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To Israel and Back: University of Arizona-Israel Connections

cover-section-B2Although Israel is 7,500 miles from Tucson, for some in the Jewish community it may seem like a hop, skip and a jump away. During the High Holidays, we’re particularly conscious of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people. For some Tucsonans affiliated with the University of Arizona, Israel has been birthplace, base for academic research or source of cultural and spiritual longing. And for some Israelis, the UA has been a welcoming professional home.

In this year’s High Holidays special section, “To Israel and Back: University of Arizona-Israel Connections,” six Tucsonans and Israelis convey the influence of our city’s landmark institution of higher learning. Whether offering a wide range of Judaic studies, promoting water sustainability across borders, exploring human rights and justice, or expanding archaeological inquiry, the UA looms large in the advancement of international research and knowledge.

In 5774, may we all open our minds to increased learning — about the history, culture and beliefs of our Jewish community — for the benefit of our increasingly small planet.


David Graizbord

David L. Graizbord, Ph.D., is an associate professor in Judaic studies at the University of Arizona.

David Graizbord and his son, Eli, 10, near Jaffa Gate last month in the Old City of Jerusalem.
David Graizbord and his son, Eli, 10, near Jaffa Gate last month in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Living in Israel in the early 1990s afforded me an opportunity to experience and understand Zionism firsthand as a highly complex and largely fluid reality and not merely a set of aspirations (much less news headlines and slogans). I suppose that I have integrated this understanding with my understanding of Jewish culture writ large. In that sense, knowing Israel shapes my personal life: When I read “Next Year in Jerusalem” in the Pessach Haggadah, I cannot think of a timeless never-never land or a “heavenly” Jerusalem, but of a real city. In my professional life, when I teach the history of Zionism and Israel, I can flesh out my exposition with anecdotes that convey what I hope are realistic impressions of the country and its people.

At a professional level, Israel has always been significant to me because it is by far the world’s most important and most highly developed hub for the study of the Jewish people and Jewish culture(s). I am constantly reading Judaica scholarship generated by scholars trained in Israeli institutions of higher learning.

In the United States, those of us who specialize in the empirical study of Jews are usually embedded in various academic departments. We are justifiably proud if they can cobble together some sort of Judaica studies “center” or “institute.” In many American colleges and universities, Judaic studies are not offered at all, or do not go far beyond studies of the Bible — exclusively in English, no less.

By contrast, Israel hosts several top departments and institutes devoted, respectively, to the study of Jewish history — all aspects, all periods, all regions; Rabbinics, Tanakh, and Jewish thought; strategic political and social trends affecting Israel and the Diaspora; and so on. In Israel, even scholars housed in “general” studies departments such as sociology or economics contribute to Judaica scholarship as well.

The end result is a startling abundance of academic resources in the field. The sheer mass and range of Judaica scholarship coming from Israel is simply unparalleled. It is also historically unprecedented. I’m talking about modern, secular studies undertaken as part of a single academic community supported by the state. I am not even counting the numerous Israeli yeshivas (Orthodox and non-Orthodox), think-tanks, NGOs, and other organizations that contribute to the analysis of Jewish life from various perspectives.

In a different vein, in Israel I became acquainted with Mizrahi popular music (Eli Luzon, Haim Moshe, et al.) and still listen to it every now and then. Lamentably, iTunes carries relatively few works of that genre and Israeli radio is too full of commercials to be attractive, so I am no longer up-to-date on this score.

When I first arrived in Israel I was ­surprised to find that on the whole, security measures were relatively lax and far from obtrusive beyond the airport and other critical sites (before the Oslo War/Second Intifada). That is still the case. In time I came to the conclusion that the credible threat of swift and severe retaliation by the Israel Defense Forces served as a much stronger deterrent to terrorists than any particular attention to security-related details at the street-level.

