How to ease the culture shock of returning Israel visitors

Those who travel to Israel and return home with an awakened sense of Jewish identity or spirituality often find the adjustment to diaspora life a profound cultural shock.

"I felt really isolated. I felt really separated from family and friends that had known me all my life," said Julie Pollack, who went to Israel in 1996, two years after her graduation from U.C. Santa Cruz.

While there, she studied at Livnot, a Jewish education center in Safed. She also worked as a public relations intern. Coming back to San Francisco, she says, was tough.

Wishing to bridge that gap, Pollack, 25, is now a member of Alumot, a national organization for people who have traveled in Israel. The group, which had a booth at the recent "Israel in the Park" in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, connects members with the Jewish community in their area. Members also meet for Shabbat dinners, seminars and holiday celebrations.

Pollack now works at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco as assistant Jewish program manager. Finding Alumot helped her integrate her Judaism into American life.

"It helped to meet people I could share mutual experiences with," she said. "People from Alumot are the people I've really been growing with, making me feel OK about feeling so strongly about being Jewish in America."

Deborah Fink, 28, coordinator of Alumot for the Bay Area, says, "It's just a special feeling to be with someone who's been on an Israel program that's affected them really profoundly."

Alumot is a play on the word "alumni," but it also means "sheaves of grain" in Hebrew. The group was started by Livnot in June 1995, in response to ex-students who were hungry to connect Jewishly in the States.

The Bay Area group began in September 1996. Although started by Livnot, it's open to anyone who's been to Israel or to Jews who would like to connect, at any level of observance.

"Alumot has just been a saving grace," says Amy Berkowitz, 22, registrar at Camp Tawonga in San Francisco. She moved to San Francisco from Colorado after studying at Livnot in Israel for four months.

"Alumot's so new that we have the ability to make it whatever we want to make it, which is for me a pretty exciting opportunity."

Heather Meiselman, 26, first got involved with Alumot in New York after studying and working in Israel for six months in 1994.

"Alumot kept me in touch with young people who were psyched about being Jewish. I had this Jewish awakening in Israel and I wanted to hang out with people who were doing what I was doing," she says.

"We got together for Shabbat and holidays and it was so nice because we had all been on the same hike in Israel. That was a nice welcome to the New York Jewish community."

Meiselman now lives in Berkeley where she attends Congregation Beth Israel. She is the citywide program director of San Francisco Hillel and citywide coordinator for Alumot.

Emily Swaab, 30, a religious-school teacher at San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom, says, "It's a community with a deep connection to the profound experience we all shared in Israel."

When Swaab returned from Israel last year, she wanted to continue her Jewish learning but found it difficult in San Francisco.

"In San Francisco, there are still very few learning opportunities," she said. "Alumot helped on occasion by coordinating a learning session."

Alumot's latest project is finding a house that will serve as both a central office and home to Alumot coordinators.

"I envision a housing board on one side, a job board on the other side, a guest place for people to crash," says Fink, who is also the assistant director of the Marin Jewish Youth Contact at the Marin Jewish Community Center,

"It's really a powerful thing for people my age to see a couple of people having a living, breathing, Jewish home. We want to be a center of energy for twentysomethings, the group everyone says is so lost."