Israel is one of the most diverse nations in the world even with a population of just 8.3 million people. As the Jewish state and home to an innumerable amount of relics sacred to Muslims, Christians and Jews alike, Israel has always drawn pilgrims and immigrants from around the world. However, in a time when Israel finds itself at the center of frequent media coverage as a result of politics, the stories and backgrounds of everyday Israelis are often lost in mass media generalizations.
To put faces to Israel’s diversity, the Jewish Federation of Howard County and the Jewish Agency for Israel came together at Columbia Jewish Congregation on the evening of March 16 for “Meet the Faces of Israel,” in which four Israeli emissaries living in the United States answered questions about Israeli culture and society and shared their views of the American Jewish community.
The event was coordinated by Hadar Shahar, shlichah for the Jewish Federation of Howard County. She has taught a class for the Columbia Jewish Congregation’s high schoolers for past two years and felt they could benefit from meeting more Israelis and hearing different perspectives. The students wrote all of the questions asked during the session.
“I wanted the platform to highlight more perspectives and show a different Israel, be it more religious or a different form of living to really show the diversity of Israeli society,” said Shahar. “Looking from the outside, it is very easy to see it simply, but because we are all immigrants, it is incredibly diverse, and that is a major part of what makes the country what it is. I feel that people want those individual perspectives to distinguish from what we hear in the news without a face and a name.”
Raoul Molnar serves as the emissary to the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Molnar, 29, moved to Israel from Romania at the age of 3, soon followed by his parents after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. In spite of being raised in Israel, he still identifies as an immigrant or oleh, as opposed to a sabra as Israeli-born Jews refer to themselves.
“I was raised in Netanya, one of the cities that is known as an immigration city,” he said. “Not every city can get this status in Israel. A big population of people [in Netanya] are immigrants. There is a large Ethiopian community, a large Russian community, and because of all of the anti-Semitism right now, there has been a lot of French immigration too. As a result, we have an extra 400 to 500 new kids in the school system who speak no English.”
Molnar told the audience that when talking about Israelis as a whole, one is referring to a group of many different colors with many accents and backgrounds. He explained that in a city with so many people from different places, everything broke down simply to two groups: Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewry) and Mizrahi (Middle Eastern Jewry). Growing up in the 1990s, Molnar felt tension between those two groups, but today that tension has faded.
One aspect of American Judaism that surprised Molnar was congregational life at synagogues, explaining that he had never attended one in Israel since he had been forced to sit apart from his mother during services.
“After my first year of being here, I love going to synagogues, it is fun,” he said. “In Israel, I do not feel the need to go to synagogue. I feel Judaism surrounding me all over, I eat kosher, I am Jewish. I feel like I need to do more things to practice my Judaism in the states.”
Congregational life is a concept that many Israelis are unfamiliar with when coming to the United States for the first time. Ella Tesler, shlichah at Shaarei Torah Congregation in Gaithersburg, Md., grew up on a small modern Orthodox kibbutz, Kvutsat Yavne, and found the difference particularly disconcerting.
“When you talk about being religious in Israel versus religious here, it is very different,” she said. “Every term that you know, it is not the same. I tell my family that I am working in a synagogue and they say, ‘What? A synagogue is a place that you pray. Does that mean you pray more?’ They didn’t understand.”
Tesler, 24, gave a brief overview of what a kibbutz is, describing a socialist community where everyone shares life and one bank account. “Everyone is equal and tries to give how much they can and gets how much they need. My father is high up in the police and makes the same wage as everyone else. We don’t have individual washing machines, there is a woman whose job is just to fold the clothes, and she gets exactly what my father does.”
Along with Yehezkel “Chezi” Shmueli, another of the panelists, Tesler is part of a new project this year, where the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington decided to bring shluchim for eight specific synagogues in northern Virginia and Washington, D.C.
Michal Wetzler, the final panelist, also has a unique emissary position, serving as the first shlichah to the Pearlstone Center in Baltimore. Wetzler grew up on Kibbutz HaChoresh, a secular kibbutz known for its bakeries which supply bread to all of northern Israel. She was a perfect fit for the Pearlstone Center, having grown up in nature, as her grandparents helped to plant trees and settle the land when developing the kibbutz.
“It took me a long time to understand how to engage Israel through farming and forestry and nature, because the idea of the center is to connect between nature and Judaism,” she said. “That is my work, to connect the triangle of Jewish, nature and Israel. A kibbutz is like a beehive, the idea that each person has their goal and knows what to do and together, do it perfectly.”
Even Shahar, an Israeli, learned something at the event.
“Even knowing these people before they came over, I heard perspectives about places that I would never make it to or cross paths with in Israel, so it was interesting to me as well to hear those personal stories and see what shaped these people to be how they are today,” she said. “I think it is important to keep in mind that Israel is a diverse place and we all have different ideas. Reality is often very surprising.”