As the sun descended upon the Old City in Jerusalem, casting the ancient walls that Jews have cherished for centuries in golden hues of oranges and browns, H. Alan Scott described how he became a member of the tribe.
“It’s definitely not the most normal way to get to Judaism,” Scott chuckled.
“I grew up Mormon. I was baptized Mormon against all of my gut feelings when I was 12. That was the first and last day I was Mormon. It never felt right, ever.”
Scott is one of the 51 participants in the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation’s REALITY program focusing on storytellers. And as far as stories go, Scott’s is a doozy.
“I had gravitational pull toward Jewry that never really ended,” Scott revealed in a conversation with the Magazine after he told his story to the rapt audience of REALITY participants.
As the group listened to Scott’s unconventional journey to Judaism last Friday evening at the Mamilla hotel’s sun deck, the Shabbat siren began to wail.
Instead of stopping during the long howl that reverberated against the Old City walls, Scott continued to speak. He spoke of his diagnosis of testicular cancer at the age of 30 and how the interminable hours undergoing chemo provided an opportunity for him to study, learn and become a Jew.
“I thought that Israel would be comforting and inviting, and would give me a sense of community, and the time I’ve been here, I’ve learned that those feelings have been validated very strongly,” the writer/comedian said of his one-week trip with REALITY.
And with good reason. The REALITY itinerary offers a robust, comprehensive look at Israel in all its complexity.
From touring Neveh Tzedek and dining at Tel Aviv’s finest restaurants to meeting with Druse in the Galilee’s Peki’in village, to sitting down with executives of MEET, a program that brings Israelis and Palestinians together to enact social change, to hearing a Holocaust survivor tell her story at Yad Vashem – participants were able to get a snapshot of Israel in all its complex, vibrant and diverse glory.
STORYTELLERS IS just one of the many incarnations of the REALITY program, which has a thorough application process requiring participants to submit writing samples, interview and explain why they are candidates for enacting social change not just in the Jewish world but for the global community at large.
To that end, the program encourages applicants of all religions and backgrounds. The foundation values “people who champion inclusion, equality and diversity.
People who believe in quality education for all. People who are advocates for the most vulnerable populations.
People who work everyday to strengthen Israel and the Jewish community,” Roben Smolar, the foundation’s director of communications, told the group at their Shabbat dinner in Jerusalem’s Old City.
The trip is almost entirely subsidized by the foundation, with participants expected to make a nominal payment once they are accepted. The major requirement, though, is that they must parlay what they learned in Israel when they return back home.
“We want to tap into your creativity, wisdom and expertise to use storytelling in a way that will inspire action on critical issues,” Smolar explained.
“When all is said and done, it matters more what is done than what is said,” Seth Cohen, Schusterman’s senior director, told the group.
“You came here because you wanted to grow. This is your personal story you’re going to be able to write. The complexity you felt [on this trip], if it stops here, we failed,” he said.
The foundation acknowledges that Israel is not a place with simple answers, so when it comes to the conflict, it’s best for each individual participant to leave the country with their own take on Israel’s geopolitical, religious and sociological issues.
“We want them to connect to Israel in a way that’s authentic to them,” Yaniv Rivlin, the foundation’s Senior Program Officer based in Jerusalem, said.
WILLIAM DEMERITT, a Yale drama school grad, connected to Israel in a very visceral way. As someone who is half black and half Jewish (“Blueish,” DeMeritt, joked), coming to Israel was an eye-opening experience.
“It’s probably the most liberal idealistic bulls**t thing to say, but I’m very caught between the Jewish identity and black identity,” DeMeritt said.
That inner conflict has informed his grappling with Israel’s geopolitical one.
Of the controversial Black Lives Matter movement, whose platform issued harsh condemnations of Israel for being an “apartheid” state that commits “genocide” against the Palestinians, DeMeritt acknowledges that he understands the kernel of where that criticism comes from.
“But having been here, I get it,” he said carefully. “There is a way to talk about this. Is there apartheid? No. Is there segregation? Yes. Is there a way to talk about it thoughtfully? Absolutely.”
Despite its political problems, De- Meritt admits he was taken aback by his experience here. “This is a magnificent place, which I did not expect. I kind of fell in love with it.”
DeMeritt who lost his father at eight and his mother to cancer recently, understands the healing power of storytelling.
His one-man play (which he co-wrote and acts in) centers around those pivotal loses of his life and the role Judaism has had in it.
After the visit to Yad Vashem, the Schusterman Foundation asked the group members to think about how they can keep the stories of Holocaust survivors alive when they return home.
It just so happens that one of the monologues that did not make it into DeMeritt’s play was the story of his friend Leon.
DeMeritt’s deep voice suddenly transforms himself into the accent of an elderly Jew from New York’s Lower East Side as he tells his friend’s harrowing story of a kid tasked with tending to the horse of one of the Nazi officers.
“A horse saved my life,” he begins, “Every day I would clean and brush the horse, and the officer would come and put on white gloves to see if there’s dirt on the horse. If there was, he’d hit me with a stick. One day he comes, and the minute he lifts his arm [to hit me], the horse kicks him in the head. I kept that job. But I was never hit again with the stick.”
“I think the world needs a little more Leon,” DeMeritt said somberly after acting out the story of his principled friend who has now dedicated his life in New York to making sure no person or animal is taken advantage of or abused.
NOT EVERYONE on the trip is seeing Israel for the first time, though. Danielle Berrin, a writer for the Jewish Journal in Los Angeles, has been to Israel many times. This trip, however, was an eye-opening experience for her.
“To be in a mixed group of Jews and non-Jews has been incredibly powerful and exciting,” she said.
“I’m having conversations that I dreamt about having, but don’t get to have in my day-to-day life because I’m in an insular Jewish environment, so to see Israel from other perspectives in this magical environment makes it possible to have conversations you couldn’t otherwise have.”
The diversity, capacity for empathy and ability to listen inherent in the group has enabled Berrin to talk about the conflict in an open and frank way.
“This trip has been very honest about the wounds and scars and complexities of this conversation. We can engage about Israel in a way that’s not polarizing, but open. I haven’t had a Shabbat dinner conversation with other Jews in LA that has been as kind and filled with compassion and openness as the ones we’re having here,” she marveled.
“The big secret is you can actually be honest about Israel and people can still have a good experience,” she said.