The tables at the Underground Coffee Co. were full Thursday night as community members came to listen to “Stories @ The Underground: Metamorphosis,” a storytelling performance. The event featured six panelists: Ronnie Shashoua ’25, Caleb Stutman-Shaw ’25, Lara Jacobowitz ’25, Zach Harris ’22, Hillel Rosenshine ’22, Tani Najman-Licht ’24 and Joe Blumberg, coordinator for Israel engagement at Brown RISD Hillel. Each speaker shared stories of personal transformations they encountered while living in Israel as Jewish Americans.
Storytellers discussed their experiences in Israel, including taking bar mitzvah trips to Israel, participating in arguments-turned-discussions at the Western Wall, donating blood to an Arab Israeli man and watching a festivity grow violent at the Damascus Gate. Panelists recalled gap years in Israel at yeshiva — Orthodox Jewish seminaries — reflective family trips and post-graduation journeys to Israel.
Blumberg said the idea for the event was generated several months ago by students who wanted to create space to share stories about their time in Israel.
“Talking about Israel at Brown is rarely easy, no matter your background or experience in the country,” Blumberg said. “We wanted to create a space where students could engage in meaningful, deep listening and honor each others' experiences.”
Shashoua and Jacobowitz came up with the idea to host the panel in November after they both finished a gap year in Israel. Shashoua said they mostly wanted a way to “celebrate Israeliness in a way that acknowledged its complexity and challenges.”
Before the event, Blumberg said he hoped that the audience would engage with the panel “in the practice of open-hearted listening.”
“Listening to each others' stories makes room for us to bring our full selves into community, and that's what we sought to model with this event,” he added.
During the event, the six speakers took turns recounting their experiences to the audience, seated on a stool in the front of the room with microphone in hand.
Shashoua shared her story as a gap year student in Tel Aviv the night Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister of Israel, left office. As an Israeli American, Shashoua said her “whole life felt overshadowed by Netanyahu,” who held office for 12 years. She described the conflicted feelings she experienced marching through streets full of protesters and celebrators and concluded her story with a reference to the theme of the night: transformations.
“Sometimes a transformation doesn’t look like triumph,” she said. “It just looks like hope.”
Harris shared a story about his gap year experience at a mechina, a pre-military academy. Harris described traveling to new regions and being struck by “overflowing shabbas dinner tables” standing in contrast with the “barbed wire fences” of Palestinian areas.
Rosenshine reflected on his bar mitzvah trip to Israel, where he was born and where some of his family still resides. He described feeling like an “intruder,” someone who “came of age elsewhere and came to Israel to celebrate.”
Rosenshine described a tense dinner after which his grandmother told him stories of her life. Though Rosenshine has a different relationship with Israel than many of his family members, he said that after listening to his grandmothers’ stories, he has come to recognize a gap that “opened up between (himself) and (his) grandparents and, by extension, the rest of (his) Israeli family.”
Still, “when she spoke to me about her family, it sounded like my own,” he said.
Stutman-Shaw spoke about standing in the press box overlooking a square in East Jerusalem on Jerusalem Day, an Israeli national holiday commemorating Israel’s establishment of control over Jerusalem after the 1967 war, and the final day of Ramadan. He described watching what began as the breaking of a fast among the Arab community escalate into a police interaction with tanks spraying “skunk water,” a foul-smelling liquid used to repel protesters.
He juxtaposed this against taking the light rail one stop away and emerging into the festivities of Jerusalem Day. “There was a disconnect between what was happening and what was seen,” he said.
He added that he didn’t know what it would take to resolve the conflict, but that he knew “it would take seeing.”
Blumberg, the only non-student who spoke at the event, shared a story about a yelling match-turned-discussion at the Western Wall. He took a year after college to go to Israel and work with Women of the Wall, an organization that brings women to pray at the Western Wall. Blumberg worked as a relayer on the other side of the wall, sharing the prayer on the women’s side with the men. He recounted an Orthodox Jewish man who came to yell at him throughout the entire service and how later, when the service concluded, the man approached him and they had a 45-minute discussion.
Though he did not defend the man’s actions, Blumberg said the conversation helped him to better understand another person’s perspective. Blumberg concluded his talk by saying that this interaction, along with several chance run-ins with the man afterwards, raised his hopes for the transformative possibilities of conversation.
Najman-Licht shared a story from his gap year at a yeshiva in Israel and how he broke away from his daily routine on a Thursday afternoon when he traveled to the Arab community in East Jerusalem. He went at the last minute to donate blood to an Arab Israeli man. As Najman-Licht was donating blood, the man told him about experiences he had with Israeli officers, some painful and some humorous. He remembered wondering, “How could this person tell me all these really difficult stories and also laugh?”
Jacobowitz shared the transformation she experienced in her gap year at a yeshiva and “the most important thing anyone ever told her.” Throughout her life, Jacobowitz felt conditioned “not to like her voice.” She described struggling with speaking up in group activities, especially in Hebrew, but how she grew much more comfortable throughout her experience. At the end of her gap year, Jacobowitz shared that the yeshiva leaders gave each woman a Jewish text that they felt described them. Jacobwitz said that night she went to bed and felt for the first time “that (her) words (had) value.”
Following the events, attendees shared Middle Eastern desserts and tea. Joey Lipschitz ’24, who attended the event, said that he wasn’t expecting the stories to be political but that he “was pleasantly surprised by the topics.”
Juliana Merullo ’24, who came to support her suitemate Najman-Licht, said that she loved how the speeches helped her connect to otherwise distant experiences. “I've never been to Israel — I'm not Jewish,” Merullo said. But the event helped her “find common themes” in her lives and those of others.
“Storytelling is such a cool way of sharing experiences,” she said. “To hear from so many people that I pass on the paths every day about their experiences was also really interesting.”