Globes Article: Five Young American Jews Answer Six Burning Questions

    Is the younger generation of world Jewry continuing along the path marked out by its elders? Does it allow itself to criticize Israel, and in what ways are students on American college campuses feeling the impact of anti-Semitism?


    Gitit Pincas 13 September 2013


    The differences between Israeli 21-year-olds and their American and European counterparts are well-known: the Israeli lifecycle is such that the average 21 year-old has a very short résumé, consisting of a few lines about his high school education and military service. Any work experience mentioned would likely be limited to waiting tables, pumping gas or serving as a sales clerk; only at this age do Israelis start to think about a career path. What do they want to be when they grow up?

    Far away, across the sea, live Maria Balakirsky, Ben Gitles, Daniel Lynn, Stephanie Mazursky and Rachel Rubin. They are American 21 and 22 year-olds, all now finishing college or recent college graduates on their way to business careers. Their résumés, as you can see in the sidebar, are highly impressive given their ages. They all volunteer, intern, are activists, work hard at their studies and dream of successful careers in the Land of Opportunity. But one line is missing from their résumé: unlike some of their classmates, they are all seeking answers to questions about their biological origin.

    How do they currently relate to their Jewishness, if at all? In order to find answers to the questions that preoccupy them, these five young people, along with 30 other promising students from leading American colleges and universities, chose to spend this past summer in Israel, interning at companies such as Ernst & Young, Nice, Check Point, Ness, Tnuva, Israel Corporation, and venture capital funds such as Carmel, Gemini and Pitango.

    The internships took place in the framework of Taglit-Birthright Israel's Excel program, funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and by the Steinhardt Foundation.

    Gidi Mark, Taglit-Birthright Israel's CEO, believes that over time "the program will prove highly valuable in strengthening business and academic relations between Israel and the US and between the Jewish communities in both countries." Accordingly, the goal is that the next generation of Jewish leadership will emerge from this select group of students and have an impact on their home communities in the US.



    Are we all Jewish?

    Gitles: "I grew up as a Reform Jew but also studied with Orthodox rabbis. I had a Reform bar mitzvah, and we always celebrated holidays, Shabbat and Passover. For me this was how you connect to Judaism – ceremonies and symbols. After two months in Israel I now see Judaism as people, not as a religion. I finally feel truly comfortable rejecting all the trappings of religion, as I now know that my Jewish identity isn't bound up with them and with customs. My Jewishness has nothing to do with that when I'm in Israel. Also, when I'm in the States, my Jewishness has another leg to stand on: my support for Israel. Over there I can't criticize Israel, it's like I'm in the closet where Israel is concerned. In Israel – you can hardly say that all Israelis support the government, that would be absurd. It's totally legitimate to criticize Israeli policy. The fact that I'm more comfortable in Israel politically helps me better connect to my identity as a Jew."
    Lynn: "At the age of 4 I moved from the suburbs to New York City. I lived in an area where there was a large concentration of Orthodox Jews and you could say I was integrated in the community. As a teenager it was important to me to, for instance, have a bar mitzvah and connect with what I viewed as an integral part of my life – Judaism. My father would go to synagogue, especially after my grandfather died, and despite our protests over having to get up early, we would find ourselves going along with him. Even so, my Jewish identity hadn't entirely jelled. I did have the example of my 26 year-old sister, who made aliyah after finishing college, served in the army, worked in Israel and went to study at Stanford. But in general, Judaism is only a minor aspect of the identity of a lot of young people these days, in keeping with the American trend toward secularism, which affects the Jewish community as well. Jews are losing their faith and religious values. Only after my sister became involved in the army and in Israel did she feel that Judaism is truly important to her, and my family also took on a different value in her outlook on Judaism. Her motivation caused me to follow in her footsteps and intern through the Excel program with Israeli companies."
    Balakirsky: "I was born in Russia, and when I was a year old we moved to the States. In the FSU my parents weren't allowed to be Jews, so when they moved to the States they turned Judaism into something major and meaningful. It was important to the family, and it was a big part of the reason why they emigrated to the US. My parents are young, 47, and they're my heroes: immigrants who felt it was important to pay for me to attend a private Jewish school. So Jewishness is also an important part of me. During my time in Israel I met people who had emigrated from Russia like my parents. Highly educated people who find themselves working as janitors. My parents also arrived in the States with diplomas, yet my mother began her career as a bank clerk. But they made it big, the American dream – my mother works in quality control and my father is a company vice president – and that makes me think that if they did it, I can do anything."
    Mazursky: "My parents themselves grew up as Jews in Iraq, and that was a big part of their life and the values they brought with them when they moved to the States. That's how it turned out that I grew up as a Conservative Jew, even traditional, at a school in Manhattan. I'd go to a Jewish school three times a week, where I got to know the members of the community. There are a lot of religions in New York, there are Jews everywhere and it's nothing special, yet even so, Judaism is now part of my life and the way I define myself."
    Rubin: "I grew up as a Modern-Orthodox Jew. My parents are very connected to Israel, and even though we have no family here we come to Israel nearly every year for Passover – because everything here is kosher and it's easier. I once volunteered in Safed for a few weeks, I was involved in a number of activities and I feel that I've seen the country. Now, wearing my business hat as part of Excel, it was easier for me since I already knew Israel and I put things in the right context. I've gotten to know a lot of people in Israel from all over the States, my age, whose interests are similar to mine and they're Jews. If I start a business someday, I know I have this entire group of people behind me to work with."

