Working as a shaliach (emissary) on an American university campus is one of the most significant things I’ve ever done in my life, but, to be honest, it’s also very challenging. When I landed in Boston and began my work as a Jewish Agency Israel fellow, I barely knew anyone in the community. The beginning was very rough; I needed to get to know my campus and integrate so much information in order to figure out my goals. Initially, I had come here with one purpose in mind – creating a broad educational discourse on Israel and helping find the connection for students and their Jewish identity.
In order to create an educational discourse on topics dealing with individual and national identity, it’s important to create an appropriate environment. An environment which allows people you are building a dialogue with feel like they have a sense of security and trust. The familiarity and trust that is built allow the individual to open up and become vulnerable. Only then does it become possible to engage and reflect on the personal identity of the participants in the discourse.
During my last few months on campus, I noticed something surprising happen while I was creating those dialogue opportunities with my students. The conversations about personal identity didn’t always focus on the student who I was speaking to, but rather on me.
Some students asked: “So, where are you from?”
And of course, my response: “I’m from Israel.” ( As if this isn’t clear from my heavy accent.)
And then they proceed: “And what is your role here?”
I answered: “I’m a Jewish Agency Israel fellow, a Shaliach, on campus”, and of course, I provide an extended explanation of what I do.
And then they said: “Oh wow, it sounds very interesting, it’s cool that you get paid for that!”
And I answered with a smile: You’re right!
Then, comes the seemingly normal question: “So, were you born and raised in Israel?”
I answered: “I was born in the US and grew up in Israel. I immigrated to Israel at a very young age.”
And then I always recognize the look. That look when the person suddenly puts all the pieces together, that my mother tongue is Hebrew, and therefore, my Israeli accent.
Then, as expected, comes the following question: “So, do you have an American passport?”
My response: “Yes, I have an American passport. Anyone who’s born in the US automatically receives one.
And here too, the usual reactions: “Wow good for you”, “Listen, you’re lucky”, “You’re really fortunate”.
Today I understand those reactions, but for many years when I lived in Israel, I didn’t really understand why I was so lucky to have an American passport. After all, I’m an Israeli living in Israel, what does the U.S. have to do with it? Why are they so pleased about it?
As part of my journey and my connection with the Jewish community in the US, I understand more and more about the source of these enthusiastic reactions. The Jewish community here is the largest in the Diaspora. From my encounters, I have come across a pleasant and welcoming community. A strong community composed of intelligent people who believe in the importance of learning and development. I met a community that opens its gates to all people, Jews or non-Jews, without any difference in religion, race or sex. A community that tries very modestly to contribute to their surroundings in order to make it a better place, or as I have learned here, Tikkun Olam!
One of the most interesting things I have noticed is that the Jewish community here is comprised of people who choose every day to be part of that community. Jews are actively choosing their Judaism again and again. This challenge brings with it a constant preoccupation with the question of Jewish identity and the connection of the Jewish community and their personal identity. The Jewish community is a minority compared to the large Christian majority, and this reality creates complexity that I had not realized prior. The environment, as well as the daily reality, don’t naturally express Judaism as an ethnic and/or religious identity, and therefore an effort must be made to ensure that setting exists.
The first time this hit me was when a student at my campus complained about fasting on Yom Kippur. She fasted as part of the Jewish tradition in her family, but since university studies continue as usual, she was afraid to skip class and risk falling behind on her school work. Another example is a student on my campus who wears a Star of David necklace around his neck, but, hidden underneath his shirt “just in case…”. As a Jew in the US, you must make an effort to try to keep the tradition going, to celebrate the holidays, to meet other Jews or just to feel a part of a familiar and safe environment.
Letty Pogrebin, an American author and journalist, explained it superbly in the film “The Jewish Americans”: “What does it mean to be Jewish in America today? It’s a question of context. For many Jews, issues of identity are not relevant to their everyday lives. However, for some, balancing one’s Jewish American identity can be challenging. Are we American Jews, Americans without a hyphenated identity, or simply Jewish? Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis makes the observation that when he was growing up, he went to synagogue because he was Jewish. Now, Rabbi Schulweis says, many Jewish Americans go to synagogue to become Jewish.”
This challenge can be seen as a strength. Living in a Jewish community of the Diaspora, especially in the US, allows you to freely deal with identity issues enabling the Jewish community to maintain a lifestyle based on the values they believe in. But it can also be seen differently. Whether we want to or not, even in the most liberal place in the world, ethnic minorities will always be at the mercy of the majority, in the hope that the political sphere will always allow them to express themselves and preserve their identity and culture as a national minority.
Needless to say, not all Jewish communities around the world are as fortunate as the Jewish community in the US. Sadly, we’re witnessing an unbearable reality in which antisemitism is actively practiced. Anti-Semitic incidents and violent incidents take place every day around the world and endanger the lives of Diaspora Jews.
Here in the US, as in other places, there are also worrying moments. In the past seven months, there have been two swastikas sprayed on the University campus I work in. We don’t feel terrified every day, but the fear always exists, even if others are not made aware of the incidents right away. It is not a coincidence that Hillel, my workplace, is locked as part of the security policies of a Jewish institution in the United States.
The time I’ve had with the community here has taught me a lot. The engagement with questions of identity, the desire to be a part of the community, and the fight as well as the unification of the face of every case of anti-Semitism, are a source of appreciation and inspiration to me. However, surprisingly, my time here as a shaliach also made me appreciate my own Jewish community back in my country, Israel.
Being in the US made me realize how lucky I was to be raised in Israel, the national home of the Jewish people. The vision of Theodor Herzl discussed at the First Zionist Congress back in 1897, is now a reality that I was fortunate to grow up surrounded by. Zionist Jews came from all over the world to fulfill this vision for our people. They created this reality for us. As an Israeli who grew up to this reality, I somewhat took it for granted. I have now come to a realization that Israel allows me to be Jewish without having to fight for my place as a Jew.
Israel is a place in which the Jewish community has developed its foundation.
A place which has provided a sense of security as a Jew. A feeling that I should not hide any part of my identity.
A place which allows me to choose my Jewish identity, both with my religious affiliation and with my secular self.
A place where Jewish tradition can be safely celebrated by speaking the Hebrew language.
A place where Kiddush is performed on Friday night, and where people go to the beach on a Saturday morning.
A place where the fast of Yom Kippur is a national fast day when the roads are empty of cars and full of community.
A place in which the commemoration of Holocaust Day and Heroism is not just a checkmark – but it is part of our story as a people.
Israel is a place in which one can simply be just Jewish.
We can discuss issues within Israel, and also be critical, but no matter how critical we are, we know that there is no replacement for this country, our home.
So, I’m a Jew, an Israeli, and I’m lucky to have an American passport that gave me a chance to develop a broader perspective in life. It is an opportunity that has enabled me to appreciate what I always had in my life, my own country, my home.
But, I’m mostly lucky to be a Jew, an Israeli and have an Israeli passport.