In addition to Israel, I have lived in Mexico City, Mexico; Madrid, Spain; and Lisbon, Portugal. Sociologically, anthropologically and in terms of its physical environment, Lisbon reminds me a bit of Tel Aviv and Haifa. Israel and Portugal feel like sister Mediterranean societies despite vast differences in history, culture, etc. The lasting impression is of people who are very sociable, so much so that a sense of familiarity is pervasive, even across ethnic and religious lines. Sitting in outdoor cafés is a way of life, and there are enough excellent pastries to go around.

Israel did not alter my perspective on Judaisim as much as it greatly deepened and largely ratified it. I was reared in a Jewish community in Mexico where secular models of Jewish cultural identity were dominant and encompassed various levels of traditional and non-traditional belief and observance. Most Mexican Jews are not religiously orthodox, though my impression is that a slight plurality are what in Israel is vaguely called Masorti, or Conservative. These models had been largely imported from Jewish communities in modern Poland, and to a lesser extent, Turkey, Syria and other countries.

Mexico City hosts several K-12 Jewish day schools founded and run by the Jewish community. If I am not mistaken, a vast majority of Mexican Jews have been and are educated in these institutions. At the same time, the Mexican state and greater Mexican society exert little if any assimilatory pressure upon Jews. The results for the Mexican Jewish community have been stratospheric levels of basic Jewish cultural literacy, Hebrew and Yiddish literacy, attachment to Israel and aliyah, as well as very low rates of intermarriage.

Still, Mexican Jews are patriotic, well-integrated, and often admired citizens of Mexico. Mexican Jewish culture flows principally out of the reality of Jewish peoplehood. So does the culture of the State of Israel. Warts and all, Israel is a Jewish ethnic democracy, a nation-state, not a theocracy. By contrast, American Jewish life seems to me to be reliant on a remarkably compartmentalized, privatized and spiritualized notion of “religion,” a notion borrowed partly from Protestantism. This makes American Jewish culture less familiar to me than Israeli culture. For all of its creativity, successes and comforts, American Jewish culture strikes me as a comparatively weak bulwark against Jewish disunity and assimilation. All the same, I feel comfortable as a private individual in Tucson, in my Jewish family and among my Jewish and non-Jewish friends.


Sharon Megdal

Sharon Megdal at a grey water irrigation project in the Deir-Alla region of Jordan. She visited the site in March 2012 with colleagues from the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan.
Sharon Megdal at a grey water irrigation project in the Deir-Alla region of Jordan. She visited the site in March 2012 with colleagues from the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan.

Sharon B. Megdal, Ph.D., is the director of the Water Resources Research Center at the University of Arizona. She is the C. W. and Modene Neely Endowed Professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; professor of soil, water and environmental science; distinguished outreach professor; director of the Water Sustainability Program; co-director of Water, Environment and Energy Solutions; and elected board member of the Central Arizona Project.

I spent the month of March 2012 based in Jerusalem as part of my spring 2012 semester sabbatical from the University of Arizona. I served as a Lady Davis visiting professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I was hosted by the department of agricultural economics and management (Rehovot campus) and the department of geography (Mt. Scopus campus). While there I gave several lectures, visited with water experts throughout the country, saw some parts of Israel I’d not seen before and made some new friends. I rented an apartment for the month in the Rehavya neighborhood of Jerusalem.

This was my seventh visit to Israel but the first time I wasn’t staying in hotels. Since my 2006 visit to Israel, one of my areas of focus has been a comparative analysis of Israeli and Arizona water management. My 2006 visit was my second; my first was back in 1987 when I was on a professional counterparts mission sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona.

Back in the 1980s, I was not focused on water policy and management. What was most noteworthy about this most recent visit relates to my professional life. I traveled quite a bit within Israel but also to Jordan twice and to the West Bank. In the middle of the month, I traveled abroad to the Sixth World Water Forum in Marseilles, France. Many times I traveled using public transportation. Traveling in and out of Israel was easier for me as a U.S. passport holder than it is for those in the region, including Israeli citizens. I could cross into Jordan at the Allenby land crossing, the most direct land route between Jerusalem and Amman; Israelis cannot cross there. I went to Amman for a work project, but later in the month I entered Jordan from the south to see Petra.