    How does Judaism fit in with your dreams for the future?

    Mazursky: "This year I traveled a lot. I was in London, Madrid and Israel, and I never felt more Jewish than during my time in Madrid. My mother found distant relatives in north Madrid, and I while I was there I spent holidays with them, including Rosh Hashanah. It was then that I came to understand a major aspect of Judaism – the community. It's amazing that I can communicate with lots of people around the world, and we have a connection, based on being Jewish. We're part of the same thing. In the States I also feel I'm part of something, but there my connection to Jews in the community is different. At Yale, for instance, there's a strong Jewish community, but I don't identify with it. It's relatively isolated, and you have to be their friend and "click" with them – and it didn't happen for me. Only when I came to Israel with Birthright did I discover that there are other Jews just like me at Yale: who enjoy their Judaism, identify with it but aren't fanatical about it. And then I truly found my community, students living with me in the dorms and I hadn't even known them or realized they were Jewish."
    Balakirsky: "I feel that I don't have the same priorities as my friends who were born and grew up in America – career, career, and career – and I think it's because I came from Russia. Maybe I actually have Israeli priorities: when my Excel friends tell me they have a lot of work, I can find myself asking them if they want to take a coffee break. So I'm American, but I feel don't feel truly American."
    Lynn: "Our generation has a more open mind about what we're going to do, what our career is going to be. We're always working hard and we want to keep doing so – but also to create meaning. Not just to be part of productive companies. I personally am guided by the desire to lead people and produce culture, but also to learn about myself through business. This is a good opportunity to test myself. About Judaism – I'm a spiritual person, and I have a problem putting labels on myself. I know it's important to me to raise my future children in a traditional spirit. Judaism's connection to that will be the answer to the question of who I marry. Beyond that, it's also clear to me that if you want to focus on business and be on the front line, you can't adopt a religious-Jewish lifestyle."

    Anti-Semitism? It exists. What does it look like?

    Lynn: "I'm wary about using that word, "anti-Semitism," because it's overused. Not everything is anti-Semitism. But yes, it exists. I was in Berlin six months ago and it was really in your face. People drank and danced at the memorial for the Israeli athletes who were killed at the Olympics, and I wasn't sure if they were being deliberately insulting or if they didn't entirely know what they were doing. Europe in general and Berlin in particular were a wake-up call for me, and I'm convinced that the economic crisis is intensifying things. In the States there are these pockets of Jew-hatred, but I always see the US as a pro-Israel country. Maybe not for the reasons Israelis think, but it's getting there."
    Mazursky: "In Madrid I found tremendous anti-Semitism. In the States I don't go around telling everyone I'm Jewish, but I don't feel it on a daily basis, though it's there. I felt it especially after there was a terrorist threat on our campus last year, immediately after the year ended, at a time when there was no one at the college, but the feeling was that it was a threat to the Jewish community. It was not pleasant."
    Rubin: "There are different levels of anti-Semitism at every university, and luckily I'm at Brandeis, where there are a lot of Jews. Now I can go back to the States and after ten weeks in Israel I can say: 'Okay, anti-Semitism, but look at what awesome things they're doing in Israel. Look, there's an initiative to find work for Palestinians and that provides transportation from their villages.' If you're anti-Israeli and your eyes are opened to something like that, it's different."

