Israelis take a reverse Birthright, land on H Street

Itzhak Zander chats with American millennials. Photo by Areyh Schwartz, Aryeh Photo

Adi Amsalem cannot stop smiling as she weaves between people at a jam-packed bar in H Street Corridor.

Amsalem, 23, is at H Street County Club’s rooftop bar with dozens of Washington millennials from the young professionals group Gather DC. Despite the bar’s ritzy-sounding name, tables are littered with Pabst Blue Ribbon cans and Bud Light bottles. Wall-mounted fans pan side-to-side to counteract the sweltering 90 degree heat.

“It’s so exciting” to be here, she says. Wearing a loosely-fitted dress and holding a nearly finished drink, she does not look bothered by the heat. “I’m going to sleep with a smile on my face.”

This is Amsalem’s first time in Washington. She, and 10 others, traveled from her native Israel to participate in the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington’s Reverse Mifgash. The program flips Birthright on its head by bringing Israelis to experience Washington’s Jewish community. The H Street Country Club is the last stop of the group’s third day in Washington.

Meeting the locals is a trip highlight for Amsalem. “It’s very important for me. That’s one of the reasons that I came here. I wanted to see another way of living as a Jewish community.”

Things that American Jews take for granted surprise the Israelis.

“I am exposed to things I have not seen in Israel like different synagogues. Conservative and Reform,” says Itzhak Zander, 28, a tall, slim guy wearing sunglasses and a neatly-trimmed beard. These are “things you usually don’t see in Israel.”
Community is a popular subject among the Israelis, who compare Washington with Israeli villages.

Washington “kind of feels like a big village, only the size of a town,” says Ohad Shturm. He thinks the capital city has a strange atmosphere: a mix of a village and a city. The vibe “is something I have never seen before,” says Shturm, who lives in Haifa.

Shturm, 26, grew up in Re’ut, a small town between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The residential parts of Washington remind him of Re’ut, but unlike his hometown “the people here seem busy — suit and ties — it always looks like they are going somewhere,” he says.

The culture shock is not one-sided.

“It’s just really interesting to think that when [my Israeli friend] was 18, instead of going to college like I did, he was in the army,” says American Joel Cohen, 25. Two years ago on a Birthright Israel trip, Cohen made friends with Israeli Dima Batachenko.

Cohen was surprised to find Batachenko among the Reverse Mifgash group. Serving in the military is “a pride that every Israeli has and something I admire immensely about him,” Cohen says.

Could Cohen see himself as a U.S. soldier at 18?

“I think I might have,” he says. “I think my parents would have been mad, but I think I might have” been able to join the Army.

Despite only a few days in Washington, the Israelis are already indulging in a pastime of the city’s residents: criticizing Metro.
“We’re taking the trains from one place to another,” Amsalem says. “It takes forever.”

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