When I was 14 years old, my family moved from Israel to South Korea. I was the first Jew that my high school peers had ever met — the first face, the first person who they could connect to, who had stories to share and friendship to give.
I taught them a few Hebrew words. I shared the story of how my family escaped Poland before World War II, while other relatives perished. I explained what it meant to have a Jewish state, a homeland for every Jew in the Diaspora who faced anti-Semitism.
Wherever I went after that, I shared my personal story about what it’s like to be a student in Israel and abroad, to have friends who are Druze or Arab or Orthodox Jews, to serve in the army, to cope with losing friends to terrorism.
But it wasn’t until six years ago, when I moved to Washington, that I began to realize why telling my personal story was so important — it is because it bridges the gap, the gap created by difference and expanded by indifference.
I had this realization most clearly on the day that I became the regional director of the Israeli-American Council’s Washington office, and accepted the mission of the IAC: To build an engaged and united Israeli-American community that strengthens the Israeli and Jewish identity of our next generations, provides leadership for the American Jewish community, and fortifies the bond between the peoples of the United States and the State of Israel.
Through our yearlong programs, we help Jewish Americans and Israeli-Americans — young and old — connect and deepen their identities. We cap off our efforts at our annual national conference, held this year at the end of September, here, in Washington. The conference this week was a large-scale exploration and celebration of our identities, a historic event.
Every single person who comes has the story of their identity — why they moved to the United States, how they’ve adjusted, whether they consider themselves Israeli, American, Israeli-American, Jewish American, or any other combination. And when we tell our stories, we find commonalities and bridge the gaps that may have existed between us.
I would say that I’m Israeli-almost-American. I’m Jewish. I’m a mom. I’m a wife. I’m a responsible global citizen. I’m a person who is deeply committed to the future of the Jewish people and someone who wants to make a difference in my community and in the world. I’m someone who wants people to understand the nuances behind headlines and to look at important issues with their own eyes.
You might think that D.C. would make me more cynical, more disillusioned, more likely to retreat, like a snail into an ever-calcifying shell of opinions. In fact, the opposite has happened.
I am more inspired than ever to embrace my hybrid identity as a tool to connect with others. I know more than ever that we can unite what was once separate, when we make the time and space to hear and listen. The world around us is complicated and messy. But as Israeli-Americans, we have a special story to tell, and it’s a story that can make intricate, beautiful patterns out of the complications and that can transform the clutter into art.
That’s why I am here, in Washington; it’s why I work hard every day. It’s why I tell my story and it’s why I want to hear yours — because that’s what brings us together.
Ronit Gudes Totah is the regional director of the Israeli-American Council for the Washington area.