it is what it is.
While traveling as a Jew certainly can be scary and often dangerous, one of the most beautiful feelings in the world is when you meet another Jew in a random place. Take, for example, my anecdote about meeting another Metro Detroit Jew at my conference in Chicago. To meet someone who comes from the same background as you in a place that may not be home to many Jewish folks presents you with an opportunity to build a unique connection.
I don’t think traveling while Jewish will ever get any easier, but I hope that with time we find more ways to be comfortable in expressing our true selves anywhere our travels will take us.