Israeli? American?: New group helps college students deal with identity issues
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By all appearances, Shachar Ben-David is the all-American girl. Except that she’s not quite.
Born in Israel, she moved with her family to Silicon Valley when she was 11, and came of age in California. Today the 24-year-old college student and Israeli army veteran knows what it’s like to be Jewish, Israeli and American, and yet not feel fully any one of them.
Enter Mishelanu, a South Bay–based nonprofit founded 15 months ago by Israelis living in the Bay Area. The organization’s mission is to help Israeli-born college students, and those born in the United States to Israeli immigrants, navigate the tricky waters of identity through education and social networking.
That was before she attended her first Mishelanu social event at San Francisco State University last semester.
“We ate falafel,” she recalled. “We talked about the current [political] situation and spoke in Hebrew. It reminded me of the things I missed in Israel: a community that really understood.”
Mishelanu board member Nathalie Landesman understands the dilemma Ben-David felt. The Cupertino mother of three — including a current Israeli Defense Forces recruit — has seen her children ponder their identity, and she wanted to do something about it.
“One [young adult] told me, ‘I feel the most comfortable in the airport, because I don’t belong anywhere,’” Landesman recalled. “Israelis [in the Bay Area] are not affiliated, and not organized in communal ways.”
Mishelanu was created to counteract that.
From the Hebrew phrase meaning “From our place,” Mishelanu (http://www.mishelanu.org) operates on 10 college campuses, including seven in Northern California. It also has formed partnerships with Hillel, the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation and the World Zionist Organization.
Mishelanu holds two social events a month, often centered on Jewish holidays. The organization also arranged some summer internships in Israel for members and sent seven students to a WZO youth convention in Florida last winter.
In Northern California, nearly 100 students have taken part in at least one event. Participants have ranged from those who speak Hebrew poorly and barely know their homeland to those who speak fluent Hebrew and have served in the Israeli military.
Because many Israelis are secular, some Mishelanu members know little about Judaism. Lior Ben-Hur, an Israeli who serves as an emissary with the WZO’s S.F.-based Department for Diaspora Activities, says some students even avoid organizations such as Hillel because they feel it’s too religious. Thus, Mishelanu approaches its Jewish education component gingerly.
“We deal with Judaism from an Israeli point of view, so we do holidays like Lag B’Omer,” Ben-Hur said. “Every Israeli knows you make a campfire.”
Landesman noted that Mishelanu is strictly apolitical, avoiding any programming dealing with the Middle East conflict. Nor does it try to persuade members to move back to Israel permanently.
“The mission statement tried to distance itself from any advocacy,” she said, “because there are groups on campus that are very effective already. [Mishelanu] is really a way of providing solutions to those who chose to stay here, and will make a living here.”
Ben-David is not sure if that includes her. She plans to get a master’s degree in conflict resolution, and knows of good programs in Israel to which she may apply. But for now, she’s staying put in the Bay Area, and that means hanging out with her Mishelanu friends.
“We formed such tight connections,” she said. “I made some incredible friends. That’s part of Israeli identity: When you put 25 Israelis in a room it doesn’t matter that we never met. We bonded.”
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