The Israeli American Council’s Mishelanu program (IAC Mishelanu) provides a unique venue for Israeli-American students to explore their distinct identity and build community among others with the same background. The program has experienced 100% growth since last year — doubling its number of participants and establishing a presence on 94 college campuses in 14 states. In honor of the 2nd Annual IAC Mishelanu National Conference, taking place at the end of this month, my February blogs will focus on this program. Below, I share some words from a past participant, Maya Fried.

Will the Real Israelis Please Stand Up

I spoke Hebrew before English. My friends found me more aggressive (I prefer blunt) than most. My parents are both Israeli. But I was born in California, and for 19 of my 23 years, the idea that I too could be called Israeli never even crossed my mind.

I didn’t know anything about 1948, 1967, Lebanon, or what the inside of a bomb shelter looked like. I didn’t grow up thinking about which unit I’d most like to join in the army or looking forward to weekends with the Tzofim. I didn’t eat chocolate or hummus sandwiches, or know the difference between Mizrahi and Ashkenazi. In our house, Judaism was ‘Israelism’ (e.g., my parents’ nationality was Jewish enough not to need to actually light candles or celebrate holidays), and I certainly didn’t learn about the Torah in public school as Israeli kids do. And I definitely did not feel comfortable with public transportation. Which explains why, for most of my life, I was content with saying, “My parents are Israeli, but I was born here.” But today that’s not the case.

The first time I stepped onto Israeli soil I was a month shy of 18 years old, and the following nine months did more than change me — they awakened something dormant within me; they brought me to myself. It was the first time I laid eyes on the cities and the homes where my mother and father were raised. It was the first of many times when true, real, 100% Sabra Israelis looked me in the eye and said “you’re one of us.” And while a sense of belonging overcame me every time I heard those words, I still didn’t entirely believe them; it still felt presumptuous to introduce myself to them that way — there were too many things I hadn’t experienced, from the good to the bad and the ugly.

When I left Israel and came back to California, it was like leaving the home I had only recently discovered I had. California didn’t fit me quite as well as it once did. I had so many stories to tell — colors and spices and languages to speak of, tastes and aromas and sounds to call on, but there wasn’t anyone around to hear and understand.

Fast forward to my second semester of sophomore year at the University of Southern California, when Revital, USC Hillel’s shlicha, introduced me to a new program for Israeli-Americans on campus called IAC Mishelanu. I quickly found myself among others that grew up like me on campus, and then others that grew up like me in the greater Los Angeles area, and then others that grew up like me all over America. When we sat in circles and were asked to stand if we identified as Israeli, one by one, people stood, and it gave me the strength to stand too.

Today, almost four years later, I am lucky enough to be the one prompting: “If you feel and identify as Israeli-American, please stand up,” and I get to watch as one thousand students stand up, look around, and continue standing.

So, I didn’t experience the horror of the Intifadas, I didn’t go to Bombamella, I didn’t join the army, and I didn’t take the requisite trip to South America or East Asia pre-university. But I have had poike, eaten forest berries right off the trees, hiked to fresh water springs only to make coffee upon arrival, and cried during a Shlomo Artzi concert in Caesarea. Now, I take these things with me every single place I go. To me, nationality is part of my identity, but it’s not about where I was born. It is a feeling, and an attitude, and a way of life.

Today, I am proud and confident in my identity as both Israeli and American, and a large part of the credit is due to the Israeli-American Council and IAC Mishelanu, who, to this day, encourage me to keep standing.

To learn more about IAC Mishelanu please visit www.IAC Mishelanu.org. To learn more about its National Conference, taking place this year from Feb. 26-28 in Los Angeles, please visit http://IAC Mishelanu.org/national-conference.