I could visit Ramallah, where I met with officials at the Palestinian Water Authority and the Ministry of the Environment. Israelis cannot visit Ramallah. The next day, I visited with my colleagues at the Israel Water Authority in Tel Aviv. What impressed me was that I was able to cross jurisdictional and cultural boundaries very easily, much more easily than people living in the region. I came away realizing that some of the problems in the region are due to lack of interaction; people don’t have the opportunity to meet in person and get to know each other.

I spoke about the barriers at a workshop in Paris the following June, which was organized by UNESCO and the French Academy of Sciences, with input from the Israeli-Palestinian Science Organization, an organization devoted to furthering collaboration in science. While there is some active collaboration, there could be so much more if travel and cultural barriers were removed.

I also came away realizing that it is important for me to continue my work in the region. Most recently, I co-authored with three Israelis a paper comparing water management solutions of the Jordan River and Colorado River basins. I also continue to work with colleagues from the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan on expanding the University of Arizona’s Water Resources Research Center grey water project, and I have been asked to talk about how we work on U.S.-Mexico/Arizona-Sonora transboundary water matters at an October 2013 conference in Israel.

At a personal level, I very much enjoyed feeling part of the Israeli rhythm of life. I was there to see how Israelis celebrate Purim. I met with people I had known before and talked with many others. I enjoyed Shabbat dinner with Israeli families. I experienced great hospitality wherever I was. I enjoyed being able to experience daily living in Jerusalem as many Israelis do, including walking to the Israel Museum on a Saturday and visiting the botanical gardens with my friend and colleague and his young children. The entire month was very special. It even snowed a few days after my arrival.

As noted, I had been to Israel many times, but this was the first time I had a home there. Israelis do similar activities that we do in the United States. They like to shop, eat, listen to music, follow sports, etc. The tradition of Friday night Shabbat dinner is very strong. People I did not know very well welcomed me into their homes for Shabbat dinner with such warmth.

I don’t think living in Israel changed my perspective on Judaism, but I was reminded of the different ways people observe/practice Judaism and the divisions these differences sometimes cause. I would like to see Jewish people living in harmony with each other and their neighbors.


Deborah Kaye

Deborah Kaye, Ph.D., is an adjunct lecturer in Judaic studies at the University of Arizona.

(Above) Deborah Kaye (right) and her mother, Joan, in her Ra’anana home in Israel in 1985.
(Above) Deborah Kaye (right) and her mother, Joan, in her Ra’anana home in Israel in 1985.
Deborah Kaye
Deborah Kaye

I lived in Israel from 1980 to 1989. When I arrived I was in my mid-20s. Since childhood, I had been active in numerous Zionist youth groups including Habonim and Hashachar. My dream had always been to make aliyah. My parents, both ardent Zionists and actively involved in the Cleveland (Shaker Heights) and Tucson Jewish communities, encouraged me to act on my lifelong dream. After spending a few months in Jerusalem, I left the ancient city, choosing instead to live in Tel Aviv. At the time, I was interested in the art world and the contemporary art market that was emerging in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, which offered opportunities.

I ended up working for the Frank Meisler Gallery in Old Jaffa. I was so fortunate to become part of the vibrant culture of artists, collectors and writers who lived there. I also sold art and had the good fortune to meet a number of dignitaries who lived in Israel and frequented the galleries. Sally Lewis, wife of then U.S. ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis, was an avid collector of Meisler pieces and I remember our friendship fondly. My sister and parents eventually also moved to Israel. My sister remained, but my parents and I returned to the States. We carried our wonderful memories wherever we went.

In terms of social life, I admire the role community plays in Israel. When I arrived in Tel Aviv I first lived in an Iraqi neighborhood in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv on Rehov Bialik not far from the Ayalon freeway. Sarah Persellin, an Israeli Tucsonan, actually helped find my first flat there. I remember how neighbors would come and go. At first I was shocked that no one called before dropping by, but then I got used to the informality that characterizes Israeli life. The comings and goings gave me a sense of family. I was far away from home for the first time in my life, so the feeling of camaraderie meant a lot.

