On Tuesday, Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), Natalie, the kids, and I traveled from Rehovot to Haifa to meet a long-lost cousin, a nephew of Natalie’s grandmother. Ruven Schneider, now 88, was everything you would expect from the Jewish People’s Greatest Generation: he fought in the Red Army in World War II, came to Palestine and fought in the Palmach, and settled in Haifa. He was a consummate host, baking for us and cooking dinner and insisting that we eat. His son, Arie, married a woman of Tunisian descent, Ruti, whom he met while a soldier. They have four beautiful children and one new grandson.

I find it becomes very hard, at moments like this, to be a died in the wool secular-humanist, that is, someone who believes that we have to treat all people exactly the same. Of course, I say that, and I believe it. And yet, on that basis, why should I feel this special connection (in my own case, through marriage) to someone I’ve never met and may never meet again? Why should he want to show me and my family hospitality? Why would I even feel comfortable entrusting my children with him if need be?

I asked this of one of my former students with whom we met up for dinner in Jerusalem last night. She also has a lot of family in Israel, and has spent much of this year finding them and spending time with them. “It’s because we share a common story,” she says. “It’s as though I’m seeing an alternate vision of me: if so-and-so hadn’t decided to come to America and not Israel, I would be you.”

We are bound by our stories–they’re what make us who we are. They are what unite us with some and potentially divide us from others.