When I lived in Israel for my gap year, one of the biggest shocks I encountered was how differently Israeli society functions from the way I was always taught in my religious Jewish day school in America. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I understood Israel to be a country full of religious Jews, in which every street is empty of cars on Shabbat and finding a cheeseburger is near impossible. After spending a year living with many hiloni (secular/cultural) Jews in Jerusalem, and now spending my summer in Tel Aviv, I know that that could not be farther from the truth. In fact, about half of the Jewish population of Israel does not identify as religious. And while it does depend on where you live, there are non-religious Jewish Israelis all over the country, building their own secular-Jewish communities. Now that I’m spending the summer in Tel Aviv, I am witnessing the thriving progressive and modern parts of the country. I am learning so much more about what it means to be Israeli and Israeli culture outside of its Jewish and religious aspects.
The difference between American Jewish culture and Israeli Jewish culture
Another big surprise from living in Israel was how different American Jewish culture is from Israeli Jewish culture. Nobody here knows about the tradition of eating Chinese food and watching a movie on Christmas Eve or how common it is to travel across the country to attend a Jewish sleep-away camp for a month. Even words like ‘shul’ and ‘latke’ were unbeknownst to most of my Israeli peers. In Israel, Judaism is a foundational part of the culture – even for those that have no religious connection. It’s in the food and the language, in the breaks from work and school, and – though many are not happy about it – a part of the law and governmental system. As someone who grew up having to put so much effort into feeling like a part of Jewish culture, it’s so refreshing to be somewhere in which the culture is all around you.
While my two points – or surprises – seem to contradict one another, they actually go hand-in-hand for me. They have taught me a big lesson about my Judaism: Israel is an integral part of my Jewish identity. Being here feels amazing. I feel so connected to my roots just by existing in Tel Aviv. I don’t have to make so much effort or feel like I need to be observant to be connected to my Judaism. I eat an 18 shekel laffa (flat bread) with hummus and falafel, and I feel Jewish. I hold my Rav Kav (a card/app used for public transportation throughout Israel) in my hand, and I feel Jewish. I hear Omar Adam blasting through the speakers of a clothing store, and I feel Jewish.
Working in BINA
As I spend most of my days working in the offices of BINA, I have never felt so welcomed and comfortable in a Jewish group or community. That’s a huge part of Israeli culture: everyone is family and everyone is welcome. In America, it’s every man for themselves; the work environment is strict, there is a clear sense of authority, and employees mostly keep to themselves. At BINA, we believe that everyone deserves to have their voice heard and everyone is treated with respect. I am often greeted in the morning with bourekas or cookies, or sometimes even a bowl of soup. Though I want to emphasize that this is not just the BINA way – it’s the Israeli way. It’s a truly beautiful culture unlike any other and it is one that I feel privileged to be a part of, even if just for a little bit.