After graduating from college, I wanted to take at least one year off before deciding on a career. I wanted to experience something new and different and also wished to be of service and give back. I looked into programs from Africa to India, when I came across something that stood out. But, it was located in Israel. To me, Israel meant Zionist Judaism. I saw it as a religious place, where everyone would either force me to go to services or become a rabbi. Jews lived in New York City; I grew up there—why go to a land filled with more Jews, when I wanted to experience a change?
Clearly, I did not understand Israel. How could I think a country located in the Middle East was not cool enough for me? I had completely overlooked Israel’s diversity because it was never presented to me. Whenever people spoke of Israel it was always portrayed through one lens only. Until I came across the Yahel Social Change program, I had never looked at Israel as a dynamic place.
In Israel I live in the Shapira neighborhood where everyone knows each other. This is far different from my experience at home. Here, I walk down the street and say “Shalom” to everyone I see. People know who I am, and unlike in New York, people take the time to notice me.
Whenever there is a wedding or a funeral, everyone in the community gathers to celebrate the wedding or mourn those who have gone. Judaism plays an important role in the community—people keep kosher, they talk about religious issues and the holidays are always relevant.
Shapira has given me the opportunity to experience a new side of Israel and get a better understanding of Judaism. I recognized that Judaism is also a collective identity and not solely based on religious aspects. I have experienced it first-hand by living in this community and by witnessing the love and support that connects everyone. Walking down the street in Israel is a Jewish experience. I feel a common bond with the people here that can only be described as a Jewish one.
At home the only time I felt this intense feeling of community was in synagogue, but I always had trouble embracing it because it was in the context of religion. In the Youth Center, while tutoring and wherever I am in Shapira, I feel we share something special. This Jewish connection is not something tangible—it is an intuitive affinity. It is experienced as a feeling of safety and trustworthiness. As different as I thought an Ethiopian Israeli and I would be, the common denominator of Judaism links us together.