Participant Spotlight: Shana Dorfman

 
Name: Shana Dorfman
Age: 23 
Hometown: Santa Rosa, California, USA
Program: OTZMA
Date of arrival: 2 months after graduating university)
Hobbies: Writing & running
 
How did you get to OTZMA?
I was on Birthright in January of that year, 2006, and I was in Haifa with my aunt, and she was an adoptive mother for a participant, and she introduced me to her and she told me about the program, so that's how I found out.
 
How much family do you have here?
My dad's whole family lives here, they all made Aliyah in the 60s and 70s.  All his cousins and aunts and uncles.
 
Had you been to Israel before Birthright?
Well, as a baby, but that doesn’t count.
 
And you liked your Birthright experience?
Yeah, I loved it. It was so much fun.
 
Do you remember your first impressions of living here when you were on OTZMA?
I thought Israel was absolutely ridiculous, it's kind of like America but backwards, kind of, I guess. I don’t know, I loved it and I loved that people would invite us over for dinner all the time, that always happens, and I liked the cultural differences, like the food and the bus experience and it's just different. I don’t remember what it's like now because it's so natural to me because I've been here so long.
 
What are the main differences between living here and your experience on Birthright?
I mean, we actually saw Israelis on OTZMA. On birthright you're surrounded by Americans and you see them everywhere. And then when you come back and your actual self-conception is changed from a tourist to actually living here, it's different because you see Americans on the street and you don’t feel like you have something in common anymore, because they're a tourist but you live here, so that's different. On birthright we'd always see other Americans and we'd be like "ooh, where are you from?" and when you're on OTZMA and you see other Americans you just pretend that you're not like them, because it's so different. I don’t know, you take your time more with experiencing Israel because you know you're going to be here a while, it's just different.
 
Do you remember any big moments of culture shock?
Yeah, my cousin took me to a wedding. I knew that Israeli weddings were supposed to be orthodox, so I was expecting like an orthodox synagogue and a service. And it was a DJ running the whole thing and there were fireworks and confetti and a dance floor and alcohol all over the place. The whole thing was absolutely nuts and I was obsessed with Israeli weddings after that, I want to have one.
 
What do you think you did right at the beginning of your program?
I focused on ulpan. I pretty much skipped volunteering just to really work on my Hebrew, and that helped me a lot for the rest of the year. Like, being in Kiryat Shmonah and being able to communicate with people at stores was just really, really helpful for me because I didn’t know any Hebrew when I got here.  So I'm glad that I came here and actually took my Hebrew lessons seriously.
 
Can you think of anything that you would do differently?
Looking back, I wish I had taken more initiative from the very beginning, just to make a difference. Because, you're in OTZMA, and you're there to do community service and to really try to help people and to use your skills to your advantage, and it's so easy to get caught up in enjoying Israel and enjoying the people around you, that you sometimes forget why you originally came here. And I feel like I came here with a lot of experiences in other jobs that I could have applied to being here.
 
Like when I was in college I helped teach this Toastmasters public speaking class and I could have used that to help other kids with public speaking, and we eventually did a speech competion in Kiryat Shmonah, but it could have been something that we worked on the entire time, instead of just pulling it together the last few weeks that we were there.  I like writing and I could have actually worked with newsletters from home or something and gotten my writing out there but I didn’t, just that kind of thing. It's hard to think of that when you're caught up with everything else. I wish I had done that.
 
How would you describe the relationship our friends and fellow program participants have had with Israel?
I don't want to get political. One thing I’ve noticed with American Jews is we're taught to love Israel and be Zionists and to love it unconditionally, and you get here and you see all the great things and you sometimes ignore the negative sides of Israel. Maybe you'll see that certain groups are prejudiced against in this country and you make excuses for it, or ignore it, or talk about the wars and the way certain people are treated and you try not to think about it because you want to love Israel, and I think what a lot of Diaspora Jews miss out on is the fact that it's important to be critical of Israel but at the same time love it, and a lot of people just completely miss that and I'm kind of fascinated by how that works and how Zionism is going to change in the coming years to reflect that.
 
