One of the most common questions I’m asked when meeting new people during my stay in America is, “Why did you choose to do this? Why postpone your army service for a whole year, and come here to teach about Israel?”
I’ve always responded in many different ways to this question — starting by describing my personal deep connection to Diaspora Jews (while singing in the HaZamir international Jewish teen choir for the past five years), the feeling of “returning a favor” to my homeland, and of course, my endless passion about Israel and its future. But now, I can summarize the whole experience in one word: AIPAC.
It has been seven months since I started my shlichut (emissary work) as a Shin-Shinit (young Israeli emissary) for The Jewish Agency for Israel in Westchester County, New York. During this time, I’ve felt like I’ve found a home away from home, where I can bring my perspective on Israel into my community in its finest way, and where I can just be myself. I’ve been teaching a lot about Israel and what I believe are its precious values.
But most of all, I’ve learned from the people around me. I’ve learned how to experience Judaism in such a colorful way; how to build strong relationships with people who are very different from me, but also so similar; and how much those relationships matter.
Last week, this relationship-building reached a new level. From March 24-26, I had the privilege of attending the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C, with one of the many synagogues I work with, Congregation Kol Ami of White Plains.
As part of an unprecedented delegation of 120 Jewish Agency emissaries attending the conference, I experienced a large-scale event the likes of which I’ve never witnessed before. I was not only one of 120, but also one of 18,000 — Jews, Christians, African-Americans, Arabs and supporters of Israel from other backgrounds hearing firsthand from influential political leaders.
All of the AIPAC conference attendees share a common bond: they are inspiring women and men who share the same values I was raised on, particularly our enormous love and support for Israel. This made me understand something very special: that our unity is unbreakable and should be cherished.
During the AIPAC conference, I attended various sessions about the topics drawing the most attention in the Jewish world today. One particularly interesting session for me was “Predicting the Unpredictable,” which covered the upcoming Israeli election. I found it fascinating to see the Diaspora Jews who attended the session, show genuine interest and concern for Israel, not hesitating to ask the panelists difficult questions. This helped me understand the Israel-Diaspora relationship from a whole different perspective, both as an Israeli who was born and raised in Israel, and as a Jew who currently lives in the U.S. but still considers Israel to be my home. In that moment and throughout the conference, I started to feel like I have two identities.
And those two identities don’t need to clash with one another — they can support and strengthen each other. As former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said at one of the plenary sessions, “Whether it’s Israel or anything else, you have to stand up and fight. You have to stand up and fight for those that don’t think they can stand up for themselves.” During the conference, I occasionally felt like perhaps one of my identities could not stand up for itself and needed the support of the other identity. That’s when I realized how these two identities work together to unite into one marvelous identity.
I’ve now returned to my role as a Shin-Shinit in Westchester’s Jewish community with much more enthusiasm to build a strong bridge between my two identities, with significant new knowledge about the Diaspora community that surrounds me, and with a powerful feeling that I know exactly why I came here.
By Carmel Mena