On the fly

Ian Kaneshiro, 25, from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ian Kaneshiro, 25, from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘My journey here was non-conventional,” deadpans Ian Kaneshiro, 25, of Tel Aviv by way of California.
The son of a Jewish mother and a Japanese father, Kaneshiro grew up in Woodland Hills, attended Hebrew school, Sunday school, and celebrated his bar mitzva with a Hawaiian luau in honor of the sizable contingent from his father’s family that came from Hawaii to celebrate.
“As a kid, the last Jewish thing that I did was my bar mitzva,” Kaneshiro notes wryly.
His Jewish friends went on to attend Jewish youth groups and summer camps, but he concentrated his efforts on baseball for the next several years. After graduating high school, he made his way to Cal State Monterey Bay, where he studied business and enjoyed exchange programs in Spain, Italy and Germany. While spending a semester studying in Spain, one of his close friends offered him a job at a summer camp where he worked. Seven years later, Kaneshiro recalls the conversation.
“He said, ‘I work at this summer camp in California. If you don't have anything to do in the summer, you'd be a great fit.’ I answered, ‘I don't want to work at a summer camp.’ He said, ‘It’s a Jewish summer camp.’ I said, ‘I definitely don't want to work at that summer camp.’”
Nevertheless, with the school year coming to an end and his funds running low, he reconsidered. He called his friend, applied and was accepted to work on the staff at Camp Tawonga, a Jewish overnight camp located near Yosemite National Park. He returned from Italy, packed his bags and set off for Groveland, California, not knowing what to expect.
Despite not knowing the songs or the prayers – “I was faking the prayers from eight years prior,” he admits – he had the best summer of his life. Grinning, he says, “I left the summer in tears, saying, ‘I can’t wait to come back next year,’ just like the eight-year-old campers that I watched.”
Camp Towanga, with its mission of promoting a positive Jewish identity, Jewish values and connecting with nature, was, he says, “eye-opening.” He returned to school, finished college and began working in an elementary school in Los Angeles and as a part-time bartender, trying to find his place in life. The one constant in his life was Camp Towanga, where he spent the next four summers, first as a counselor and eventually becoming a supervisor.
It was in the summer of 2015 that Camp Towanga again played a pivotal role in his life. There, he met Michal Deri, a recently discharged IDF soldier and native of Petah Tikva, who was spending the summer working at the camp. They hit it off, and quickly became a couple. He was intrigued with her army experience, where she had served as a bomb-defusing instructor. While he had been to Israel previously on a Birthright trip, it wasn’t until he met Deri that he considered moving to Israel.
Their summer was winding down. Deri was returning to Israel, and they didn’t know if their romance was just a summer fling, or if it had more staying power. A friend of Kaneshiro’s told him about Masa, which offers study, internship and volunteer programs throughout the country. Again, acting quickly, he applied in late August to become an Israel Teaching Fellow, where he would teach English in an elementary school in Israel, and was accepted. As soon as camp ended, he packed his duffel bag and backpack, flew to Israel and began work as an assistant English teacher in a religious elementary school in Beersheba.
He says that he felt like a fish out of water teaching English to children in the religious school,where, he says, “their No. 1 priority is learning Torah, and second priority is being kids.” Kaneshiro spent most weekends with Michal and her family in Petah Tikva. In June of 2016, when the program ended, he returned to Camp Towanga for a fifth year, while Deri was also in the US, working at a different camp.
He wanted to return to Israel, and had been interviewing with Israeli companies before he had returned to the US. After camp had finished, he interviewed with an Israeli company on Skype, received a job offer and flew back to Israel. The company eventually experienced financial difficulties and laid off many of its workers, including Kaneshiro, but he found another job, this time in advertising technology.
He has been working for the company for eight months. He lives in a rented apartment on Dizengoff Street with two roommates, works hard during the week and relaxes in Tel Aviv, mostly on the beach, he says, on weekends. He is still with Deri, and enjoys his job, where he is the only non-Israeli in a company with more than 30 people.
For now, Kaneshiro loves his life in Israel, hosting Camp Towanga buddies who come to visit, getting together with his Israeli friends, meeting Masa alumni and playing Ultimate Frisbee in Park HaYarkon.
He spends quite a bit of time in Petah Tikva with Deri and her family and appreciates the fact that her family has made him feel welcome by speaking English as much as possible. Her parents are from Morocco and Iraq, and Kaneshiro has taken a liking to their cuisine, noting that his favorite food these days is kubbeh.
“I hadn’t touched a beet in my entire life,” he adds, “and now kubbeh with beets is my favorite dish.”
His mother visited for Passover last year, and spent the Seder with Ian and Michal at her parents’ home in Petah Tikva. He commented that the Sedarim that they usually had at home in California would attract more non-Jewish friends, who enjoyed the experience, than Jews. The Seder that he attended at Deri’s home, he jokes, was the first with his mother that had more Jews than non-Jews in attendance.
What are his long-term plans? Kaneshiro lives for the moment, and while he says, “It's not beyond the realm of possibility that I will end up here,” he can’t commit beyond that. He reflects on the whirlwind of events and choices that have changed his life.
“It was a decision that I definitely made on the fly, but I think there is a lot to be said for following your heart, and doing what you feel is right for you right now, because when you're 22 or 23... when you have no strings attached, you have to pull the trigger, to act right now – and I'm just really happy that I did.”