Re-discovering our unity as a Jewish people

As siblings who grew up in a warm, loving Persian family in Los Angeles, we had a strong sense of identity.

By ARYA, ROXANNA DONAY
August 17, 2019 19:30
2 minute read.
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) has his photo taken with members of Masa before atten

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) has his photo taken with members of Masa before attending a weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem March 30, 2014. Masa is a programme that provides educational trips in Israel for young Jewish adults.. (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)

A Jewish People Policy Institute survey released last year found that 57% of American and Israeli Jews perceive a “distancing” between their communities, and the ensuing year has brought a steady stream of news headlines on Israel-Diaspora tensions ranging from issues of religious pluralism to the politics of the April 2019 Israeli election.

This kind of infighting destroyed the Second Temple – a tragedy we mourn during these months every year. It’s time to break the cycle. Let’s find our shared peoplehood again.

Maybe our story can help.

As siblings who grew up in a warm, loving Persian family in Los Angeles, we had a strong sense of identity.

We knew our family’s history, including a maternal grandfather who fought in Israel’s War of Independence as part of the Hagana, and a mother who escaped Iran and worked as an interpreter for the Jewish refugee agency HIAS in Rome. We knew the story of grandfathers from both sides of the family reuniting at the Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Los Angeles after meeting in line for green cards in Israel; the story of growing up between the Ashkenazi and Mizrahi Jewish communities; and the story of continuously understanding the privilege of being raised in America rather than under the cloud of religious persecution in Iran.

The one part of the story that we wanted to explore for ourselves, though, was our own personal connection to Israel. Our parents were hesitant to send us so far away. But after a great deal of convincing, they relented, and at different times, we each joined Masa Israel Journey programs.

Both of our experiences entailed gaining a newfound appreciation of Israel as the world’s safest place for the expression of Jewish identity – a place where mezuzot are found on every door, and where you can greet a taxi driver with a “Shabbat shalom.” It also meant authentically connecting with Mizrahi culture in a way that felt more natural than it did in America.

We filled in the missing blanks in our personal story and realized that our identities needed to experience Israel in order to understand more about our place as part of the Jewish people.

We emerged from our Masa programs with solidified senses of belonging to the global Jewish community. Only in Israel do Jewish lives, cultures, traditions and ideals come together in a way that so vividly illustrates the rich mosaic of the Jewish people. We have both channeled the enduring power of our long-term experiences in Israel into our professional and personal lives back in the United States, staying connected to our new understanding of what it means to belong to the tribe.

Our peoplehood is our common bond. If we can remember that, we can rise above the arguments and tensions – and maybe we can even return to Israel with a rebuilt Temple, symbol of our unity and strength.


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