Supplementary Schools Preserve Israeli Culture in America

By Jeri Zeder

Published January 16, 2008, issue of January 18, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

When Raveetal Celine and her husband, Graham, moved to the Boston area from Israel in 1999, their young daughters settled nicely into their new life — a little too nicely, Celine felt. The girls’ Hebrew began slipping away, and their American friends were crowding out Israelis. Concerned that her daughters would lose their Israeli identity, Celine sought a solution, but Jewish day schools and congregational schools seemed too religious, too American and too expensive.

B\'Ivrit: At Kachol-Lavan in Toronto, a first-grade class learns songs and dances for Hanukkah.
B\'Ivrit: At Kachol-Lavan in Toronto, a first-grade class learns songs and dances for Hanukkah.

So Celine got proactive: She co-founded the Israeli School of Lexington. Her daughter Na’ama, 12, attended the school for four years and is now fluent and respectably literate in Hebrew. “I think that if I didn’t go to that school, I wouldn’t be able to read the Torah for my bat mitzvah,” Na’ama said, “and I wouldn’t be able to understand half my family” — the half living in Israel.

Nearly a quarter-million Israeli citizens live in America and Canada, concentrated in major metropolitan areas. While they identify strongly as Jews, many shun synagogues and choose public schools over day schools, either because they view themselves as secular or because they relate to their Judaism in a different way than most North Americans do. “They don’t feel comfortable with the American-based religious identification of Jewish culture,” explained Steven Gold, a sociology professor at Michigan State University. “They are more comfortable with Hebrew and Israeli stories, songs and social activities.”

To preserve a sense of Israeli identity, many parents enroll their children in Hebrew-language programs, including a growing number of Israeli supplementary schools. These schools are oases where families can pass on their distinct heritage and language to their children within close communities of Israeli expatriates who may or may not ultimately return to Israel — communities made more vibrant by their participation in the schools.

Organized locally by parents, typically without assistance or input from other Israeli schools or the larger Jewish community, Israeli supplementary schools tend to operate under the radar of American Jewish organizations. Their low profile is partly deliberate — their members are concerned about security — and partly the byproduct of their separation from American Jewish life. “American Jewish communities and their organizations, especially federations, are ambivalent about the Israeli presence in the U.S.,” Gold said. “The Israeli government wants Jews, and especially Israelis, to live in Israel, and Diaspora communities want to support Israel. American Jewish communities have limited contact with Israelis and their organizations.”

Most of the schools span kindergarten to eighth grade, are conducted exclusively in Hebrew, and teach Hebrew language and literacy, Israeli history, music, art, literature and holidays, as well as Bible study. Family social events are central to their programs. Students — who typically number in the dozens — meet once, sometimes twice, a week in people’s homes, synagogues, Chabad houses and Jewish community centers; when the schools can’t work out something with Jewish institutions, they gather in secular facilities or even in churches.

The Israeli School of Lexington, founded in 2002, sought guidance in its early years from the nearby Israeli Complementary School of Boston, which was established in 1969 and is reputed to be the oldest Israeli school in the United States. With space at the local synagogues expensive and limited, the Lexington school meets at a low-cost location that is undisclosed at the request of its members. It is supported by tuition alone. About 40 children are enrolled, with another seven in the school’s Ulpan program. Children learn Hebrew, Israeli culture and Torah stories. One student, Bar Cohen, 11, told the Forward that he enjoys the tale of Adam v’Chava — or Adam and Eve: “I like how they were tricked, and that’s how human civilization got started.”

In Chicago, where the Israeli community is highly organized, the Maccabim Sunday School falls under the auspices of Yisraelink, a community center specifically serving Israelis. Through Yisraelink, Maccabim families are easily connected to organized programs and events for Israelis that go beyond what the school offers.

Those few Israeli schools that do receive support from Jewish agencies have more opportunities for integration into mainstream Jewish life. Kachol-Lavan in Toronto, for instance, is well integrated with Canadian Jewish organizations. Kachol-Lavan started two years ago in response to a UJA-Federation report that found large numbers of Israeli children in greater Toronto to be receiving no formal Jewish education whatsoever. The school’s co-founder and chair, David Zaltzman, an Israeli whose children attend Jewish day school, sought assistance from the organized Israeli community and the federation. Today, Kachol-Lavan boasts more than 150 students. It operates under the umbrella of the Schwartz/Reisman Centre, a Jewish community center, and meets Sundays on the campuses of two area Jewish day schools. Bryan Keshen, the center’s executive director, said: “The supplemental program is in a day school on purpose. We’re modeling and getting Israeli families to feel comfortable in Jewish communal areas.” With connections to other Canadian Jewish institutions, the families will have ready access to supporting programs, such as Hebrew-immersion clubs and summer camps.

One distinctive aspect of Israeli supplementary schools is their potential for innovation, flexibility and creativity. For instance, the Israeli Cultural Center in San Diego, a school/community center hybrid, is a smorgasbord of programs for families, children, teens and adults. It is masterminded by Jennie Starr, a lawyer who is now home full time with her young children. “I’m trying to create a community-driven institution,” Starr said. She molds the classes to the needs of her constituency and the talents of her teachers, with an overall aim of creating what she calls an “ethnic enclave”: a place where educationally enriching, all-Hebrew and Israeli-informed activities reinforce and expand the Hebrew literacy taught in the school. Orna McCann, the ICC’s art teacher, allows non-Hebrew-speaking parents to participate in their children’s Hebrew art classes and is forming a class for adults. She says that no other entity in San Diego teaches exclusively in Hebrew. “That’s what’s special about this program,” she said.

All these schools aim for the same goals: to impart Hebrew fluency and literacy, to draw together Israelis living abroad and to instill an Israeli Jewish identity. Yet, their reach is limited. Thousands of Israeli children are growing up in North America without any formal Jewish education. And thousands of North American Jewish children are missing contact with Israelis and their fresh perspectives on being Jewish.

Is there an opportunity here? Daniel Marom thinks so. He’s the director of the Visions of Jewish Education Project at the Mandel Leadership Institute in Jerusalem. “I believe that the Israeli Diaspora’s quest for some kind of cultural continuity can be instructive both for Diaspora communities and for Israel,” Marom said via e-mail. He believes that, depending on the quality of the schools they create, Israelis living in America could energize and invigorate Jewish education and identity for both American Jews and Israelis alike.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.