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For all the divisions within Israeli society, the Jewish state remains a "unifying force" for American Jews in the eyes of several young Americans volunteering in the country.

Rachel Brown, 22, spent time in Ashkelon recently with peers at Otzma, a leadership project of the North American Jewish Federations in which young people, mostly recent college graduates, spend 10 months volunteering in Israel.

Brown, who recently finished her studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, describes how the immigrants she and her fellow volunteers met from France, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Venezuela and Brazil had one thing in common: Israel. "They couldn't speak the same language, but everyone knew the same songs about Israel," says Brown. "It's a unifying factor, across all denominations, across all countries."

Miriam Boxerman, 24, sees Israel as "a haven" where Jews can gather no matter how they define their Jewishness. "You don't have to be religious to be a Zionist, and since so many people in America are not religious, it really is a unifying force," says Boxerman, who worked as a fund-raiser at her native San Francisco's Jewish Federation for two years before joining Otzma.

But Joshua Gross, 22, an Otzma participant from Connecticut, says his time in Israel has shown him the community here is not as unified as he thought it was. Israel is sometimes depicted as a "utopia," says Gross, adding he was unaware of the multi-culturalism within Jewish society, or of the historic discrimination against Jews of Sephardi heritage. The distinctions in my mind didn't exist before I got here," Gross says. "I think Israel in America is very much a mythical place."