    When is it Jew-hatred and when is it Israel-hatred?

    Gitles: "A lot of the disproportionate anger against Israel is rooted in anti-Semitism. I'm not talking about criticism, it's reasonable to criticize. I'm talking about people who make unreasonable demands on Israel and demonize all its actions. They themselves might not be anti-Semitic and the discussion might, on the face of it, be political, but these movements have strong anti-Semitic roots. Around the world in general people don't understand the idea of Zionism, the Jewish narrative or the reason why, because of our history, there has to be a Jewish state. Many of them are liberals who like equal rights, who don't understand the absurdity – that there's only one Jewish state in the entire world, and at some level I don't even expect them to understand. And that's how a situation has developed where people dedicate their lives to lambasting Israeli policy. Look at what's going on in Syria, how is it that the Israel-hatred emotions are so much stronger?"
    Balakirsky: "In the States, you have to be pro-Israeli in a right-wing way. You can't say even one little thing against Israel. You can't even mildly criticize a mistake that the country makes. Because if we do that, they'll immediately take what we said and turn it back against us. So, in the States I'm always on the right. Here in Israel, I've met people who have a broad range of opinions, and I find myself moving toward the left. Not necessarily because I'm critical of Israeli policy, but simply due to spending time with people who live it on a daily basis. I know that when I go back, I'll be able to talk about it with my parents, but not with many others.
    "I'm always trying to hear the other side – there are a lot of Jews on campus in Virginia, but most of them aren't involved in pro-Jewish or Israeli activity on campus. Besides the pro-Israel club I belong to, we also have very radical pro-Palestinian students, whom I listen to because I have to hear the other side. My fear is that I myself don't know everything so I can be enough of an expert on the Israeli-Palestinian topics, and sometimes at their events people come and hear a respected professor who says things about Israel that I know aren't true, but I don't always manage to defend the Israeli position and present it effectively. So I'm trying to improve, so I'll have better responses to the anti-Israeli arguments."
    Lynn: "People around the world have problems with Israel that have nothing to do with Judaism, especially with regard to the situation in the Territories and the way Israel treats its Palestinian neighbors. In my opinion, a lot of it happens because people don't know and aren't informed, and if they understood the situation they'd see that everything Israel does is in order to maintain its security and deal with its problems. Every country has to do that, and that's the reason why Israel maybe looks Fascist or immoral. Also, there are Americans who perceive Israel as a colony of the United States in the Middle East, and so they want as little money as possible to be spent on Israel. That's also a reason for opposing its policy."
    Mazursky: "Before I came to Israel with Taglit-Birthright and Excel, I didn't really identify with Israel. My parents, like a lot of other American Jews, vote according to what's good for Israel, and I would be annoyed when I heard criticism of Israel, but I didn't feel involved. Now I take things more personally, I'm more aware of biased texts that people write and share on Facebook or elsewhere, and I understand that people are ignorant about a lot of things related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."
    Rubin: "I also find that in the States you don't want to take a stand against Israel. I also belong to a community that's especially pro-Israel, and as a part of that I'm 100% for Israel, but I don't actually think I support Israel blindly. The Americans who don't fully understand the regional story here see everything in black and white and fairly often articles are published about Israeli policy and the killing of Palestinian children, and that's what leads to an anti-Israeli attitude."

    What can be learned by interning in Israel?

