Student returns to Holy Land at critical juncture

Because of her Korean heritage, Hana Rothstein is used to people questioning her Jewish identity. But on her 10-day Birthright Israel trip in December, she no longer felt excluded, for one of the first times in her life.

“My trip was the cliché kind of life-changing experience,” said Rothstein, 21, who recently completed her junior year at U.C. Santa Cruz. “It really exceeded my expectations. I felt a spiritual connection and a connection to my peers and family. Growing up I didn’t have many close Jewish friends, and now after Birthright I have 40.”

In the months after the trip, Rothstein felt a yearning to return to the Jewish homeland. That dream has come true, and sooner than expected.
As the 2014 winner of the Haas/Koshland Memorial Award, which provides $20,000 for six months of study in Israel, Rothstein is back in Israel — and her arrival has come at a critical time in the nation’s history.

“The past couple days, I have heard sirens and the sounds of rockets being intercepted,” Rothstein wrote in an email to J. last weekend. She is living in Tel Aviv. “I have to be aware of where I will run to take shelter and avoiding large gatherings. I check the news incessantly. And I am currently not traveling outside of Tel Aviv.”

The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation announced the winners in late May. In addition to Rothstein’s award, $5,000 awards were given to Meghan Susman, who is from Kensington and attends Mills College, and Renana Keydar, a Stanford student who is from Israel. Fifteen applied for the award.

“I almost didn’t apply because I didn’t think I would get it,” said Rothstein, an art history and visual culture major with a minor in Jewish studies.

She got the award, but did she get more than she bargained for by being in Israel right now?

“I am still trying to find an understanding of the whole situation,” she wrote. “I look forward to studying [about] Israel at Tel Aviv University in the upcoming months, and learning through conversations and travel, in hopes of gaining a better understanding.”

Before leaving for Israel, Rothstein said in an interview she has always felt connected to both her Korean and Jewish roots. Her mother emigrated from Korea to Los Angeles, where she met Rothstein’s dad, whose ancestry is Ashkenazi–Eastern European. Her mother converted to Judaism before Rothstein was born.
“I think my mom is a superhero,” she said. “She can read Hebrew, she knows all the prayers, and we do Shabbat with my grandma every week.”

She went to both a Korean day care and a Jewish Hebrew school in L.A., where her family lives, and her first name represents both ethnicities: “Hana” means “one” in Korean and “grace” in Hebrew.

As a child, however, she never felt like she fit into her Jewish community because of the way she looked.

“I definitely felt like my family stuck out in temple, and I felt very different than my peers in Hebrew school. I didn’t feel like I could belong to either group,” she said.

Even at Santa Cruz Hillel Shabbats, she feels people think she’s just someone’s friend. On the Birthright trip, she became uncomfortable when Israelis pointed at her and shouted “China” or “Japan.” As the trip progressed, however, she was able to embrace her experience of belonging to two cultures.

“It turned out that there were five other half-Asian Jews on my program who really understood the experience of growing up in two cultures and of being ‘othered,’ ” she said. “It was a really cool and unexpected experience to be able to share this.”

When Rothstein returned from the trip, she enrolled in three Jewish studies classes at U.C. Santa Cruz and dreamed about returning to Israel.

In addition to participating in a Hebrew ulpan to build her reading and conversational skills, she is taking classes on Israel’s position in the Middle East and Israeli cinema. She is also planning to teach English to African refugees.

For the time being, Rothstein has become a news junkie, but “it is difficult to find objective news, reports that do justice to both sides. I try to encourage others to read the news from many sources, and talk to many people. There are so many different perspectives that should be heard.

“There are extremists and innocent people on both sides,” she continued. “It hurts to see the hatred that rages on both sides, but comforting to find that many still believe in peace and practice it.”