Growing up in Jerusalem

American-born faculty member takes us behind the scenes of a childhood spent in two worlds

by Charmaine Daniels

Joshua Schoenfeld

Psychology professor Joshua Schoenfeld says Israel has an open, emotional culture interpersonally. "Emotions are out on the table, good and bad. It creates rich relationships," he notes.

In Jerusalem, Josh Schoenfeld discovered he had more freedom than in Queens. When he moved there at age 11, a low crime rate meant kids roamed the dense, apartment-dominated Jewish neighborhoods of the western half of the city. They moved on foot or rode the bus on their own, and the community looked after its own.

Like Jerusalem itself, Josh Schoenfeld is of two worlds.

His first world was a compact neighborhood in Queens, N.Y., across the river from Manhattan. Jerusalem became his second home when he moved there with his family in 1983. “It’s called making aliya,” he says of the family’s transplant to Israel. It means “ascending” in Hebrew, because the Bible called going to Israel aliya, inferring a spiritual journey.

Many Jewish families from all over the world were making aliya around that time. One of Schoenfeld’s best friends from New York moved there the year after he did. “It wasn’t a huge uprooting … and I knew enough Hebrew to get started,” he says.

As teenagers, he and others were encouraged to go off on unsupervised trips throughout Israel. Hiking trips were popular because the Zionist Movement that led to the founding of Israel in 1948 encouraged a deep, earthy connection to the land.

photos of Joshua in the Israeli military

Compared to the American army, the Israeli military is much more personal. Drill sergeants don't often yell, and after six months, officers can be called by their first names. Overall, Israel is less formal as a country, much like other countries on the Mediterranean. Josh says Israelis blend fervent individualism with emotional attachment to the collective.

The freedom he was allowed meant he immersed himself in a diverse set of experiences, says Schoenfeld. In Israel, a land the size of New Jersey, children grew up fast and knew their country well. Not until the late ’80s did the intifada, or Palestinian uprising, lead to increased violence between Palestinians and Israelis in the Jerusalem area.

“A big thing that affected me was living in a place with such vivid history from thousands of years.”

A book-loving, rule-abiding student who liked to hang out with his friends and listen to music, Schoenfeld entered high school knowing the required military service loomed on the horizon. The military was central to the culture, and when testing for the Israel Defense Forces began in 11th grade, students vied to get into prestigious units.

Eight months after graduating from high school in 1989, Schoenfeld was drafted and assigned to the respected golani infantry brigade. During every-other-weekend leave, he proudly wore its signature brown beret draped over his shoulder. The status of one’s unit within the military hierarchy was seen as linked to the strength of one’s commitment to national duty and one’s manhood. A young soldier in a top unit would feel like a master of the universe, Schoenfeld says.

While in the military, he began to notice behavior that intrigued and sometimes troubled him. “In the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, you’re supposed to keep order, but the sight of you provokes disorder,” he says. “Civilians throw rocks and grenades at you. What do you do?” 

Looking back, he says, “It was way beyond the ability of teenagers to handle … When a 16-year-old throws a grenade at your jeep, because they want you dead or at least out of their land, you have a lot of decisions to make. Are you polite? Do you find their parents and burst into their house with guns? Do you taunt them?”

The standing order was the least use of force possible on patrols, and Israeli forces handled themselves well for the most part, he says. But on rare occasions, they stepped over the ethical line. Bewildered by his peers when they expressed the hatred in the region by yelling at an old Arab lady or worse, he wanted to say, “You just yelled at that old lady!” At some of those times, he detached emotionally, wanting to avoid futile confrontations with his fellow soldiers. Nevertheless, he was cast as the humanitarian, and his mates called him the philosopher. They told him he’d make a good psychologist. Within his unit, he became the medic.

He still remembers a time just prior to the Jewish High Holidays when the men in his unit thought they would be sent home on leave. Instead they were posted to the West Bank. They were angry. As they made their simple holiday meal, they listened to the jarring sound of rocks – thrown by their enemies – landing on the corrugated roof of their building. The next day on a daily patrol, they brought back a Palestinian suspect with a mild injury. As Schoenfeld prepared to dress the wound, his lieutenant told him to stop. But Schoenfeld continued to bandage the prisoner. The lieutenant and the rest of the unit then quietly ignored what he was doing.

“I remember that moment clearly,” he says. “I felt like I was taking a stand against the group mentality. I felt the need to do that at various times during my three years in the army.”

After Schoenfeld completed his military service, he married his high school sweetheart, Deena, and moved to New York City to attend college. He stayed there six years and then moved to Arizona for graduate school, ultimately becoming a psychologist. He has taught at Saint Joseph’s for two years.

A dual citizen of Israel and the United States, he has mixed feelings about the land of his adolescence. He loves the emotional richness of the culture and remains connected to family and friends there, but he’s been frustrated by “the slowness of the country to come to grips with the reality of a two-state solution” for the Palestinian conflict. He believes the occupations of Gaza and the West Bank have dragged the country down morally and practically. But now that most Israelis realize two states are inevitable, he sees Israel behaving in a way that “I feel more and more proud of.”

He admits that at age 36 he still feels like two different people. And yet, he feels like he belongs everywhere. That, he says, is partly due to his own psyche and partly due to Israel’s influence as a melting pot that embraces Jews from across the globe.

“I love culture and people. I have no capital H in my version of home,” he says.