Charleston Native Finds Purpose Teaching in Israel

After four years practicing political and elections law in San Francisco, attorney Jonathan Mintzer was looking for more, so he came to Israel with Masa Israel Teaching Fellow (MITF). Today, he is fighting antisemitism, discrimination, and bias as Assistant Regional Director for the Anti-Defamation League’s Midwest office in Chicago.

Masa’s ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Acting CEO Ofer Gutman spoke with Jonathan about his time with Masa.

What led you to Masa’s Israel Teaching Fellowship?

Israel was always an important part of my story. I had visited Israel many times—my mom is Israeli, my parents met at Hebrew University, and my 93-year-old grandfather still lives in Jerusalem—but I wanted to see Israel in a new light. I wanted to see it the way locals do, the way my parents did, and the way my grandfather still does. Masa offered a unique opportunity to have a more authentic Israeli experience, do something I love, and contribute to the community. I’ve always appreciated children’s energy and spontaneity, so I felt that teaching elementary school students English would be a great way to quickly become part of the community, connect to Israeli society, and find the sense of purpose I had been seeking.

What were some of the best parts of the experience?

I found my time in the classroom and the relationships I built with my students rich and fulfilling. These relationships extended beyond school walls as my students and their families welcomed me into their daily lives with classic Israeli warmth. They invited me into their homes for Shabbat dinners and greeted me enthusiastically when I met them on the street. When I was back in Israel last June, I even attended a former student’s bat mitzvah.

I also enjoyed the adventure and the challenge of exploring a new country—taking the bus, getting lost, struggling with the language, and all.

Why was ADL a natural next step from your time in Israel with Masa?

During my time with Masa, I learned a lot about what I want out of my career; seeing how my work can have a positive impact on other people’s lives affirmed my desire to continue working with those in the Jewish community and other diverse communities. ADL’s mission of securing justice and fair treatment for all resonates with me, and my skills and experience placed me in the perfect position to contribute. 

Are there any messages you took away from your time in Israel with Masa that enhance your work at the ADL?

In her famous TED talk, Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses the problem of being exposed to just a single narrative about any group or place. She explains that many Americans have a one-dimensional view of what it means to be African, and they’re surprised when they encounter anything that contradicts that view. To extend Ms. Adichie’s insightful idea, Americans’ ideas of Israel—regardless of their community, background, or politics—are often understood through a singular prism.

Immersing myself in the day-to-day life of Israel—reading the local papers, sitting in the bars, listening to the radio—gave me a much deeper, more complex understanding of the country. Israel has a rich and complex story that is often oversimplified in the current political and news environment.

My Masa experience helped me realize that it’s difficult to truly understand another culture or experience without seeing it with your own eyes. A good substitute, though, is dialogue and education. As we seek to engage in dialogue across communities, including dialogues between the Jewish communities in Israel and America, we should work to appreciate complexity and multiple perspectives. By facilitating this dialogue at ADL, I hope to guide the people I work with to develop a more nuanced perspective to expand our simplified stories of each other.

How do you feel your position at ADL utilizes the skills developed with Masa?

Masa taught me to take risks, adapt to unfamiliar situations and approach issues from new angles. During my time in Israel, I learned to cater to different types of learners. At ADL, when I facilitate trainings on antisemitism and bias or when I give presentations to diverse audiences, my experience in education serves as a strong foundation.

Along similar lines, one skill that has been constant throughout my career is simplifying concepts for different audiences. As a lawyer, I explained complex legal statutes to help clients make informed decisions; in the classroom, I explained the idiosyncrasies of English in a fun and simple way for elementary school students; and now, at ADL, I explain how hate escalates in our society and how we can be allies to others.

Any final messages?

Many of the families I met in Israel immigrated, in part, because of the antisemitism they faced in their home countries such as Russia, France, Ethiopia, and Iran. In each situation, the rising climate of antisemitism often occurred in parallel with an escalation of hate against other groups. As the Jewish community seeks to confront the rising tide of anti-Semitism in America, we must learn the lessons of history and recognize that hate does not occur in a vacuum. We will never truly confront the spread of antisemitism without simultaneously responding to the hate faced by others. As such, it is crucial that the American-Jewish community rededicate itself to supporting our friends in the Black, Latinx, LGBTQ+, Muslim, and other historically marginalized communities.  

All views expressed in this piece are the opinions of Jonathan Mintzer as an individual and do not reflect the position of the Anti-Defamation League.

Jonathan Mintzer is a Masa alum of Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, a program with Israel Experience.