As far as I know, we’ve never had a US Ambassador to Israel quite like Daniel “Dan” Shapiro, who dove into Israeli life with a passion. At times he can be seen at the beach (usually in Herzliya), eating a felafel on the street, wearing a shtreimel and dancing at a haredi rabbi’s wedding, or out hiking with his family.
He has been busy absorbing the smells, sights and people, all of which he does modestly and with a smile.
Shapiro, 44, is a Reform Jew married to Julie, who is one year older than him. They have three daughters.
Sometimes it seems as if he’s not the US ambassador, but just another member of a Jewish-American family that recently arrived on a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight. Shapiro seems like one of us and not the representative of the strongest country in the world – he’s not Uncle Sam but “Cousin Sammy.”
Shapiro met Julie at a Reform sleepaway camp in Wisconsin. “I was 13 and she was 14,” Shapiro says. “We didn’t date then – we were just good friends.
It was the summer after my bar mitzva.
We only began dating four years later when we were counselors at the same camp. So, in a sense, our relationship began within a Jewish setting. Many Midwestern Jews experience Jewish awakenings at these types of camps.
This is where we formed our identities.”
“We both grew up in cities with small and isolated Jewish communities,” his wife explains. “For us, going to camp was a great way to meet Jews outside of our own community.”
Julie studied at the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus for a year in 1988, and also came to Israel for a six-week program. “She had a great apartment in Rehavia,” the ambassador says, “while I lived in the dorms on campus.”
Both of them agree that “studying here was a wonderful experience.”
What’s it like to move from Washington to Herzliya? Julie: I’m having a great time. We have been very warmly welcomed.
Israel is an extremely family-friendly place to live and we feel quite comfortable here. Now that we live here, we can more easily understand why Israelis say they feel claustrophobic as a result of being surrounded on all sides.
When you live in the US and just read about it in the paper, it’s impossible to really understand this. We feel this tension even though we are diplomats and live within a bubble.
Dan: Israelis are very focused on their family and children, which is perfect for us. When you have a family and children, you deal with the same types of problems and happy occasions, so this is helpful.
Julie: I’ve also visited a number of places on my own, such as schools and hospitals. I’ve also checked out programs run by the embassy. I used to be a teacher, so I love visiting schools here.
Where in the US did you grow up? Julie: Duluth, Minnesota. It’s a very small community in the northern United States that sits on the shores of Lake Superior. People usually compare it to Haifa, since they are both situated on a hill overlooking a body of water.”
Dan: Yes, Duluth is beautiful, but Haifa is even more so.
How are your girls getting along? Julie: They all speak Hebrew – two of them quite fluently. They attend local Israeli schools, study hard and are enjoying life here immensely. They’re very happy.
Dan: They’ve completely integrated into Israeli youth culture.
Is that good or bad? (The two laugh.) Dan: I’m not sure, but it makes them feel like this is home. They’re very comfortable and they behave just like Israeli children do. For the most part, this is great. Israeli society is very focused on children. I would even go so far as to say that the children are the ones running the show around here. And my children have toed the line in this respect – they are as proud and assertive as other Israeli children. Granted, sometimes we need to make decisions as American parents and impose some law and order.
Julie: For example, kids in America go to sleep early, but in Israel they don’t.
The girls have become very independent here. Kids in America do not have nearly as much freedom at this age.
We even let our oldest go out alone here. That would never have happened in the US.
Do Israeli and American families have different ideas about safety? Dan: Yes, totally. Most Israeli families allow their kids much more independence and feel much more comfortable living this way than most Americans we know. It’s a good feeling. Israel is very focused on children, which makes it a safer place for children to live.
So if we’re already on the subject of safety, how do you feel knowing that Syrian President Bashar Assad could shoot chemical missiles at Israel? Julie: In this respect I’ve become a bit Israeli myself since this doesn’t really worry me. When we arrived here two years ago, I was a little concerned. But you get used to it. Israelis have been living this way their entire lives. For the time being, I am not worried.
Dan: We’ve adapted well and learned what it takes to be ready and be capable of dealing with the situation. Last November, when Operation Pillar of Defense began and missiles began landing on Israeli soil, Julie took the kids down to the bomb shelter so they could see what it was like and get used to it. She put some toys down there so that their first time going there wouldn’t be during an emergency. And the girls have accepted the situation well. We’ve been lucky and so far there haven’t been any air-raid sirens in Herzliya.
Julie: The first dilemma we encountered was right after we arrived in Israel.
