Shalom Life | July 01, 2014

Reverse Birthright: Academic Program takes Israelis on U.S. Adventure

The Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies took 21 graduate students on an immersive U.S. journey

By: Jeffrey F. Barken

Published: July 7th, 2014 in News » World

Gur Alroey, chair of the School of History at the University of Haifa and director of the Israeli school’s pioneering Ruderman Program for American Jewish Studies, has likened a 10-day United States trip for the program’s students to “Reverse Taglit,” referring to the free Taglit-Birthright trips of the same length that bring diaspora Jews to Israel.

Last month, the Ruderman Program’s inaugural class of 21 graduate students took part in that immersive U.S. journey, attending lectures, meeting community leaders, and touring historical and religious sites that reflect the American Jewish experience.

“The focus is American Jewry, to examine this community as a group that stands in its own right, independent of Israel,” Alroey tells JNS.org.

In August 2013, JNS.org was the first outlet to report the formation of the American Jewish Studies program, which launched with a $2 million combined investment from the University of Haifa and the Ruderman Family Foundation. The foundation, headquartered in Israel and Boston (Haifa’s sister city), prioritizes the issue of Israel-diaspora relations.

The Master’s degree program’s curriculum surveys American Jewish immigration history, modern foreign policy and governmental structures, gender issues, and the religious makeup of American Jewish communities. But the highlight, according to some participants, is the 10-day U.S. trip.

The Israeli students who arrived in America on June 22 were eager to embrace American culture. Two students in the group, Ayala Shanee and Hila Madar, had never visited the U.S., and their excitement was palpable. “[New York City] is big, it’s overwhelming, so diverse and so human,” Shanee says. Madar describes her first experience at an American salsa nightclub, saying, “I was impressed by the way people interacted, and the diversity of the people on the dance floor. It gave me confidence.”

Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University (NYU) and the Ruderman Program’s primary contact in New York City, says U.S. Jewry “would be what it is even if there were no Israel.”

“Obviously Israel has had an impact, but the basic foundations of Jewish American life were formed in an American context,” she tells JNS.org.

Against the backdrop of that historical context, discovering the true nature of the unique American Jewish population is the challenge faced by the Ruderman Program’s students and professors alike.

“The group [of students] has a strong Israeli mindset,” Alroey says. “They are a product of the Israeli education system, the exams, etc. It’s very difficult for some of the students to accept that there is a Jewish existence outside of Israel.”

Diner helped organize the U.S. trip’s itinerary and gave the students lectures on American Jewish history.

“There is a community here that is rich, diverse, in chaos, in transition,” she says. “Who are the players, and what is attractive about the communities?”

The group toured Elis Island and the Tenement Museum in New York, as well as the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. On June 25, the students gathered for a morning lecture at the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan by Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, director of the JCC’s Center for Jewish Living.

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