What Israeli Children Think About American Jews

What is it like to be a Jew that lives in Minneapolis, where most of the people are Christian? Last week, I had the opportunity to answer that exact question to 5th and 6th grade students  in Rehovot, Israel as well as the teen delegation that will visit the Twin Cities in December. There were a lot of interesting misconceptions! I was greeted enthusiastically, with many kids asking, “At bemet Yehudia?” (Are you really Jewish?) And so I began my presentation, delivered in Hebrew, aided by lots of photos in Power Point, explaining what it’s like to be a Jew that doesn’t live in Israel, and specifically, in Minnesota.

My first order of business was to explain exactly where Minnesota is located in the vast United States (probably something some Americans could use some help with), and what it’s like to live in the snowy North. The students loved seeing what kids do for outdoor fun in the various seasons. They were stunned to know that our state has over 10,000 lakes (the closest guess was about thirty). They were completely amazed to see pictures of cars driving over frozen lakes!

In Israel, even a non-religious person lives on Jewish time, speaks Hebrew and feels Shabbat approaching every week. However, in the U.S., maintaining a Jewish identity requires effort, planning and intention. If you want a Jewish life, you will need to make it happen by joining a synagogue or inviting people for Shabbat and the holidays and seeking out opportunities to learn and grow as a Jew.

The idea of sending kids to Jewish summer camp simply amazed the Israeli students. I explained its central role in building Jewish identity— the weeks of intense immersion in Judaism and Zionism, the friends, the fun, the kids return eagerly year after year. They were also quite surprised that kids would be away from their parents for so long.

Showing pictures from my own kids B’nai Mitzvah, both my son and daughter,  both wearing kippot and tallitot, both reading from the Torah, elicited a shout of, “Asoor!,” or forbidden, from one student and shocked giggles from others. It was the perfect segue into explaining the various streams of Judaism thriving in the United States. Since Orthodox Judaism is the most dominant and familiar practice of Judaism in Israel, this topic generated many questions. In Israel, most girls mark their Bat Mitzvah at age twelve with a party. Aliyah to the Torah is not common. So they were quite surprised by the options available to Jewish girls here.

Pictures of holiday celebrations and Shabbat preparations elicited nods of recognition. But when I told them that we also celebrate Israel’s Yom HaAtzmaut, the day of Israeli independence, and that a couple of years ago the Israeli band HaDag Nachash came to celebrate with us, you could have heard a pin drop.

The kids had lots of questions about whether Jews celebrate Halloween and Christmas. They were excited to share any personal link to the States, about a cousin in New York or a father that just came back from California.  They were curious about how and why I learned Hebrew. Most of all they were open, engaging and eager to connect.

My final words to them were these: There is a significant part of ‘Am Yisrael‘ that does not live in Israel. But a Jew is a Jew, and we are all part of one people. There is so much that we share.

Ever since our communal partnership with the Israeli city of Rehovot was launched last winter through Partnership2Gether, a program supported by the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, I hoped to have a chance to meet with students there and give them a view of Jewish life in the Twin Cities. The feedback from students was so positive that I will happily take this presentation to any Israeli school that will invite me, any time I am in Israel.

Sometimes our two Jewish communities—American and Israeli—feel like two sides of one coin. Heads and tails are inseparable. Each knows that the other is there, but sometimes they need a mirror held up, in order to say, “Ah! There you are! Now I can see you.”

I will leave you with some reflections from the students:

“I discovered that Jews in Minneapolis live just like us, making an effort to keep the traditions.”
“They live together, Jews and Christians.”
“They are not so different from us, they keep the traditions and commandments like us.”
“One big difference is that girls read from the Torah, and some wear tallitot and kippot.”