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 man’s reaction stunned him.

“Oh, that’s so interesting, I’ve never met a Jew before,” he recalled him saying. “When can you come for dinner?”

Jews who have recently returned from Egypt tell of similar experiences. Though Monica Kamen remembers struggling through textbooks full of passing references to Jewish world dominance and Western puppets, she remains overwhelmingly positive about her stay in the country.

“This [was] one of the best and most formative experiences of my life,” she said. “It was amazing to have those relationships with Egyptians.”

Far from shunning her, her friends were curious to find out more about Judaism. One of her friends, an Egyptian Muslim, fasted with her on Yom Kippur out of solidarity. When Kamen hosted a Seder on the second night of Passover, two of her professors came with their families.

For Kamen, the biggest challenge was not so much the outward perception of her as a Jew, but rather the way her experience in the Arab world sparked an inner dilemma about her identity as a Jew, and about her perception of Israel. “I grew up learning one narrative about Israel my whole life, and it was really, really challenged,” she explained.

Friends and family who found out she was pursuing Arabic studies often did not understand. “I definitely got a lot of flak for studying Arabic in the first place, and for going over there,” Kamen said. “A lot of my Jewish peers were like, ‘Why are you doing this?’”

But her father sees things differently. “Monica, to me, was an ambassador for the Jewish people in Egypt. I think it’s important for Arabs to meet Jews and get to know them on a personal level,” Barnett Kamen said.

The mother of the graduate student currently in Cairo summed up what seems to be the general feeling for parents: both fiercely proud of their children and increasingly worried.

“I wish it weren’t my son,” she said. “But I do think [that] these are the people that are going to be able to have an understanding of the culture, and [the ones] able to forge peace in the future.”

Contact Anne Cohen at cohen@forward.com


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