MILWAUKEE – About a half-dozen U.S. Marines were in the Israeli desert, awaiting instruction on heavy military weapons.
When a 19-year-old 5’ 4” female arrived, they asked what time the instructor would get there.
“I’m here,” explained Pnina Ezra, their designated Israel Defense Forces instructor. “That’s me.”
The Marines started laughing. “It was hard for them to realize that’s it – there’s nothing else,” Ezra remembers.
Now 25, Ezra has plenty of experience communicating with different kinds of people: reluctant Marines (they warmed up to her after she got going), tourists while she was a hotel concierge and campers at a Jewish Community Center summer camp in New Orleans. She’s also co-managed a youth movement in Israel. Next is her role as Israel campus fellow for Hillel Milwaukee, where the Israeli is to connect with college students at Milwaukee-area campuses. She started in August; her position is funded by Milwaukee Jewish Federation and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
This sabra who grew up near Tel Aviv applied to work as a fellow because she’s fascinated with the Jewish world outside of Israel and she wants to help connect others with her country. She loves learning about different cultures, having majored in international relations and sociology-anthropology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
“It’s the same religion. It’s the same culture. But how you do things here is different from how we do it in Israel,” she said. “It’s interesting to see how people give different meanings to the same things. Beautiful to learn about.”
She sees beauty in particular in the different ways American Jews pray or hold a Shabbat dinner. In Israel, among people she knows, the approach to Shabbat seems to be either Orthodox or quite secular, she said.
Ezra will spend a year working at Hillel Milwaukee, 3053 N. Stowell Ave., and also at Milwaukee Jewish Federation, at 1360 N. Prospect Ave. in Milwaukee. The Hillel Milwaukee building is near the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, but it also serves students from Marquette University and other area schools. Ezra said she’s looking forward to talking with students about Judaism and Israel, including students who don’t see Israel as she does. She hopes to “create conversation.”
“Israel’s my home,” she said. “Of course there’s lots of things that I personally think are better and some not so good. But I do stand up for Israel as much as I can.”
It’s her goal to get to know the community, to understand “how Jewish life comes together with being a student.”
“I’m very excited to be part of this,” she added.
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Life as an Israeli concierge
Back when Milwaukee’s new Israel campus fellow, Pnina Ezra, was working as a receptionist and concierge at the Arthur Hotel in Jerusalem, people would ask her where to go for dinner, to hear music and other predictable questions. But also, tourists sometimes made it clear Israel was not what they expected.
“A lot of people would come in and say, wow I’m so surprised you have cars and roads,” she recalled. “It’s not – like – camels.”