Israelis, Americans dialogue on identity

Israelis, Americans dialogue on identity

Peoplehood Project brings Ofakim visitors on a tour of the region

While Israel marked its memorial day and celebrated its 64th anniversary, the thoughts of 11 Israelis visiting the MetroWest community turned to home.

“Yom Hazikaron was hard for me,” said Sigal Prais, a resident of Ofakim. “I wanted to be in Israel and I had doubts about me being here.”

Ileana Artov, however, said, “It wasn’t hard for me to celebrate Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut here.” While marking those days of solemn commemoration and celebration “wasn’t like being in Israel,” she said, “it was good” to share them with members of the MetroWest community.

Prais, Artov, and fellow residents of the southern Israeli region toured New Jersey and New York last week, their visit part of the Peoplehood Project of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. Ofakim-Merchavim is paired with MetroWest through the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership 2Gether, a program meant to strengthen the “living bridge” between Israelis and American Jews.

During the April 23-30 visit, the Israelis stayed with nine area host families — those of the nine NJ counterparts in the Peoplehood Project — and toured such sites as Ellis Island and the 9/11 memorial site.

During stops in the MetroWest area, the visitors spoke of the commemorations at home and discussed the differences between the two countries, American Jews’ relationship with Israel, and how Israelis and Americans identify as Jews.

At the Short Hills home of Lisa Lisser, chair of the Legow Family Israel Program Center, on April 26, the American and Israeli Peoplehood Project members took part in three hours of lively discussion.

In contrast to similar holidays in the United States, the back-to-back observances of Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut have personal meaning for many more Israelis. There, the Israelis said, Yom Hazikaron is a day of shared national mourning and visiting the graves of loved ones who perished in Israel’s conflicts.

Michal Zur, who coordinated the program from UJC MetroWest’s office in Jerusalem, said that the day before — Yom Hazikaron — the group had lunched at Jerusalem Pizza in Livingston, where they were able to watch an observance on an Israeli cable television channel. It opened a discussion during which “the Israelis shared personal stories about soldiers they knew who died in wars,” said Zur.

On Memorial Day in Israel, said Zur, “the whole atmosphere is very sad; it is the modern Yom Kippur.”

But when it comes to Independence Day in Israel, David Kurzfeld lamented, “we have lost the meaning of Yom Ha’atzmaut. It is a commercial day. They are waiting for this day only to make money.”

Israelis in the group said they were amazed that tens of thousands of supporters would fill Fifth Avenue in New York City each year for the Celebrate Israel parade, which will be held on June 3 this year.

After their discussions, said Randi Brokman, Israel and Overseas associate at MetroWest’s Israel Program Center, the Israelis “came away with a new awareness of Jewish life in America.”

And it’s not just being Jewish, she told NJ Jewish News after the meeting. “It is having a love for Israel. It is something very special to them.”

But during the talk, Brokman reminded the visitors that “this is not the only parade that takes place. There is a Puerto Rican Day Parade. There is a Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. There is a Gay Pride Parade. It’s America.”

Lisser spoke about the unifying factor of Jews in America. “Whether you are an Orthodox Jew or a Reform Jew or an unaffiliated Jew, Israel is the connecting piece that is a part of all of us,” she said. “In almost all of the congregations in MetroWest you will see an American flag and an Israeli flag. That is how we define ourselves.”

But an American member of the group, Katia Segre-Cohn of Millburn, reminded the others that “we are not the only group that exists in America. There are lots of Jews who are not pro-Israel. They have never been to Israel and don’t want to go to Israel and don’t belong to a synagogue…. I don’t want you to walk away thinking there are six million American Jews just like us.”

In a second phase of the morning’s program, participants joined in a discussion of Jewish identity led by Rhonda Lillianthal, director of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School of JCC MetroWest.

“Judaism isn’t about the objective facts we call ‘history,’” she said. Instead it is based on collective memories, beginning with freedom from slavery in ancient Egypt.

“This message is so central to our identity that we are supposed to remember it every single day, and more than once a day,” she said. “There is no identity without memory.”

To Dani Ben David of Ofakim, who works for the Jewish National Fund, ancient memory has created a mandate for preserving the environment.

“I do a lot of Jewish things,” he said. “Maybe I don’t think about it, but I am doing it.”

During a break in the conversation, Prais told NJJN about some of the contradictions she lives with.

“My Jewish identity and Israeli identity are so mixed up,” she said. “In Israel, we are Jewish by law, but I don’t have to do anything to prove it. I don’t have to go to synagogue. I don’t have to practice my religion….”

Participant Toby Stern of Livingston called the Peoplehood Project “really eye-opening.”

“Some of the Israelis explained to me they were surprised at how hard we work to be connected Jewishly. But they have a different struggle I wasn’t aware of,” she told NJJN. “Many of the women feel excluded religiously because the predominant Orthodox culture isn’t so welcoming to women. As a member of a Masorti [Conservative] synagogue here, that is something I take for granted.”

Agreeing, Ronit Greengold of Ofakim said she felt “strong emotions” during a visit to a New Jersey synagogue.

“A woman opened the [ark] for us to see the Torah,” she recalled. “In Israel we can’t get so close to a Torah. In Israel I accept that is the way it is and I can’t do anything to change it.”

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