From: Baltimore, Maryland
Living: Stuytown, New York
This was the beginning of my realization of how little I really understood in this land that I felt like I knew so well.”
My parents were born in Baltimore, my grandparents were born in Baltimore and half of my great-grandparents were born in Baltimore. We belong to the synagogue that my grandfather helped found, where my mom was Bat Mitzvah’d and my parents were married. It’s huge with thousands of members, a big stage of a bima, and an organ. Growing up, I went to a Conservative shul, an Orthodox Jewish day school, and a Reform summer camp. I could count the number of non-Jews I knew on one hand. Everything I did was Jewish.
Israel has always been completely intertwined with my Jewish identity. I have this memory of going to Israel for the first time in 8th grade and visiting the Kotel. As I got closer and closer to the wall, I felt hotter and hotter. There was this heat radiating from the wall. The moment I touched it, I burst into tears. I had heard about this place and thought about being there for as long as I could remember. There were so many hands that had touched this wall before and I could feel them all by touching the wall. Ironically, today, after spending significantly more time in Israel, I avoid the Kotel at all costs. Instead, I see it as a source of conflict within the Jewish community and a symbol of an Orthodox monopoly on sacred Jewish sites and practice.
Being a Jewish professional and spending a year in Israel were the most secular times I’ve ever experienced.”
Before college I spent a year in Israel with Young Judea Year Course, a secular, Zionist gap year program. I felt proud to spend a year of service to what I had always believed to be my homeland. Yet, the Israel education I received made me feel as if Muslims and Arabs were the enemy. Arabic sounded so scary to me. I already knew that I was going to attend the University of Michigan, which I had heard was a battleground for Israel because it has such large Arab and Jewish communities. I felt that my charge was to be a foot solider for pro-Israel activism on campus.
But I had experiences that year that caused me to begin questioning what it means to be “pro- Israel.” I volunteered coaching basketball in Arab communities in Israel and the West Bank. I wanted to see; I was curious. Before this, I’d never really thought about the West Bank or the people living in it. In my Israel education at my Jewish day school, I hadn’t even seen a map of Israel with the Green Line until my senior year of high school. To me, the whole land was part of Israel and belonged to the Jewish people.
The city of Tulkarem is only about ten miles east of Netanya, but I was in a completely different world that I didn’t know existed. It was my first real people-to-people exposure with Palestinians [without Israeli citizenship]. For the first time ever, I saw Palestinian flags flying in windows and over buildings. Right outside the school where we held our programming, there was a big monument to a suicide bomber. I felt an immediate discomfort and confusion, a pang in my stomach of “This is not my home.” This was the beginning of my realization of how little I really understood in this land that I felt like I knew so well.
After my year in Israel, I went to University of Michigan, where I intentionally sought to develop relationships with a diverse set of peers, particularly outside of the Jewish community. I participated in a Katrina relief Muslim-Jewish Alternative Spring Break and when the topic of Israel came up, I went into “Pro-Israel Defense Mode”, ready to stalwartly defend Israel and win the debate. I began to aggressively input the standard bullet points without waiting for my Muslim peer’s response. Finally, my friend, Malik, in such a calm way, pointed out how quickly I embodied an extremely harsh tone and persona when talking about Israel. I was incredibly embarrassed and decided to shut up and start listening.
Participating in interfaith dialogue was an incredible way to learn more about what Judaism really means to me. Yet, at the same time, I struggled with who I was without the Jewish identity marker. I also started to learn more about the spread of Islamophobia in the US. I had learned from Jewish history how Jews experience anti-Semitism, and still do, all over the world. I became very aware of how Americans and also the Jewish community talk about Islam in increasingly negative ways. As a result, I co-founded MuJew, a collaboration and dialogue group for Muslim and Jewish students on campus. I wanted this group to be a place where we could dispel some of that hatred and mistrust and be allies for one another in our own communities.
As college went forward, I stopped participating in Israel-related things. I felt pretty angry that I had only been taught part of the story. I felt like I was cheated, like I was set up to be this pro-Israel advocate but was completely unprepared for what that meant. I was questioning whether Israel should exist at all as a Jewish state. When I told my parents that I had asked myself this question, they told me I had gone too far – I had crossed their “red line.” My conclusion is that Israel should exist as a Jewish state. But how can you be an advocate for Israel if you’ve never asked yourself that question? If you make an automatic assumption that it should exist and don’t understand why people question that, then there’s no way you can be a good advocate for Israel.
I now work at the New Israel Fund (NIF), which works to support democracy and equality in Israel through grantmaking to grassroots NGOs that make up Israel’s civil society. This fall, I’m going back to Israel as a Dorot Fellow. Israel will always be a huge part of who I am and who I want to be. I want to be a strong part of the Jewish community but I also want to be a strong part of humanity; I’m constantly questioning how to balance these obligations. This year, I’m interested in working to help create more equal opportunities for Arab/Palestinian citizens of Israel. I believe that it’s not only important for civil and human rights to support this population, but that the strength of Israel and Israel’s democracy depends on how it treats its minorities. I also see this as an interesting way to balance my “circles of obligation” by working with a non-Jewish population in a Jewish state.