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An Israeli who cries just twice a week? Not so bad

Jews outside of Israel may have a hard time truly understanding what an Israeli colleague or shaliach is going through

It’s a Monday morning. I’m speed-reading through the news in Hebrew before my next meeting when I come across this headline: “Fierce combat taking place in Gaza today.”

My heart drops. Every Israeli knows “fierce combat” means soldiers were killed, and that the victims’ families were still not notified. In a few hours, the terrible news comes out.

I move on to my next Zoom meeting. My highly involved, caring, knowledgeable non-Israeli colleagues are on the call. They also read the news just before our meeting. But they read it differently. “Fierce combat” is something that sounds difficult. Yet to them, it isn’t associated with that horrible, terrifying revelation of losing a loved one. They’ll find out and be heartbroken in a few hours when the news becomes public.

While we’re all Jewish professionals and care about Israel deeply, our next few hours are much different. My non-Israeli colleagues go on with their day until the news breaks. Along with my Israeli colleagues, I pretend it’s an ordinary day while my heart skips a beat every time a new notification pops up on my phone. God, please don’t let it be someone I know. Please don’t let there be more than a handful of casualties this time.

My following meeting that morning is with a person who supervises the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow who serves on her campus. She’s genuinely concerned. She says that the Israel Fellow is doing her job well, despite the war. She’s meeting her goals, engaging with students, and even planning ahead for programs and initiatives. But her supervisor is concerned because about twice a week, out of the blue, she starts crying and needs a few moments to compose herself. I thank the supervisor for her concern and reassure her that if an Israeli member of her team is performing well and only crying twice a week, she’s doing better than can be expected — considering everything that’s happening in Israel since October 7, and the fact that her brother and many of her friends are currently in active battle against Hamas terrorists.

Admittedly, I’m surprised by this interaction. Shouldn’t it be obvious that Israelis, anywhere in the world, aren’t OK right now?

These types of conversations got me thinking about the experiences of Israeli and non-Israeli Jews on North American college campuses. If it’s difficult for me, as a seasoned professional, to comprehend the magnitude of the difference in my experiences and perceptions compared to those of my non-Israeli colleagues, just imagine the oceans that separate students from different backgrounds.

With that in mind, I decided to spend some time trying to truly understand what Israelis are feeling and experiencing now, both as individuals and as a society.

Israelis are experiencing shock, grief, and insecurity. It’s not “just” about the horrifying events of October 7. It’s each day since then. It’s tragedy after tragedy, terror attack after terror attack, dozens of daily sirens from missiles being fired at Israel, families being torn apart with parents being called for reserve duty. Families are worried about their fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters who are still held hostage in Gaza, still fighting in the IDF to bring them home and stop Hamas’ atrocities. Suicide rates in Israel are off the charts, especially among survivors of the atrocities, first responders, family members, friends. For too many, the events are too much. Approximately 200,000 Israelis are displaced, with no hope of returning home anytime soon. Thousands of civilians and soldiers are critically wounded and permanently handicapped. Soldiers are returning from combat with PTSD, unable to resume their regular life. Families are falling into poverty, losing their breadwinners to reserve duty.

There’s no way for someone outside of Israel to comprehend and relate to this. It’s no one’s fault. But it creates distance. It creates an inability to communicate.

When a Jewish American tells an Israeli, “What the IDF is doing is un-Jewish,” the Israeli will be personally offended because her brother is the soldier — serving not because he wants to, but because he is obligated to do so. And because if he didn’t serve, his family would be in immediate danger. Can the two people in this conversation continue feeling like “the same people” with such different experiences and worldviews?

Ultimately, this difference in experiences makes it harder for Israeli and non-Israeli Jews to relate to one another — to maintain that sense of togetherness that many of us felt on October 7 and its immediate aftermath.

What might bridge this growing gap? First, non-Israeli Jewish students, friends, and colleagues can approach Israeli Jews with more curiosity and humility. Even if you’re an informed, knowledgeable, caring person, please don’t assume you know what the Jewish Israeli in front of you is feeling, for better or worse.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, don’t give up on relationships and dialogue. Don’t retreat from uncomfortable or painful conversations. Such conversations and experiences are what make relationships real. We must work through the pain to a place of mutual understanding and respect.

Especially now, when the discourse surrounding Israel on campus can be so challenging, I’m thankful that the Jewish Agency Israel Fellows are building relationships and having these genuine conversations. While serving students in partnership with Hillel on over 100 campuses across North America, they substitute curiosity for indifference and education for ignorance. They provide students with the opportunity to form a real relationship with the true, authentic Israel. After October 7, their work is undoubtedly more important than ever.

Israeli poet Natalie Menachem wrote: “Sometimes, all roads lead to heartbreak. And sometimes, all heartbreaks lead to a road.”

At a time when Jews around the world are heartbroken, that heartbreak can hopefully lead to a road of dialogue and care.

About the Author
Nati Szczupak is Director of the Jewish Agency Campus Israel Fellows.
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