Young Jews Trying To Help Egypt Face Obstacles — Abroad and at Home

Amid Idealism, Uneasy Questions From Parents, Community

Building Bridges: Monica Kamen says Egyptians were eager to learn about her faith. Jewish friends back home were less understanding about why she went to a Muslim country in the first place.
courtesy of kamen family
Building Bridges: Monica Kamen says Egyptians were eager to learn about her faith. Jewish friends back home were less understanding about why she went to a Muslim country in the first place.

By Anne Cohen

Published July 05, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
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The circumstances of Andrew Driscoll Pochter’s death were just emerging when the questions began: What was a Jewish boy doing in Egypt? How could he have been naive enough to get involved in a protest? Why wasn’t he in Israel instead?

Pochter, raised in a Jewish home in Chevy Chase, Md., active in Hillel at Kenyon College and proud of his identity, was stabbed to death June 28 at a violent protest in Alexandria, Egypt. As the first American victim of the uprising against Mohammed Morsi’s government, Pochter became an instant symbol of the many students who choose to live and work in the Middle East to improve their Arabic skills and further their understanding of the region.

But there is an inherent dilemma faced by Jewish students fascinated by the Middle East and its culture and language: they must grapple with their Jewish identity, often keeping it hidden once they arrive in their host countries. For their parents, the desire to see their children take the lead in understanding the countries in Israel’s neighborhood clashes with the ultimate realization that they aren’t completely comfortable with it.

Interviews with several Jewish families reveal that, for both generations, Pochter’s sudden and brutal death hit a little too close to home.

Monica Kamen grew up in a Conservative Jewish family, attended Jewish day school near Philadelphia and spent a semester in Israel during high school. It was there that she first became fascinated with the Middle East. In 2009 she spent a summer in Egypt; she returned for the academic year in September 2010. When the uprising began, on January 24, 2011, she found herself smack in the middle of revolutionary protests in Alexandria.

Her father, initially supportive of her decision to study in Egypt, was frantic. “What would happen to this American Jewish girl if she was arrested?” Barnett Kamen remembered thinking. “There would be no recourse if she just sat in jail.”

“It’s important for everybody to know that they don’t have any rights over there,” the elder Kamen said, adding that organizations who offer these opportunities need to take stricter measures to make sure that participants are prepared before leaving, and that contingency plans are in place in case of emergencies. “I have no problem with Jews going to Arab countries on programs, I just want to make sure that the programs know what they’re doing,” he noted.


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