As part of the selection process for the Wexner Israel Fellowship, all of us were asked to write an essay discussing our connection to American Jewry. The exercise was spot on, as it signaled two issues that would be at the center of our “Wexner” experience this year at Harvard. The first is the fact that our actual previous interaction with and knowledge about the vastly diverse Jewish community in America was very limited. The second question was about our own Jewish identity and in what ways does that identity manifest itself in our daily lives and consciousness. At least for some of us, me included, it was the first time I really thought about a Jewish identity, as possibly separate or additional to my Israeli identity.

All year we have been fortunate to both have coordinated meetings with Wexner Graduate Fellows and Heritage Alumni, interact with the Jewish communities around Boston, enjoy deep learning about the diversity and pluralism of Jewish life here, as well as understand burning issues within the community and its complicated relationship with the State of Israel and its people.

Recently our Class 25 cohort came back from an intense weekend in New York that plunged us even deeper into these two issues. On the way back to Boston, the 6 other fellows and I had a chance to sit, think, and talk about the experience. It was obvious that for all of us, our time in New York was definitely one of the year’s highlights. The incredible hospitality and friendship that were shown to us by all of the hosts, participants, and Wexner staff was inspiring and heartwarming.

The backdrop of Manhattan did not hurt either… but the real heart of the weekend and the reason we felt so strongly about the experience was the intimate discussions we had as a group and personally with our hosts on issues that we all feel so passionately about. As a secular atheist Israeli I was overwhelmed by the central place Jewish identity takes in the lives of the people we met, even the non-religious ones. The possibility to experience that identity without the need to conform to a rigid set of norms and affiliations seemed liberating and intriguing. The openness of the speakers and the internal discussion it evoked in our group, regarding the expression of Jewish identity in Israel and the way forward for the troubled but necessary relationship between the two communities, were powerful and will be important in forming the vision and plans for each of us personally and definitely as a cohort. All in all, it was a great and meaningful experience.

Itamar Shahar, WIF Class 25, is married and father to 4 children. He holds a BA in Political Science and National Security from the University of Haifa. Itamar has worked for the Prime Minister’s Office since 1995. His fields of interest include history, literature and film as well as a love for the outdoors. Itamar can be reached at