Roughly 85 percent of world Jewry lives either in the United States or Israel. But while bound by ancestry, heritage and religion, American and Israeli Jews today often find themselves culturally, politically and spiritually siloed. Even at odds.
A new program launched in the Seattle area aims to combat that. The program, Hidabrut, was featured Dec. 10 at this year’s entirely online Z3, an annual conference organized by the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.
“So many of the discussions about Israeli and American Jews focus on the things that divide us,” said Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, a longtime rabbi in the Seattle area and one of the organizers of Hidabrut. Through the new storytelling and dialogue initiative, he wants to “really look at ways the two communities can create something brand new.”
Hidabrut aims to bring American Jews and Israeli Jews together in intimate settings to relate their own personal histories, to ask questions of one another and to actively listen.
At Z3, which aims to do much of the same, two Hidabrut participants (one Israeli and one American) told their own life stories in a session titled “The Tensions that Connect Us: How Looking at the Jew Within Can Help Israeli and American Jews Bridge our Differences.” From both speakers, a common theme emerged: the experience of traveling abroad, moving away from one’s home and heritage, before eventually returning to Jewish traditions and culture.
Lior Caspi, a technology consultant, described his youth as a “simple Israeli upbringing.” He was a leader in the Israeli Scouts and later a naval officer, then got a job offer in his early 20s to work on a software project on behalf of Israel’s Ministry of Defense — in San Diego.
“It was very far from home,” Caspi said. “Very difficult for a 23-year-old, [my] first time alone out of the country.” He said he felt “alone” with the people he was working with.
A group of Israeli navy officers in Los Angeles welcomed him to their homes periodically, and that helped, he said.
But in San Diego his saving grace came in the form of a program every Sunday at the local JCC: Israeli folk dancing.
“I danced and I sang Hebrew, and I felt wonderful,” he said. “I was too young to put it in those terms,” he said, but the experience made him realize “that community was important.”
He would eventually meet his wife, Inez, an American Jew from Berkeley, at one of the folk dancing sessions. The two moved to Israel and had children before landing in the Seattle area, where today Caspi is involved in two Jewish community organizations.
Barry Goren, the other Hidabrut participant, was born and raised in Brooklyn, where the schoolyard was like his JCC, he said. “Everyone there was Jewish, and if they weren’t Jewish, they were Italian.”
After college, he was eager to leave New York, “to bust out, or break away from [my] tight-knit family,” he said. He joined AmeriCorps Vista, a national service program, which sent him to Seattle, where he spent 10 years feeling completely disconnected from Judaism. “I took a 10-year vacation,” he said.
It wasn’t until his early 30s that he had an “awakening.” What helped was a trip to Israel in 1977 when he discovered he had Israeli cousins. Then five years later, while traveling across Europe, he found himself on Friday afternoons “stumbling into a synagogue” in city after city — something he had not planned for. Time after time, he was welcomed almost like a family member.
“I found myself connecting with Jewish communities wherever I went,” he said.
The trip transformed his life. Goren decided, for one thing, to search out the Jewish community back home in Seattle, including, he says, Jewish women. He met his wife Suzanne and raised a Jewish family. He also found a job in the Jewish community, at the Federation, where he worked for 21 years, eventually becoming president.
Hidabrut cohorts consist of five Israelis and five Americans that participate in six sessions. Two personal stories get told in the first five, then the cohort finishes up by discussing the themes that resonated throughout.
The process elicits “topics, themes and tensions. And we reflect on them,” said Vered Merzer-Sapir, one of the founding members of Hidabrut. She is an Israeli American nonprofit professional and occupational therapist. “We discovered that when we throw those things in the air, all of a sudden it’s not ‘Jewish Americans’ and ‘Israeli Americans.’ All of a sudden it’s one discussion.”