By Alexis Drattell, KESHER Taglit-Birthright Israel alum
I grew up on Long Island, where the majority of my town was Jewish; it was considered normal, and I kind of never knew the difference.
I went to Hebrew school, had a Bat Mitzvah, and then stopped going to synagogue – like everyone else. I never really understood the importance of keeping in touch with my roots or how recognized how important being Jewish would end up becoming to me once I visited Israel and began studying abroad in Italy.
I’ve spent the past year in Italy, surrounded by beautiful art and history, the Renaissance, and breathtaking works of architecture. At the end of the year, I was left wondering more about my heritage. Italians were so proud of their roots and foundation; why wasn’t I better connected with mine?
Soon, the opportunity came for me to participate in a KESHER Taglit-Birthright Israel trip. Last minute spots opened up, and I thought to myself, what do I have to lose? This is what I had been waiting for, no place better to learn about my heritage than the homeland itself. The 10 days came and went, and it literally was the best time of my entire life. Of all the places I’ve visited, including many of the great European cities, I’ve never felt more comfortable or at home than in the land of Israel. Everyone on my trip came from similar Reform Jewish backgrounds and that we learned a lot together.
When I returned to Milan in September for my academic studies, I was curious about Judaism and began to search for a Reform congregation. Luckily, I found one: Beth Shalom is celebrated its 10th anniversary last month, and every time the rabbi and his wife travel to Milan for a service, they say that the congregation is a miracle. The congregation is open to anyone – children with Jewish mothers or fathers, Italian Catholic spouses of Jews. There is no permanent home yet for Beth Shalom Milan, so the services are held at a hotel, and our ark is a small chest that holds the Torah.
The Orthodox community does not support the congregation at all and will not publish its upcoming events or announcements in the monthly or weekly Milan Jewish newsletter, though they have regular communication with the Vatican. Ten years ago, when Beth Shalom opened its doors, the Orthodox community told the Italian president that they hoped to see the congregation disappear. Today, Beth Shalom has more than 100 members and offers regular services, a Hebrew school, and a special course for teens called “Life after Bar/Bat Mitzvah.”
Hopefully support from the local Orthodox community will grow in the future, but either way, I am proud of who I am in the Jewish community. I am a Reform Jew, and believe that I am as Jewish as any other practicing Jew. Participating in this congregation and meeting all of these new wonderful people is helping me to reconnect and rediscover my voice in the world of Judaism. I thank KESHER Taglit-Birthright Israel Trip #717 for that. And in the near future, I hope to return to Israel for a long-term program through Masa!
Alexis Drattell is a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology. While studying abroad in Italy, she is a member of Beth Shalom, a reform congregation in Milan.