Young Israeli Americans bond over dual, dueling identities

At a recent national conference for Israeli American college students, San Jose native Yifat Amir says she heard plenty of “Heeglish” spoken. That Hebrew-English blend is the patois of choice for young adults like Amir, born of Israeli parents yet brought up in the United States.

IAC Mishelanu, Hebrew for “one of ours,” is a national organization that was launched in the Bay Area five years ago. It serves as a haven for bilingual, bicultural college students who sometimes feel too American for Israel and too Israeli for America. Through Mishelanu, they meet peers who have experienced the exact same thing.

More than 300 attendees from 80 campuses across the country, including a contingent from Northern California, came to Los Angeles for the Feb. 26-28 Mishelanu conference. There they attended sessions on topics such as fighting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, heard speakers such as former Intel executive David (Dudi) Perlmutter and L.A.-based Israeli Consul General David Siegel, and enjoyed a performance by Israeli pop star Tsahi Halevi.

A group activity at the Mishelanu conference photo/bell productions

More important, they schmoozed, mixed and mingled.

“It was a wide group of people,” said Amir, 20, who studies computer science at U.C. Berkeley. “That was cool to see. One highlight was meeting people and sharing experiences, so next time I go to Florida, there are people to visit.”

Another attendee, U.C. Berkeley graduate Asaf Avidan, 22, was born in Israel and grew up in Sunnyvale. He is a veteran of past Mishelanu conferences and retreats, including the first, which drew fewer than 40 students.

“The food was hand-cooked by parents,” he remembered. “The conference was much smaller. So it was amazing to see this 300-person conference at this huge hotel in L.A.”

Today Mishelanu, now under the umbrella of the Israeli American Council, has grown to six regions, including two in California, and has chapters on 94 campuses. During the year, members hold bimonthly on-campus meetings and off-campus retreats. The annual conference is the big show, where ideas get exchanged and the members network with each other.

“I just wanted to have an Israeli community on campus and be able to maintain my Israeli culture and language,” added Avidan, who founded the U.C. Berkeley chapter in 2012. “There’s a shared Israeli mentality, and there are times you just want to be surrounded by other Israelis, talk about things you have in common.”

Avidan remembers the pain of being the new kid in a strange American elementary school, speaking no English and not fitting in.

“After a lot of time, you form that dual identity,” he said. “In Israel I feel at home [and] in the United States I feel at home. On the other hand, everywhere you go you’re associated as the other identity. I go to Israel and they say Asaf is the American guy. And here I’m the Israeli guy.”

Israeli American Council CEO and Israeli native Shoham Nicolet attended the conference and was glad to see people taking advantage of the personal and professional opportunities.

“Mishelanu was born out of a real need in the Israeli American community,” he said. “This is a place where they have shared culture and shared experience. One thing we’re successful at doing is bringing in students from all political [perspectives] and all denominations. We’ve had students from Yeshiva University and others secular; some very Israeli and some not.”

Amir feels very Israeli but enjoys her dual identity, saying it makes her “special.” She was active with BBYO in high school, but her family, like many Israeli families, abstained from most American Jewish institutions.

As a freshman at Cal, she attended Hillel events, through which she discovered Mishelanu. It wasn’t just the bowling parties, Shabbat dinners and weekend hikes she liked.

“Finding a community I identified with was important to me,” she said. “I ended up finding it at Mishelanu. I really connected with everybody there. Having events in Hebrew was a completely different experience. It felt very familial and homey.”

Avidan enjoyed the educational and social aspects of the conference, but as a recent college graduate he has his eye on the next step, both for himself and for Mishelanu alumni. He noted that part of the conference was devoted to strategies for transitioning to the work world after college.

“My time with Mishelanu solidified my need to keep in touch with my Israeli side and my Israeli friends,” he said, “to maintain the language and stay involved. We need to keep going. One thing I’m doing now with some [colleagues] is we started a group, focused on social and cultural aspects but with a professional twist.”

Nicolet said one major benefit of the Mishelanu experience was deepening members’ pride in their dual identity and their unapologetic devotion to the Jewish state. That explains in part why the theme of the conference this year was “Made in Israel.”

“They were made in Israel,” Nicolet said of the Mishelanu members. “Now they’re part of something bigger.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.