Amy Albertson, a 26-year-old California native of mixed Chinese and American parentage, can’t explain how she ended up living in Jerusalem, 12,000 km. from her childhood Sacramento home. Her face crinkling into a smile, she admits, “It’s bigger than me. It’s beyond me.”
Albertson’s parents and grandparents were born in America. Her mother is not Jewish and is of Chinese extraction, and her father, who is Jewish, has roots in Eastern Europe.
A product of the American melting pot, Amy grew up in a mixed religious family, celebrating Christmas and Easter with her mother’s family, and Hanukka and Passover with her father’s clan. She did not attend Hebrew school and did not celebrate her bat mitzva.
“Sacramento is a very mixed, diverse city,” she says, “so being a mixed family was no big deal. A lot of friends and families come from mixed families.”
Ironically, Albertson began to feel stirrings of Jewish interest during her highschool years, when she attended a Catholic high school, which offered a class that taught the religions of the world.
After spending her first year of college in Oakland, she transferred to Portland State University. It was there, looking to expand her social life and learn a bit about Judaism, that she found herself at the campus Hillel House. When people asked her about her background, she would respond, “I am half-Chinese and half-Jewish.”
It was in her second year at Portland State that her life began to tilt in an easterly direction, toward Israel.
At a Hillel screening of Israel Inside, a film that examines the character strengths that have enabled Israelis to overcome challenges, a group of students representing a pro-Palestinian group disrupted the film, entering with hands tied and mouths taped shut. Albertson was shocked, as she had never been exposed to anti-Israel demonstrations or pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions rallies.
“Why do they hate Israel?” she wondered.
Albertson sat with the local Jewish Federation’s Israel emissary, who gave her a crash course on Middle East politics.
While some in Hillel shied away from a formal response to the anti-Israel protesters, Albertson responded by forming a pro-Israel group on the Portland State campus called Cultural and Historical Association for Israel, or CHAI for short.
She says, “The fire was lit. I became obsessed and addicted. I had to know more.”
She proudly notes that the organization still exists and functions at Portland State.
For the next two-and-a-half years, Albertson was the face of the pro-Israel movement on campus, even though she had never been to Israel.
She began attending a Conservative synagogue in Portland, and worked with the synagogue’s youth adviser, who helped her to increase her knowledge of Judaism.
She visited Israel for the first time on a Birthright tour in the summer of 2013, and enjoyed Israel so much that she stayed on for an additional two months after the program ended.
After graduating in December, she returned to Israel in February 2014 on a five-month Masa program, interning in Tel Aviv for a boutique consulting firm that does philanthropy consulting for nonprofit organizations in Israel.
Albertson’s Masa internship ended just as Operation Protective Edge, the 2014 Gaza war, began. She returned to Sacramento, but her mind was focused on both the events that were taking place and her friends who were serving in the IDF. Due to the 10-hour time difference between Israel and California, she would stay up all night watching the news, to keep up with events, and sleep during the day.
She decided to make aliya and arrived in Israel on January 7, 2015. Heeding the advice of her aliya counselor, she attended Ulpan Etzion, where she learned the basics of Hebrew language and fell in love with Jerusalem.
Hired by Masa in October 2015, Albertson oversaw marketing content for social media, email campaigns, blogs, photography, videos and other content for marketing purposes. She is now a marketing associate for Jerusalem U, which creates and distributes innovative feature films and film-based educational programs with the goal of making young Jews feel proud to be Jewish and emotionally connected to Israel.
The chronology of the events described above is rather straightforward and prosaic.
Girl goes on Birthright, decides she wants to spend the rest of her life in Israel, returns with Masa, flies home in tears, and triumphantly makes aliya six months later.
Except this story has a twist to it – Albertson is not Jewish, according to both Orthodox Jewish law and the law of the state.
How does this affect her daily life? With her gift for understatement, she says, “It’s a little bit difficult.”
She continues, “When you make aliya, you go to the office, and they process you and enter your aliya details. Then they asked ‘What is your religion?’ I looked at the woman, and I said, ‘You tell me.’ She said, ‘I’m sorry, but you know I can’t write Jewish.’ I said, ‘I know you can’t.’ The woman asked me, ‘So what do you want me to put? I can leave it blank.’ I said, ‘Good, leave it blank.’ So, they left it blank.” That, she says, was the first concrete moment when she sensed the difficulty.
Albertson feels the pain of not fully belonging, but is determined to remain.
“I serve the Jewish people every day. I have chosen to dedicate my professional life to the Jewish people, and yet because some religious authority decides that this is not acceptable...” She continues. “Lucky for Israel, I am much more passionate and stubborn, and I am not going to let that keep me from moving to Israel.”
She admits that her religious status makes it hard to establish relationships, because some boys will not want to go out with her for that reason. She has considered the possibility of conversion, but hesitates to do so, because of the difficulties that she feels are presented by the rabbinate and the “awful stories,” as she puts it, that she has heard.
Albertson recognizes the paradox of her life. A passionate Israel advocate who loves her country, she struggles to be accepted, due to her family origins.
“Israel,” she says, “is a giant collection of paradoxical ideas. It’s old and it’s new.
Israelis are the nicest and the rudest at the same time. Everything is super-Jewish yet secular. It’s a bunch of extremes – that’s the manifestation of my life here, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”