IAC Gvanim Seattle – Interview with Tal Shaked
Seattle, it’s raining outside, just an ordinary evening and a standard meeting room of a big hi-tech company. In the corner, freshly chopped Israeli salad, hummus, pickles and falafel, a tasty hint to what is about to unfold here: About 15 Israelis that have lived in the US for quite some time, sitting together to study Talmud, Bialik and Yehuda Amichai, opening their minds and their hearts, sharing laughs and tears and enjoying every minute.
This is the IAC Seattle Gvanim chapter. The Gvanim (in English shades or highlights) program is a unique program for Israelis living in America who are interested in their Israeli-American identity, Jewish and Israeli values and culture, and community engagement. After a successful implementation of the program in the San Francisco Bay area, IAC decided to adopt the program in other Israeli communities across America.
Highlights of diversity
Why Gvanim or highlights? Because each and every one of us sees their Israeli-American identity in a different light, and yet we are all Jewish and all Israelis. When you live in Israel, discussing your Jewish identity may seem unnecessary. The main spoken language is Hebrew, the holidays are Jewish and the majority of the population is Jewish. Moving to the US and living as a minority brings up questions regarding ourselves and our children. Are our children “American-Israeli” or perhaps “Jewish-American”? Is the cultural Israeli background we supply for them enough? What is the role of the Hebrew language? How to deal with conflicting Jewish and Christian holidays: “Mom/Dad, I also want a Christmas tree with lots of presents!”
The Gvanim program allows an open discussion of these matters. Gvanim participants study and discuss relevant texts that touch our dual identity. We peek into the Jewish bookshelf and the Hebrew culture and learn about important historical junctions where the Jewish people changed and re-invented themselves. We learn how Judaism evolved over the years and what is our part as a living link in this chain of generations. We get to know the Jewish-American community – its organizations and different movements – and get inspired. We talk about possible connections with the Jewish-American community, and acquire professional tools for community development, project initiation and project implementation.
Judaism as a culture
Tal Shaked, the leader of the Seattle Gvanim program, encountered the Jewish bookshelf by chance. She took a peek, got hooked and became Rosh Yeshiva of the first secular Yeshiva in the world. “I always considered Judaism as Orthodox and political, quite foreign to me. I studied law and worked in the Israeli district attorney office when my friend suggested I join her in a Judaism class. My initial response was absolutely not. But she persuaded me and I agreed to try, a decision that changed my life. We were a group of secular and orthodox people that debated crucial issues in the Israeli society through group study of Jewish texts: Gmara, Mishna, Tanach, modern philosophical texts and more. I fell in love with the Jewish texts and was frustrated that they were never offered to me through the public education system.”
Tal left the district attorney office and after a few years of studies co-founded the first secular Yeshiva in Israel (and the world). In this Yeshiva thousands of young students combine their studies with community and volunteering work. They study Mishna, Talmud, Maimonides, Yehuda Amichai, Leah Goldberg, Barry Sacharof and Rachel. They feel a sense of belonging to their Jewish identity and culture and see Judaism as their own, even if they don’t believe in God or observe all the Mitzvot. They see Judaism as a culture, as humanistic values and as a community.
The Gvanim program gives its participants a taste of this richness, along with fascinating interpersonal meetings with members of the Jewish-American community and passionate debates about identity, community, language and family. Like any meaningful group process, participants discover they are not alone in their struggles and issues. Another eye-opening realization is understanding that openness and inclusiveness are needed for a successful connection between the local Israeli and Jewish communities. Openness from both sides to understand the cultural differences and the diverse riches that each side brings to the mix. It is a bit strange at first for Israelis to find out that a synagogue’s Rabbi is a woman and wearing a Kippah. But it’s also refreshing and equal, and why not really?
Today Tal is an education emissary of the JNF in the California bay area, where she resides with her family. She works with schools, university campuses and synagogues, connecting Israel to the Jewish community with amazing JNF initiatives. One remarkable project is the Alexander Muss International High School in Hod Hsharon, Israel. Jewish youth from across the world arrive for semesters of 8-18 weeks. They take fully accredited classes and in addition study history and travel Israel, in what they later describe as a life-changing experience.
Gvanim Seattle – Are you ready to make a difference in your community?
The Israeli-American community in Seattle is amazing, says Tal. “I met a group of intelligent and sensitive people, involved in their community and ready to lead positive changes. They are very open and motivated and I feel privileged to have had the chance to work with such a dedicated, special group.”
Tal Journo, the Seattle IAC board chairman, also participates in the first class of Gvanim in Seattle. “IAC Seattle decided to implement the Gvanim program because our council members felt the community’s lay-leadership would greatly benefit from such a unique program. We are hopeful the program’s graduates will utilize what they have learned to assist IAC Seattle’s collaboration efforts with existing Israeli-American and Jewish-American organizations, to improve our community’s quality of life. “
The Gvanim program includes meetings, workshops, and discussions that create a full learning experience. The program encourages pluralistic approaches and innovative thinking about Israeli-Jewish and American identity and community. A new class will open in September 2018. If interested, please apply to Vered Sapir: