Below, Rotem Ohana, Director of Hillel at Sapir College in Israel, shares why living in Israel is important and fulfilling for her, her students, and her community.
Last year, I graduated from Sapir College. In January of 2013, I began my role as Hillel Director there. One of the things that led me to Sapir was the significant array of social action activities offered by the school and integrated into the academic experience. But something was missing in my experiences: the opportunity to ask, at the end of the day, “why is this important to me?” To discuss with other students about the place of social activism in our lives and the shared values that bring us together as a community. To connect not only to the people and the place, but also to ourselves. Today, I know Hillel was "the missing ingredient" in my experience, and that's what I am now working to create for other students.
When you ask the average Israeli student what it means to be Jewish, s/he gets confused. Most of us in Israel have never stopped to make a real distinction between Judaism and "Israelism". Do I serve in the IDF because I am Jewish or Israeli? Do I fast on Yom Kippur because I am a Jew and need to atone or is it because I am Israeli and that's what you do in Israel?
The paradox is that Judaism is so ingrained in being Israeli that we are no longer able to distinguish between the two. The price of this is that, on the one hand, there is no space for the individual Jewish experience, and on the other hand, there is no room for those who are not Jewish. In this way, we lose twice. How can one be in dialogue with "the other" when one is not even in dialogue with oneself? We have grown so used to hearing about mostly negative things done and said in the name of Judaism that we forgot: it's also ours. We also have the right and the responsibility to learn and teach the different colors of Judaism, to interpret it and live by it in our own way.
With my students, I first try to help them question the things they take for granted. Then, I accompany them in a deep, multi-layered process at the end of which they feel more confident and better understand their Jewish identity and Judaism's place in their lives. They then renew themselves with and through Judaism and find in it a source of inspiration, learning and growth. The opportunity to go through this kind of process in the “Gaza Envelope” area should not be taken for granted and often, reality reminds us of how complex and challenging it can be.
It may sound as if I am talking about a different world, but each one of us, in Israel and in the rest of the world, needs to choose and create the Jewish life which is best suited for one's self. For this to be a true "free choice" we need to feel that we are allowed to learn about our options. We also need knowledge and an environment which will support and assist our inner dialogue.
Jews from all over the world visit Israel to connect with their Judaism. We know now that this experience is no less critical for the Israeli student. They need Jewish communities in North America and around the world in order to feel Jewish themselves. To get away, physically and emotionally from the complex and charged "Israelism" and to extract from it a sense of Judaism, of belonging, and of connecting to a wide, rich, diverse family.
Personally, Hillel gave me the opportunity to not only continue living in the “Gaza Envelope” area, but also to experience and advance social and moral issues which are at the core of my being. Instead of leaving after graduation, I have the privilege of staying in the home I have found here and to continue working to make Jewish values, tradition and the renewing global Jewish family a meaningful part of my life and community.
Rotem Ohana is the Director of Hillel at Sapir College, near the city of Sderot, Israel. She graduated from Sapir College in 2012 with BA in Communication and Written Journalism. Rotem has a vast background in social work with underprivileged populations in Israel's periphery and in developing countries. She is a proud resident of Sderot and finds in it, every day, a unique combination of truth and magic.