I remember the corner makolet, the little grocery store, and how the owner knew everyone. Of course, everyone had advice for me as an olah hadasha (new immigrant) from America. I never wanted for food since my Iraqi neighbors were always bringing me some wonderful culinary specialty like sambusik or borekas. Indeed, I have been blessed to experience how sharing a meal can create such a sense of community. Since my Israeli experience, I have added many Sephardic dishes to my cooking repertoire, all of which recall my days living there.

Now I never forget when I meet an Israeli student how important it is to extend the same feeling of community I experienced. Teaching in the Judaic studies department has allowed me to return the warm welcome to Israelis that I experienced as a young woman in Eretz Yisroel.

I grew up in a religious household. My parents kept a glatt kosher home. My father put on tefillin and davened every morning. We attended services regularly. I always wanted to have a Jewish home, a bayit kham, as they would say in Israel. I thought that by living in Israel, I would be able to fulfill that dream. I naively thought it would be a very religious experience. However, when I first arrived in Israel, I learned that most Israelis are in fact secular Jews. Perhaps the most surprising thing was to realize that being an Israeli is more a civic-national identity than a religious one. I remember how on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it seemed everyone was spending the day at the beach. Going to the beach on Yom Kippur may have been a shock, but in Tel Aviv, the beautiful beaches are part of the free and fun-loving Israeli lifestyle.

When I wasn’t working, I liked nothing better than taking a good book to the beach. I wanted to learn to read literature in Hebrew. Since I went to Israel with a fairly good Hebrew background already, I honed my Hebrew skills at a government-funded mekhina (university prep course)for immigrant women and began to discover Israeli literature for the first time in my life. I was strongly drawn to the literature of Israeli women who were writing in the 1980s, such as Savyon Liebrecht, Devora Amir and Yehudit Hendel. I set a goal to read what I could in Hebrew.

I came to admire these feminist Israeli women writers who wrote so courageously about Israeli politics and society. They opened a path for me to better understand the political issues that concerned Israelis. Whether attending a thought-provoking discussion at Beit Sokoloff in Tel Aviv or listening to an evening of poetry on the roof of Horace Richter’s Gallery in Old Jaffa, I encountered the richness of Israeli culture, encounters that expanded my understanding of the country and its people.

Aside from Israel, I lived in Italy and London from 1989 to 2004. I was working on my dissertation that focused on the politics and history of Italian Jews in the 19th century, and the history of ghettoization. I lived mainly in the city of Torino located in the Piedmont region, although I did research in Venice. I was also a fellow at the Institute of Historical Research in London.

During my Fulbright year in Italy, I actually lived in St. Anne’s convent where the nuns take care of elderly women. It is common for students to live in the empty rooms of convents. The parish priest knew that I was Jewish and always treated me respectfully. I encountered many warm and loving people who helped me get along in Italy. The ecumenical feeling made quite an impression on my life and continues to inspire me spiritually. I also met many members of the Italian Jewish community and spent Jewish holidays with them.

In Venice, Amos Luzzatto, a Jewish community leader in Italy, and his wife, Laura Voghera, invited me for Rosh Hashanah. With them, I had the great honor of attending services in the Spanish synagogue in the ghetto. In Torino, my mentor was Giorgina Levi, a former member of the Italian parliament. I fondly remember spending Passover with Paolo Levi, the art critic who graciously supplied me with out-of-print books on Italian Jews.

These are just a few of the experiences I had with the Italian Jewish community over the years. The Italians reminded me very much of the Israelis in their willingness to make me feel at home, but in contrast to the Israelis, the Torinese maintained a more formal attitude toward social relations. Israelis are unique.

