By Katie Strumpf, Leadership 2Gether Participant
I’m standing in Sephora with Rinat while she shows me the bright eyeliner pencils she has selected. I laugh and tell her that I have the exact same colors at home. She helps me pick out the lipstick I will wear on my wedding day.
To any passerby, we are just two dark-haired women shopping.
But it isn’t merely makeup that makes this experience so surreal. Rinat lives 6,246 miles away in Hadera, Israel and our communication thus far has been through Skype, email and Facebook as part of the Leadership 2Gether program through the Charleston Jewish Federation.
Yet a year later, she is strolling down King Street as I tell her my family’s history in Charleston, SC.
I embarked on this long distance “pen pals” journey with Rinat working through a series of thought-provoking questions, topics, and themes as outlined through the Leadership 2Gether program. Despite hailing from vastly different countries, we connect and bond quickly and are gabbing like old friends in no time. Each navigating our own paths, yet connected as young, professional women.
Connected as Jews.
This program resonated with me as a Jewish woman living in a Christian nation, yet I instantly recall my incredible sense of belonging during my first Shabbat spent on my trip to Israel years ago. I’m a proud American woman, but one who grows weary of the shocked look that I didn’t have a Christmas tree growing up. I don’t feel deprived. I feel proud to be a Jewish American woman who isn’t the norm, who is different.
The Leadership 2Gether program kicked off with lunch on the rooftop of the Grand Bohemian hotel here in Charleston, and continued to Chattanooga, TN, where other Jewish young professionals joined. All of us sleeping in the “Crash Pad” a sophisticated hostel that seemed to be a hybrid of a summer camp cabin and a Real World House. We were together constantly, in bunk beds, crossing a picturesque bridge, lighting Shabbat candles together, drinking wine, touring synagogues, and just enjoying the opportunity to be in the same place.
The weekend was a whirlwind of tours, discussions, Tennessee barbeque, laughter, walking through leaves, and the thrill of discovering more about each other, connecting as Jewish women and men.
It isn’t just Israeli Jews that I grew closer to; this program connected me to other Jews here in Charleston, and in the Southeast. I discover that Rebecca Leibowitz Engel and I are distant cousins and I know she and I have more adventures together in our future. This program has made me pause, and remember that being Jewish is a privilege, and I must work to keep Judaism alive in my life.
At the close of the weekend, I find myself wiping away tears at leaving the group and heading back to reality. We make plans for me to come to Israel, and for them to come back to Charleston. We are connected through group messages, Facebook, and this incredible week.
Because at the end of the day, Rinat and I are more than just two women who like the same bright eyeliner colors. We know that true friendship knows no distance or boundaries.
We are true friends brought together through Leadership 2Gether.
Thank you to our Leadership 2Gether* Charleston participants: Katie Strumpf, Joseph Alvo, and Jen Schager, to our hosts Gloria Adelson and Ijo Toporek, and to Mayor John and Sandy Tecklenberg and Jerry Kaynard for their hospitality! Watch a video of the experience here
Leadership 2Gether is a program geared for young professionals, and just one of many that are part of The Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2Gether program, which creates a living bridge between ten Southeastern Jewish communities and the Hadera-Eiron region of Israel. You may have met the Israeli educators who are working with our local teachers to bring Israeli culture to our children, the Israeli teens who are hosted by our families, the young leaders who study Jewish identity together with our young professionals. Thanks to this partnership, the future of Charleston’s relationship with Israel is stronger than ever.
To learn more about this partnership, and even how you can receive home hospitality in the region on your next trip to Israel, contact Rebecca Engel at RebeccaL@jewishcharleston.org.