Vince Celli: My Jewish Journey


“In some ways, my journey has been atypical, and in other ways has been downright, “Wet Hot American Summer”-level cliché. It might sound crazy to you, but I’ve never been to a single bar or bat mitzvah, including my own. Still, my entire life I’ve identified as Jewish. For the first 30 years, that was just cultural — appreciating Jewish values of education and justice, family, humor, food, and just being proud of my history on both my Jewish mother’s and Italian father’s sides. And then that began to evolve when…you guessed it…I went on Birthright. This was my first real introduction to the religious side of being Jewish.

I grew up in a secular household that was suspicious of the merits of organized religion in part because of the atrocities that have been committed throughout human history in its name. But the Judaism that was presented to me at a kibbutz in northern Israel back in 2013 felt very different. Instead of the dogmatism that I associated with religion, I was shown that it was woven into the fabric of Judaism to question and grapple with its concepts and meaning. It’s even built into the name “Israel,” to wrestle with God. And somehow, everything I was experiencing, and learning felt familiar, like I was coming home after a lifetime away. Then I came home, to my apartment in San Francisco. Despite forging lifelong friendships, packing what felt like years of experience into 10 days, and starting a life-changing journey I vowed to continue, Birthright merely planted a seed that wouldn’t sprout until much later.

I hopped back on the treadmill of life and 5 years passed in the blink of an eye without a single step further on my Jewish journey. I’ll spare you the painfully cliché details, but a fateful run-in with an Israeli soldier from my Birthright cohort was the kick in the tuchus I needed. It all felt like a serendipitous sign I couldn’t ignore and the very next day I was Googling local synagogues. I stumbled upon Congregation Emanu-El who said there was a Young Adult Late Shabbat coming up that Friday that I should check out… so I did! Thinking I would know nobody and defying my introverted personality, I showed up and I couldn’t be happier I went, because my life changed forever that night. The warm embrace of this amazing community washed over me immediately, and as I sat there in Martin Meyer Sanctuary, I felt that same feeling of familiarity I had in Israel so many years before. I was home.

If it weren’t for this community, I’m not sure if or when I would have found Judaism. I have met so many amazing people, learned beautiful concepts from our tradition, and deepened my Jewish identity exponentially here. I love that our tradition continues to evolve to meet the challenges of the future instead of clinging to dogmatic beliefs that no longer serve us. I love that as Jews, we have central principles like tikkun olam and tzedakah that obligate us to repair the world and strive for justice, which compels us to join our brothers and sisters in times like these to demand social change and an end to racist policies and policing. Still sometimes, like when I stumble through a prayer or “admit” in front of hundreds of my peers that I’ve never even been to a bar mitzvah, I still struggle with feelings of being “not Jewish enough,” and I know some of you can relate. But being Jewish is a choice, and sometimes not an easy choice in the face of anti-Semitism that has persisted for thousands of years. I’m still learning, and the journey is a lifelong process, but I’m incredibly proud to be a part of this beautiful, diverse tribe and this community at Emanu-El.