As far as relating to Israelis, I think that it's kind of hard for Jews in America to come here and meet Israelis who are Jewish and don't act the way that we consider to be Jewish. Like I have a friend who I worked with who is from a kibbutz and he was telling me that on Yom Kippur he makes it a point to eat pork. And it's such a Jewish thing to do here because that's certain people's way of standing up against religion but still being Jewish at the same time. And if I were to go back and do that in the States, that would be so not Jewish at all, like there's no way to make that a Jewish act. So it's kind of funny to see the differences between our cultures and trying to talk to Israelis about that sort of thing.
 
How would you describe your Jewish background?
I was raised going to a Reconstructionist synagogue, and that's where I had my Bat Mitzvah, and then my parents went to Reform after that, but only on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana. We didn't go, ever. We would go through phases where we did Shabbat for a few months at a time and then we'd forget about it. I mean, everyone in my family is atheist, everyone is not into tradition. I never really had any Jewish friends until college.  I didn’t have a strong Jewish background at all. I went to camp though – Camp Tawonga, it's in California. It's like a hippie, outdoorsy camp, so I got that. It's a Jewish camp. I always knew I was Jewish and I identified with it and I was pretty active in Hillel in college, but not the religious side of it. I'm more of a cultural Jew.
 
How did being in Israel affect your Jewish identity?
I always knew that there's more than one way to be Jewish and you don’t have to be religiously Jewish, and you can be culturally also, but I think being here just reinforced it just because you see so many people who are completely secular and yet they still are very, very Jewish, and you can tell they are in the way they act.  It's just making me think about how I want to practice Judaism when I get home, and I'm realizing that I don’t have to be religious or go to synagogue or anything, like I don’t even know if I'm going to go to high holy days this year, but there are other ways of being Jewish. I kind of like the Israeli way of it more.
 
Do you have staple traditions or observances that you do in order to maintain your Jewish identity? Is it easier for you to be Jewish in Israel?
Yeah, for sure, because when you're in America and Yom Kippur rolls around, if you don’t go to services, that's such a non-Jewish act in itself because all the Jews are going to be in services, why aren't you? But if you're here, there are Jews who go and there are Jews who don't. Just because you don't go that doesn’t mean you're not Jewish, it just means you're a different kind of Jew. It's harder to have different kinds of Judaism in the States, I think, than it is here.
 
What are the main things you’ve learned from this experience?
I don’t know, the whole year is just one big learning experience, like I didn’t really know that much about Israel before I got here, like I had read a couple books about it and I have so much family here, but I still didn’t know really about it, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you what daily life is like. And now I've experienced it and I can put together a map of Israel, I know where everything is because I've been there. You’re always learning here.
 
Do you consider yourself to be a different person?
Yeah, for sure. It's impossible to be here for a year without growing in some way. It'll be interesting when I get back to see how my friends react.  I feel like I've gotten more Israeli, and more blunt. I feel like, my uncle always said that it was really annoying when he would meet me or my brother because we were taught to be very diplomatic about everything, and when you're here you don’t beat around the bush, you just get right to the point. I feel like I've learned to be more like that just from being here. And I think I'm more independent – I mean I was independent when I got here because I had already been through 4 years of college, but not to the point of being in a foreign country and being able to navigate my way around it without really knowing the language.
 
What are your plans for when you back?
I'm going to study for the GRE and apply to graduate school and hopefully not look for work, because I don’t really want to get a job yet.
 
How do you plan to stay involved with Jewish issues and Israel?
Indirectly, like I'm not going to go back and work for a federation or for Hillel, but through writing or anthropology research I think I want to stay involved just because I find it really interesting. The Jerusalem Post asked me to do a blog for them, which should be interesting. Whatever I do, I want it to relate to Israel in some way, for example, if I'm writing or doing research, because I'm really interested specifically in the relationship between Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews.  But I'm trying not to think about the future yet.
 
Was the interest there before you came here?
I came here to figure out what I want to do with my life, I didn’t know anything, I thought I wanted to go to graduate school in sociology. So it's kind of related, I knew I wanted to study some kind of group of people but I didn't really know what. I didn’t think I'd get that involved, I thought I'd find some fascination with poverty, or something normal that people do research on. But I just think Israelis are really cool.
 

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