    Lynn: "The opportunity here was much more impressive than I originally thought it would be. At Gemini Israel Ventures I've met people who are amazing, intelligent, and very generous with their time and advice. They invested in me, they cared about how I was doing, and that's something to be taken for granted. It's true that the more popular options with the people I graduated with are interning with companies in Southeast Asia or Europe. I chose Israel so I could connect with my roots and I chose Gemini because venture capital is good preparation for me before I start at McKinsey. It's also good preparation for working full-time, which I never did before."
    Rubin: "I interned at Tnuva, and because I understand Hebrew they let me sit in on meetings. I'm interested in consulting or consumer marketing, and I learned a lot of things here that will be useful to me. If you look at my first presentation and my last one, there's a huge difference. In the States I have another year of school to go, and before this I thought I would go into marketing, but at Tnuva my eyes were opened to other fields and areas that could interest me, including consulting. I have a dream, that I don't know if it's attainable, to get an internship in the States with a company that has activity in Israel. I'd be happy to come here every few months on behalf of a consulting firm like Deloitte or McKinsey. In general, I see people around the world who don't know a thing about Israel, and they could be drawn in from the business angle."
    Mazursky: "I interned with Allot, a mobile company, in marketing. It's interesting because I always thought I wanted to study law and never thought actively about the direction. I also never thought before about going into high-tech, and the internship opened up a new two-pronged path for me: both marketing and high-tech."
    Gitles: "Now that I've completed my internship in Israel I'm also asking myself what role we're going to play. My internship at General Motors here was awesome, it enabled me to work in Israel and I saw the value of that. I hope that now it'll be easier for me in the future to advance the idea that it's good to do business with Israel, and I'd also be happy to be involved in joint Israeli-Palestinian business ventures."

    Will Israel someday be your home?

    Lynn: "I'd be happy to return to Israel, I enjoy the atmosphere here and the fact that everything is so much more real. It's easy here to understand body language, and that can be good or bad. The US, on the other hand, can sometimes be stifling but at least they don't tell you to your face that you're stupid or that you aren't capable of doing something, like they do here. My focus now is on my career, and its beginnings will take place in the States, not in Israel. But if I have an opportunity later on to work in Israel, that'll make me very happy."
    Balakirsky: "I'm not convinced, but it's important to me now to learn Hebrew. I learned at school but I forgot everything. Also, it's important to me that I marry a Jew, but that's funny and even silly because I've never dated anyone Jewish. I guess it's time I started. For you, in Israel, it's no big deal, you don't have many other options. For me it's harder."
    Mazursky: "It's hard to know. During my time in Madrid in the summer I thought to myself, here, this can be my home outside the States, and now I think that about Israel. This is my third time here, this time I got very attached to my grandfather's sister, whom I see on a weekly basis. She's like a great-grandmother to me, and it makes my grandfather very happy."

    About the Interviewees:


    Maria Balakirsky (21)
    Senior at the University of Virginia, where her major is commerce and her minor is art. Speaks Russian and Spanish. Vice President of a pro-Israel group on campus, also involved in activity and strategic planning for Hillel, as well as in other Jewish organizations such as Hoos for Israel. Interned in Israel at Ernst & Young.

    Ben Gitles (21)
    Junior at the University of Pennsylvania. Majoring in Networked and Social Systems Engineering, with an economics concentration. Served as coordinator of the University of Pennsylvania's Israel Affairs Committee and active in the B'nai B'rith youth movement. Interned in Israel at General Motors.

     Daniel Lynn (22)
    Graduated this year from Columbia University with a double major in pre-medical studies and art history. On completing his internship in Israel at Gemini Israel Ventures, began working at McKinsey & Company as a business analyst. While a student, served as a teaching assistant in biology and founded ArtInject, an online gallery and community of collectors, collections and artists.

    Stephanie Mazursky (21)
    Senior at Yale University, majoring in English language and literature. Attended Yale study-abroad programs in London and Madrid. While a student she worked in Yale Law School's Financial Aid Office and was a legal intern with an absorption program for immigrant families in New York. She edits and writes for a Yale women's website, Her Campus. Interned in Israel at Allot Communications.

    Rachel Rubin (21)
    Senior at Brandeis University, studying Business and International & Global Studies with a minor in Anthropology. Attended a special program at the Danish Institute of Study Abroad, Copenhagen. Has held marketing and consulting internships with a number of companies. In 2012 served as president of a Jewish education program in Boston and managed projects for the American Cancer Society. Interned in Israel at Tnuva.