Israel gave me a strong sense of the historical importance of Judaism. It grounded me in a way that my previous years living in the Diaspora had not. I cannot say that I became more religious after living in Israel. In fact, I became more secular and when I returned to the United States I felt different, perhaps alienated, when I went to shul.

My Israeli experience gave me a deep desire to understand Jews and Judaism critically, and ultimately to become a scholar in Judaic studies. So when I returned to the United States, our close family friend Bertha Breger encouraged me to study, and eventually, I was accepted into the Jewish history doctoral program at the University of Michigan. I sought to better understand how Jews became a modern people and how the Zionist movement developed, among other issues. It was a journey that has culminated in a rewarding teaching career for the last 20 years at the University of Arizona. I have been immeasurably blessed by my experiences in Israel and Italy.


Leonard Hammer

Leonard Hammer, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Rothberg International School. He also serves as the academic director of Shurat HaDin — Israel Law Center, a civil rights organization combating terrorist organizations through lawsuits, and works as an international expert for the Open Society Foundations, formerly the Open Society Institute.

Leonard Hammer
Leonard Hammer

I had the pleasure of being invited to the University of Arizona by the Judaic studies department as the David and Andrea Stein Visiting Professor in modern Israel studies. The invitation was for the spring 2012 semester and proved quite successful. I taught courses on modern Israel and international human rights to students who had never been exposed to Israel and who generally had a very narrow understanding of the country. The students were quite responsive to the courses and open to hearing more about Israel, its origin, emergence on the world scene and its current position.

The Judaic studies department was kind enough to invite me again, for the spring 2013 semester. I have had the pleasure of “living” in Tucson for two different semesters and have thoroughly enjoyed my time, getting to know the people both in the Jewish community and beyond, experiencing all the different options that the city has to offer, not to mention utilizing the university’s resources for research and writing.

I try to live near campus since I really enjoy Jewish life on campus, be it working with the great staff at the Hillel Foundation, the Lieblers who ran the Jewish Arizonans on Campus, or Rabbi Winner of Chabad, his incredible wife and family who are so open and inviting to all. These people made a huge difference for me as I am away from my kids in Israel and enjoy the Jewish connection. The students also are super-friendly, courteous and interested in Israel.

I also have been part of the Sekhel veLev (Mind and Heart)program with members of the Judaic studies department lecturing to seniors at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. I think the greatest experience, in addition to meeting some wonderful participants in the program, was working with the coordinator, Sol Littman, an incredible person with a diverse and varied background. For me, one of the most memorable moments was when he walked into my office last semester; we had a conversation for over an hour and a half about his work to address racism in American society during the ’60s and ’70s, particularly within police departments. He took on serious projects, like working with the New Orleans Police Department to prevent racism. Such a wonderful learning experience for me!

I really enjoy music so it was a lovely surprise that a whole range of musical acts make their way here. Even better is that the venues are small and often not even sold out so I get to see artists perform up-close, which makes for a great experience. I remember hearing about a well-known band coming to a small venue, Plush on 4th Avenue. I asked the manager if that was a mistake and he said, “Hey, this is Tucson!” It was a great response reflecting the laid-back atmosphere of the city.

I have lived in Taiwan and Turkey/ Northern Cyprus for a spell as well as in England during my Ph.D. studies. It is difficult to compare, as Taiwan is not Western so it is an apples-oranges type of comparison. Turkey, on the other hand, was different because most of the time I was in Northern Cyprus near a town called Guzelyurt. I was at the Middle Eastern Technical University’s northern Cyprus campus. The campus was beautiful — a literal oasis in the desert. In England, I was living in the Oxford countryside so it was quiet and allowed for great research and writing, yet I had access to Oxford and London when necessary. Tucson combines the benefits of being a small town, thereby allowing for focus on work, yet also offering the perks and benefits of a big city when a break is needed, especially given the great events hosted by the university such as lectures and other cultural events, as well as the lively arts scene in the city.

