After Shannon Rzucidlo, 26, went on a Birthright Israel trip this summer, NEXT, a division of the Birthright Israel Foundation, reached out to keep her connected, offering resources to help her create a Rosh Hashanah meal for friends.
“I think my NEXT High Holiday meal was my ‘coming out’ party, so to speak,” she wrote in an email to NEXT organizers. “Up until my trip to Israel I was not openly Jewish. I didn’t deny my Jewish heritage, but I also didn’t volunteer that information. This meal gave me a chance to say, ‘I am Jewish and I think that’s cool.’”
Rzucidlo, a University of Arizona graduate who works for Stories that Soar!, part of the Literacy Connects Coalition, grew up near Marana, on Tucson’s northwest side. Her mother is Jewish; her father is not. Although her grandfather is a Holocaust survivor, he never talked about it, and her exposure to the Jewish community was limited. Her mother took Rzucidlo and her sister to the Bridges program for interfaith families at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, and she attended a year of Hebrew school. The family celebrated Passover and Chanukah, but also Christmas. For her, Christmas was about family and presents, not about the birth of Jesus. “I think that’s the case for a lot of kids,” Rzucidlo says.
But mostly, she says, “Growing up, I didn’t give much thought to God.”
All her friends were Christian, she says, recalling that if she wanted to spend time with them on Sundays, it meant joining them at a Christian youth group.
It was awkward. “The pastors tried to convert me,” she says, although no one ever said there was anything wrong with being Jewish.
Before her Birthright trip, Rzucidlo was afraid she’d be singled out for her lack of Judaic knowledge, but her sister had been on a Birthright trip, as had several enthusiastic college friends. Her sister, especially, reassured her that many Birthright participants also came from fairly secular backgrounds.
Rzucidlo ended up going on one of the more religiously oriented trips, she says, organized by Mayanot, which partners with Chabad and sends a rabbi along on every trip. She was completely comfortable. In fact, one of her favorite evenings was when the group played “Stump the Rabbi.”
“I stayed practically all night,” even as most of the other participants dwindled away, Rzucidlo says. “I didn’t have that resource growing up. I didn’t know any rabbis. It was like 26 years of questions about Judaism rolled into one night.”
At her Rosh Hashanah dinner, her guests, aside from her mother, were cast mates from the Beowulf Alley Theatre, where she was appearing in “Macbeth.” Before her Israel trip, she’d spent nine months in Nebraska, and many of her Tucson friends had moved away. “I was really wanting to build a community,” she says. When she told her theatre friends that she was Jewish and could host a Rosh Hashanah celebration, the response was positive. “It was really a cool opportunity for a bunch of diverse people to come together.”
Although she’d read her material from Birthright NEXT and was prepared to talk at length about the meaning of the holiday, her guests didn’t ask much — and just as she didn’t like being pressured by her Christian peers growing up, she didn’t want to push her new Jewish knowledge on anyone. “I was really happy to be able to learn so much about the holiday. I’m really eager to learn more. I think it’s really fascinating.”
After her Birthright trip, Rzucidlo sought to connect with young Jews in Tucson. She had a coffee meeting with Rabbi Ben Herman, who runs the Yachad (Together) group for ages 22-45. She hopes to join an introductory Hebrew class next year.
And Rzucidlo’s looking forward to spending Thanksgiving, which this year overlaps with Chanukah, with her sister, who’ll be visiting from Chicago. This will be their first Chanukah together since their respective Birthright trips, she says, and they’re planning to do some research “and make it even more meaningful.”