Over Winter break I had the privilege of traveling to Israel for 10 days with Jewish students from Wisconsin and Maryland on a trip known as Taglit [תגלית]. Growing up, my family’s vacations consisted of driving 10 hours to Connecticut to see my grandma for a couple of days, so this experience was ever more exciting and daunting. The weather in Israel was perfect and the land was insanely beautiful – nothing like what I am used to in the Midwest. There were picturesque rolling hills which turned into mountains, deserts, bustling cities, and calming bodies of water – all within a country the size of New Jersey.
While every aspect of this Taglit [תגלית] trip was meaningful and fulfilling, some events were more impactful than others. Over the course of my trip, I had the opportunity to wrap tefillin a handful of times. Tefillin are leather boxes, which contain 4 biblical texts, and are connected to leather straps. They come in pairs; the first box sits on the bicep of one’s non-dominant arm. You say the blessing for putting on tefillin and then wrap the leather strap around the bicep to form the letter shin [ש]. The leather strap is then wrapped around the forearm 7 times and the remaining length is wrapped around the palm. The 2nd tefillin is placed on one’s head, with the box resting on the forehead and the 2 leather straps falling upon the shoulders. The leather wrapped around the palm is undone and wrapped 3 times around the middle finger, forming another shin [ש], and the remaining length is wrapped around the palm. Traditionally, tefillin is put on during morning prayer where many blessings are said. However, if one is short on time, or putting on tefillin later in the day, at least the Shema [שמע] and V’ahavta [ואהבת] are said. Following the blessings, the tefillin is unwrapped and taken off in the opposite order it was put on. There are several symbolic meanings behind each action which come together to connect the mind, body, and soul. Putting on tefillin is a mindful and grounding practice which forces you to slow down and reflect.
On a Friday morning in Jerusalem, we went to HaKotel [הכותל], or the Western Wall. This is the holiest of Jewish sites and stands as the remains of 1 of the 4 walls which surrounded the First and Second Temples built over 2,000 years ago. Jews from around the world come to pray at the wall as it is sacred and commemorative. Men and women have separate sections at the wall as this separation is custom in Orthodox communities. I walked to the men’s section of the wall and was wrapped in a tallis and given tefillin to put on. I went up to the wall, placed my hands flat against its stones, and said the Shema [שמע] and V’ahavtah [ואהבת]. It is customary to write a note and tuck it into the wall which is holy and sacred. Mine included prayers for the safety and health of my family and friends, positive and meaningful relationships to come, and the protection of trans children and adults throughout the world and specifically within America. This experience was much more spiritual and cathartic than I had expected it to be, and for that I am grateful.
The following day, during Shabbat, our Taglit [תגלית] group had a Hebrew naming ceremony as well as a ceremony to name individuals as Bar, Bat, or Bit’ mitzvah. At the age of 13, my twin brother and I had our B’nai mitzvah. I was named a Bat mitzvah and he was named a Bar mitzvah. Within events of religious significance, Hebrew names are used. My brother and I had previously received our Hebrew names, his being Natan [נתן], meaning G-d has given or gift from G-d. My Hebrew name of course was feminine and something I abandoned years ago. During these Shabbat ceremonies in Jerusalem, I was able to choose a new Hebrew name and be named as a Bar mitzvah. Now during any religious events or ceremonies I will be called Emet [אמת], meaning truth. Not only does this name align with my English name, but it represents my journey in living authentically and true to my identity.