As for Judaism, I have a pretty focused notion of what I am and where I stand. I cannot help but say that in Israel being Jewish is a natural part of my life while in Tucson it is an extension of my life. That is not meant to be a negative statement, but a bit more of a reflection of reality for a Jew living in Israel, versus the Diaspora.


Efrat Shahar

Efrat Shahar is a second grade-teacher at Sunrise Drive Elementary School.

Efrat Shahar
Efrat Shahar

I was born in Tel Aviv in 1989. When I was a year old my family moved to Minneapolis. We moved to Tucson in 2006 when my father started working at the University of Arizona Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. I started attending Sabino High School as a junior and graduated in 2008.

For my freshman year of college, I studied abroad in Israel through the USY Nativ college leadership program. I was based at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem for my first semester and on a kibbutz my second semester. I returned to Tucson to attend the University of Arizona, where I majored in elementary education and minored in Judaic studies. After receiving my degree in 2012 I wanted to stay and teach in Tucson to be close to my family. I’m now a second-grade teach­er at Sunrise Drive Elementary School.

Tucson has definitely helped me appreciate the beauty of nature. I love being able to be outdoors, hiking or swimming. I try to hike regularly in Sabino Canyon.

When I first landed in Tucson in 2006 I expected to see the Wild West— cowboys, horses, wildlife. I was happy to find out that that it was similar to my old community in Minnesota; the Jewish community is so warm and welcoming. Weather-wise it’s totally the opposite. I certainly enjoy the weather and the Mexican food.

I have done volunteer work in Israel, but I have not explored teaching outside the United States. Teaching in Israel would be something I might consider in my future professional career.

Living in Tucson has helped me observe and practice Judaism. When I studied in Israel I didn’t have to try to “be Jewish.” It was easy to find a kosher restaurant, synagogues are on every corner, and buses don’t run on Shabbat.

In Tucson Jewish practice doesn’t come as easily as in Israel, so it forces me to make an effort to connect to Judaism. I have to work to be Jewish here. Since moving to Tucson I have taught at Congregation Or Chadash Religious School and Hebrew High. I have also tutored kids for their B’nai Mitzvah and participated in several Jewish organizations through the UA and the Tucson Jewish community. Every year I volunteer at the Israel Festival.


J. Edward Wright

J. Edward Wright, Ph.D., is the director of the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Arizona and the J. Edward Wright Endowed Professor of Judaic Studies.

J. Edward Wright
J. Edward Wright

I have lived in Israel for extended periods on several occasions. My first trip to Israel lasted two years, from 1985 to 1987, during which time I was a visiting graduate student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a research fellow at the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.

The first two years I spent in Jerusalem had a truly transformative impact on my personal and professional life. In fact, the work I do today as director of the Arizona Center for Judaic Studies is the direct result of all I learned and experienced in Israel. The highpoint of those first two years was the birth of our daughter, Angela, in Jerusalem. We learned from our Israeli and Palestinian neighbors the value of family time, and I think that the restful quiet and family time of Shabbat in Jerusalem is something we try to replicate in one way or another whenever we can.

I was surprised by the power of the ultra-Orthodox in matters of daily civic life, and even more surprised by the acquiescence of the secular segments of the population to that power. That situation has changed markedly through the years as Israeli culture continues to evolve and as the religious and secular segments of society work to establish a workable social equilibrium.

What sets Israel apart from other places I’ve lived is its role in human history. Jericho is the oldest urban site on earth, and the country sits along the land bridge that connects Europe, Asia and Africa. Throughout history European, Asian and North African cultures have all encoun­tered one another in this very place. Moreover, Jerusalem is central to the world’s three great monotheistic religions. The place is in many respects the center of the world. Anywhere you are in Israel, whenever you turn around, you bump into history.

Israel teaches you that Judaism is not monolithic. You can walk from one street or neighborhood to another and see that there are many ways to practice or not practice Judaism. These various approaches can live basically in harmony with one another and with other peoples and religions. Since its inception Judaism has always been diverse and adaptive, and these factors have enabled Judaism and Jews to survive no matter where they find themselves.