We were scheduled to host a formal dinner here, but then there was a terrorist attack with casualties on the highway in the Negev and I wondered if we should cancel it. But we were instructed not to cancel it. They told us that in Israel, life goes on as usual.
That was our first lesson in how Israelis deal with difficult situations.
And how are the girls dealing with such incidents? Are they resilient like Israeli children? Julie: I haven’t noticed any symptoms of anxiety or anything like that.
They had a few drills at their school last year, and they didn’t have any problems. The only problem we’ve encountered was when one of the girls was looking for information in Google about one of the missiles that had landed in Israel. I still don’t know who it was.
Now that the Syrian regime has used gas to murder its own citizens, you probably understand Israel’s unique connection to the use of chemicals for mass murder, considering our traumatic history as Jews.
Dan: Yes, we do. The crimes that were committed against the Jewish people, especially during the Holocaust, make this a very sensitive issue.
We saw this response among our Israeli friends who are generally very relaxed about these types of things. Now they are more worried.
It’s a very concrete threat, and that’s very hard to live with. It’s hard to live in a place where you know that on all sides of you, there are people who want to hurt you – especially since some of them are armed with dangerous arms. It makes sense that people would be traumatized.
Do you enjoy Israeli culture? Music? Entertainment? Gossip? Dan: We just got back from an Idan Raichel concert. He’s amazing. I love [singer] Shlomo Artzi, too. And I’m also a big [singer] Eyal Golan fan.
You’ve got to be kidding! Dan: No, not at all. And we keep in touch; we send each other text messages.
He’s a great guy.
Have you ever been to one of his concerts in Caesarea? Dan: No, not yet. But I’m going to correct this situation in the very near future. And Julie keeps me up to date on cultural trends and matters here.
For example, she was the one who told me all about Titi [Yityish Aynaw], the new Israeli-Ethiopian Miss Israel.
We met her at the meal that was held in honor of [US President Barack] Obama. This is wonderful news for Israel and the Ethiopian community.
Do you guys watch TV ? Dan: Not much. But I love Matzav Ha’uma ["State of the Nation"]. I’ve been watching this show since its inception and I loved appearing on the show as a guest. They are a really funny group of people. It reminds me a lot of similar shows in the US such as Jon Stewart on Comedy Central. Satirical news programs can be seriously funny.
SHAPIRO IS also a devoted family man. He makes an effort not to host events on Friday nights and Saturdays, believing that the Sabbath is time that should be spent with family.
Last year, when the girls switched to Israeli schools, he also decided to cut down on evening embassy activity so he could help the girls with their homework.
The first year, he would bring them to school and Julie would bring them home in the afternoons. “Living this way has helped me to better understand the saying, ‘More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews,’” he says.
Both of you are Reform Jews. What do you think about the attitude of the Orthodox establishment that controls all religious activity in Israel, including that of Reform Jews, especially since most Jews in the world today identify with the Reform Movement? Julie: It’s quite surprising. In the US, all Jews – Orthodox and Reform alike – are taught to respect all other Jews, without regard to which laws and customs they follow. It’s what we call Klal Yisrael. I was quite surprised when we got here and saw how things work here.
Have you been following what’s going on with the Women of the Wall? Dan: We both grew up in Reform synagogues.
We are currently part of a Conservative [known as Masorti in Israel] community and we feel comfortable with people across a wide spectrum.
We feel that part of our role here is to build relationships with people in Israel from all walks of life: Orthodox, secular, Arabs, Christians and Muslims.
We’ve been following activity surrounding Women of the Wall. Did you know that Julie participated in one of the first groups that founded the organization in 1988-1989, when we were studying at the Hebrew University? Really? No, I did not know that.
You’ve just knocked me off my chair.
Julie: Yes, it was right at the inception of the group. The first international conference for Jewish women was held in December 1988. At first no one noticed us, but we kept coming back.
Dan: Yes, there was an argument.
I was there too, as the tag-along boyfriend.
Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich recently attended our Jewish New Year toast – he’s a friend of mine. This is an opportunity for Jews from different backgrounds to get to know and learn from each other.
So, Julie, are you still a member of Women of the Wall? Julie: Don’t put that in the headline! I was an active participant in the early stages because I was in Israel. I believe that the Western Wall is a significant site – and not just for Jews in Israel.
Jews all over the world believe that it’s holy. I don’t know if all of the Jews in Israel feel that way, but Jews all over the world do.
Dan: The connection between the American Jewish community and Israel is part of the support network between the two countries, and has significant strategic importance. It is our aim to refrain from harming the US-Israel relationship and to encourage feelings of a common purpose and future. Issues concerning the Western Wall could affect the US-Israel relationship.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.