Israeli Immigrants Play Growing Role in American Jewish Community

Lag B'Omer Bonfires and Hebrew Get-Togethers

American Jews and Israelis march in the annual Israel day parade down Fifth Avenue. Up to 500,000 Jews with ties to Israel now live in the U.S.
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American Jews and Israelis march in the annual Israel day parade down Fifth Avenue. Up to 500,000 Jews with ties to Israel now live in the U.S.

By Nathan Guttman

Published January 13, 2014, issue of January 17, 2014.
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But the Israeli American Council, a Los-Angeles based organization that has been growing rapidly, estimates the number of Israelis living in the United States at as high as 600,000 to 800,000. This estimate is based on Internet polling; the IAC says it represents the broader number of American Jews with Israeli ties, many of whom do not identify as Israelis in polls. The Israeli government does not keep count of its citizens living in America, but according to an official with the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the “working assumption” is that there are between 300,000 and 500,000 citizens currently residing in the United States.

Geographically, Israeli Americans are concentrated in the New York area and in California. An older Israeli community is centered in the San Fernando Valley, while newcomers from the past 15 years have settled in Silicon Valley. Other Israeli communities, characterized by local Israeli restaurants, Hebrew-language news publications and thriving Israeli social lives, can be found in Miami and Philadelphia, as well as in Toronto. Some smaller communities also have distinct Israeli areas, such as the neighborhood known as “the kibbutz” in the Rockville, Md., suburb of Washington.

Mallach divided the Israeli American community in New York into five subgroups: the ultra-Orthodox who live in insular communities; Modern Orthodox; educated secular Israelis concentrated in Manhattan; small business owners who are “a bit less Americanized,” and creative artists working in New York’s theater, dance and art companies.

There is also a significant number of Jews from the Former Soviet Union who had moved to Israel after the fall of communism but quickly joined their families in the United States. In most cases, these immigrants are absorbed into the local Jewish Russian and Bukharan communities and don’t identify as Israelis.

Tapping into this previously untouched reservoir of new American Jews are several organizations attempting to give Israelis a greater voice in the community and to address their unique needs.

“We are not the same as American Jews,” said Shawn Evenhaim, chairman of the IAC. “We cannot talk about being the same. What we need is to respect the differences.” Evenhaim, who grew up in Beersheba in southern Israel as Sharon Even-Haim but changed his name to one more palatable for English speakers, demonstrates in his life story the shift in mindset many Israeli Americans underwent in recent years. “I came here to make some money and was sure I’ll go back [to Israel],” the 47-year-old Los Angeles real estate developer said, “but after my children were born, I understood that I’m here to stay.”

This acknowledgement of the move to America being permanent distinguishes current-generation Israeli immigrants from those who came in the 1970s and ’80s. “For them, there was a sense of ambivalence between living in America and having a need to apologize for it,” said Lilach Lev Ari, a professor of sociology at Oranim College and Bar-Ilan University in Israel who researched Israeli emigration to the United States.

The IAC started in 2007 as a local operation in Los Angeles, focusing on connecting Israelis to the Jewish community and on maintaining Israeli and Jewish ties among children of Israeli immigrants.

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