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The FILL Fellowship and My Jewish Identity

Jewish Federation Los Angeles offers an internal leadership opportunity for young Federation professionals. FILL — Federation Innovation Leadership Lab — is a yearlong program that builds professional development and strengthens leadership skills and culminates in an impactful international travel experience that exposes the FILL Fellows to the Federation’s global work and other like-minded young leaders. The program provides new skills and experiences, adding more excitement and passion to our Los Angeles Jewish community.

Megan Kanofsky, FILL Fellow and Federation Director of Jewish Campus Life for Young Adult Engagement and Leadership, shares with us the impact of the FILL Fellowship program and her experience abroad.

I’ve had the privilege of traveling to Israel more times than I can count on one hand. I have staffed over five trips to Israel, each time learning more about the country I fell in love with on Taglit-Birthright Israel when I was 18. This time, I was privileged to travel to Israel and Hungary with our Federation’s President & CEO Jay Sanderson and eight fellow colleagues who are part of Federation’s Innovation Leadership Lab (FILL). I was able to view this trip through a different lens than my usual worried-about-logistics lens. Instead, I traveled as a participant and could take it all in.

This trip stirred up many different emotions in me. There were times when I felt like a dog with its head out the window breathing in every new scent and absorbing every piece of information. Other times I felt lost and confused, not knowing enough about the conflict or politics of Israel. There were also times when I felt immense comfort and pride in the amount of knowledge I had about this very special place. I even impressed myself and the group with my Hebrew language skills.

The trip had multiple themes, one of which was leadership. We met with multiple leaders from various organizations and government agencies in Israel and Hungary. I was impressed with the individuals we met, their stories, the challenges they had overcome, and their accomplishments. In Israel, we also took a deep dive into the ongoing security and geopolitical concerns of the region. Throughout the trip, we explored the questions of Jewish identity and practice, themes that resonated most with me.

When I returned home and started processing all of my experiences, I realized I had gained a new perspective and deeper understanding of what being Jewish meant to me. I also began to understand my American-Jewish identity in a more global context. I believe having a strong sense of self and identity is a key ingredient to being a good leader, and this trip enabled me to introspectively analyze the components of my own being that contribute to my leadership abilities.

I grew up in a home that espoused Jewish values. We valued tzedakah (charity), giving back to those in need, and treating others with respect. We lit candles on Shabbat, occasionally ate traditional Jewish foods, and attended Temple on the High Holidays. I attended Sunday school, had a Bat Mitzvah, went to Jewish day school for a few years, attended Jewish summer camp, was taught about Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people, and even had a few Jewish friends, but I always felt that I was in the minority. I was always okay with being Jewish — it was just a part of who I was, but it didn’t go much deeper than that. Throughout college, I didn’t feel particularly connected to Jewish life. I was different from my friends, many of whom were not Jewish. I didn’t hang out with other Jewish students, nor did I attend any Jewish programs at the campus Chabad or Hillel. It wasn’t until I started working in the Jewish community at Hillel immediately after college that I began to realize and understand what it meant to me to be Jewish, have a Jewish identity, and why it’s important to me. I do not consider myself a religious person, but my values, ethics, and culture have all been shaped by the Jewish values ingrained in me by my family. As I began to visit Israel more as a young adult, I began to gain a deeper understanding each time of why my parents instilled these values in me, sent me to Sunday school, were so invested in my Jewish education, and taught me about and supported Israel. Although it has taken some time, the Jewish values I learned as a child have made me proud to be Jewish, and I now understand what it means to be a Jew.

The trip also opened my eyes to the differences between my experiences and those of my contemporaries in the countries we visited.

The differences between Jewish young adults in Hungary, Israel, and the U.S., could not have been more apparent during this trip. In Hungary (and in most Eastern European countries), Jews were — and still are — forced to hide their Jewish identities. Because of this, many of the young Jewish leaders we met didn’t know they were Jewish until they were 18 or 19 years old. It was shocking to learn this and hard for me to fathom. At home in the U.S., I had been told I was Jewish and taught how to act “Jewishly” when I was a child. Many of the leaders we met had to actively seek out and learn to be Jewish, traveling hours a day to meet with Rabbis to learn about Judaism. I was impressed by their thirst for knowledge and passion for being Jewish.

In Israel, secular Jews learn what it means to be Jewish from birth. Being Jewish is part of being an Israeli, from their first breath to their last. It’s part of the school curriculum — they are taught the basic prayers, and biblical Hebrew is the first language to which they’re exposed.

Past trips I’ve been on have really focused on my getting to know the landmarks and understanding the culture, not as much on meeting and getting to know the people and how they identify Jewishly. This trip was unique and amazing because we met many different people from different backgrounds and upbringings, but with one major thing in common with each other and with me: we are all Jewish.

To be honest, I found it difficult to express myself verbally because I experienced so much on this incredible trip. However, writing this blog helped me wrap my head around some of the emotions I felt and made me think more deeply about the experiences I shared with my colleagues. This unforgettable experience made me realize how proud I am to be Jewish, work at The Jewish Federation, and want to continue my investment in the Jewish community and Jewish future.

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