Julia Hernandez Nierenberg in Tsfat
Julia Hernandez Nierenberg in Tsfat

Israel showed me I have a place in the global Jewish community

Even though neither of my parents has been to Israel, my journey to Israel starts with them and their families. I am the result of the love shared between a Jewish man and a Catholic woman from opposite coasts of the United States.

After they were married, my parents made a bold decision: to raise their children with two faith practices. Their goal was to expose us to different spiritual ideas and traditions while infusing our young lives with the most important values from their respective religions. They allowed us to make our own judgments and decisions about religion and begin our own spiritual journeys.

I felt a strong connection to the Jewish community, and when I was a freshman in high school I decided that I wanted to continue only my Jewish spiritual journey. I became a bat mitzvah at age 15 in order to celebrate and learn more about my faith, but I still always had a feeling that something was missing.

College opened my eyes to new holidays, prayers and people. My college community allowed me to explore the intersections of my various identities. In the summer of 2015, I traveled to Israel for the first time through Birthright with a group of students from my university.

My experience was nothing short of incredible.

There is a prayer in Judaism that I have said in many different countries with countless people to mark different occasions or holidays that happen for the first time — the Shechehiyanu. After my group gazed upon the Old City and danced to beautiful music played by local musicians, I led our group in this blessing with tears streaming down my face. During that prayer, it hit me that I was in Jerusalem and another piece of my Jewish journey was being discovered. There was something so moving about this moment, with this group of people, in this historical and spiritual place that filled me with joy and gratitude. For 2½ weeks, I cherished each moment of the journey, knowing the importance that this trip held for my Jewish practice and faith.

My parents made a bold decision: to raise their children with two faith practices.

My trip wasn’t just about the places I went; it was also about the people I met and the moments that deeply touched my soul. Sometimes, I close my eyes and hear the unique melody of Lecha Dodi I learned at a Sephardic synagogue in Jerusalem. Even though it is part of my father’s heritage, I had never experienced Shabbat in a Sephardic synagogue. I can feel that (literally) breathless moment at sunrise when I finally reached the top of Masada. I listen to the song “Golden Boy” by Nadav Guedj and I’m immediately transported to singing and dancing on hotel patios with people who remain some of my closest friends. I remember the laughter of the Ethiopian kids at a Beersheva absorption center — kids who are part of my Jewish family. Traveling to Israel gave me the feeling that I felt as a young girl trying to understand her faith: connectedness to a greater, global Jewish community.

I continue to draw connections within my own upbringing, identities and faith practice today. After my trip to Israel, I interned at Be’chol Lashon, a nonprofit organization based in San Francisco that celebrates the ethnic, racial and cultural diversity of the Jewish people. This was yet another life-changing experience. I met more Jews like me, from interfaith, multicultural families.

Now, after graduating from college, I work full time at Be’chol Lashon. I organize summer camp, holiday celebrations and international trips to bring the American diaspora community and lesser-known diaspora communities together for cultural exchange. My mom and dad are planning a trip to Israel this year, and I hope to join them.

70 years of Israeli statehood! Israel Independence Day kicks off the evening of April 18. To mark the occasion, J. asked dozens of Bay Area Jews to reflect on seven decades of the Jewish state. New ones will be posted daily here.

Julia Hernandez Nierenberg
Julia Hernandez Nierenberg

Julia Hernandez Nierenberg is a Jewish Latina who grew up in Oakland and attended high school at the Bay School of San Francisco. She recently graduated from American University in Washington, D.C., with a B.A. in international relations and Spanish language studies, and is back living in Oakland where she is the program and speakers’ bureau coordinator for Be’chol Lashon.