Bryan Turkel is a new addition to our Federation team in the role of Assistant Director of Leadership Development. Read about his Jewish journey and his excitement to share what he has learned along the way.
I grew up in a house where sports was the only religion. When we adopted my older cousin, he brought football and wrestling into the house. I had never played either, but I wanted to be doing anything my new big brother was doing. Our family life revolved around sports and our time was spent going to each other’s games. After-school practices, weekend games, and tournaments occupied the space Hebrew school and Shabbat may have held. When it came time for my bar mitzvah, I had to be privately tutored to accommodate the small time left over from my athletic commitments. It’s not like I had anything against Judaism; I always held a reverence for whatever that “greater thing” was — it just wasn’t on my list of priorities.
I was recruited to play college football only for an injury to end my athletic career my freshman year. For the first time in more than 10 years I had no team, nothing to connect or contribute to. I found myself on an island, disconnected and lonely. After a few months drifting through campus I met a guy named Ilan, another Jew who felt unanchored at college without a sense of community. We hit it off right away and I realized our shared heritage lent us a comfortable familiarity that wasn’t there with other people. We were raised in similar families with similar values and it was easy to feel our common link.
If my Jewish identity was a person, it was at this moment I shook his hand and introduced myself. We craved that sense of belonging we were missing from our group activities in high school but wanted to honor the connection we found in our common background. At that point it only made sense to start our own Jewish team. We got in touch with Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi), the international Jewish fraternity, which helped us establish a chapter at our school. It was important for us to seek out those Jews on an island in order to offer them the same solace and comfort we had with each other. It felt incredible to build this community built on this special, intangible thing that we all shared.
AEPi was the fire of my Jewish identity, and my first time in Israel was the gasoline. After growing up as usually the only Jew on a football field or wrestling mat, I couldn’t get over that I could just open my window and everyone I could see was like me. I was swept up in Am Yisrael Chai. I felt instantly included in Israel — they didn’t care that I wasn’t Israeli or did not speak Hebrew, I was still one of the tribe. And the first time I saw the Western Wall — the only way to describe it was that I felt like a device being plugged in; I was energized and connected and in awe all at the same time. I bashfully stood around circles of Jews praying and dancing until I got too close to one and before I knew it, like a whirlpool, I was sucked in. A perfect stranger had thrown his arm over my shoulder and brought me into his group’s horah. It was an overwhelming experience I will never forget. I have never felt more at home at a place I have never been.
Since returning, I have leaned into my Jewish identity. Over the course of the years, I have begun to learn Hebrew, regularly attend shabbat dinners, and become committed to having a Jewish home. I’ve had the honor of staffing a Birthright Israel trip and the pleasure of showing my mom Israel for the first time. I feel completely rooted in who I am and feel an immense pride in where I come from. My job at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles allows me to foster that feeling of community by helping to develop those who will spearhead the next generation of Jewish leadership. I am lucky that my job reflects my values and the goals I have for my community. Looking forward to what’s in store next.