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.

(page 3 of 4)

An Internet-based poll conducted by the group seemed to reinforce the organization’s raison d’être, highlighting two main trends of Israeli Americans: strong support for Israel, and a growing distance from Jewish life. According to the survey, intermarriage rates of Israeli Americans increase in correlation to the number of years that have passed since leaving Israel. Jewish communal activities participation and synagogue attendance are low.

Last September, following an infusion of cash from the Las Vegas-based Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson (whose wife is Israeli American), the IAC went national and launched a massive expansion plan. With an extra $2.5 million, the IAC embarked on an effort to open offices in Boston and Miami and began organizing activities in Philadelphia, Las Vegas and New Jersey, where the first Tenafly event will take place on January 16. Other major donors to the IAC include Hollywood cartoon mogul Haim Saban and Israeli-born entrepreneur Beny Alagem.

Racing to expand its operations led the IAC into controversy when the group distributed a survey of Israeli Americans asking, among other questions, whom they would support in the case of a conflict between Israel and the United States. Raising the loyalty issue caused an uproar, and the group retracted the survey promptly and asked the pollsters to discard the data.

The IAC describes itself as the largest Israeli American organization, but it is not the only group active on this scene. In New York, for example, several local programs started by Israelis have taken root, and have shown significant growth in recent years.

Yehudit Feinstein founded Israelis in Brooklyn in 2010. Like other Israelis, her interest in connecting with the community began after her children were born. “You suddenly understand that if you don’t create an Israeli environment for them yourself, it won’t come from anywhere else,” she said.

Feinstein started a group at Congregation Beth Elohim, a Reform synagogue in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, and it expanded into an after-school program that has attracted many non-Israeli families, as well. With funding from the New York federation, she also launched Shira Beshishi, a Friday night Israeli-style Sabbath event that caters to Israelis but is attended mostly by American families.

Though hosted in a synagogue, the programs for Israelis do not require membership or dues and for the most part do not involve the synagogue’s clergy. This, Feinstein and other activists noted, helps overcome one of the major hurdles that have prevented many Israelis from joining Jewish American life — their view of a synagogue as unwelcoming to those with a secular upbringing.

“The mere fact that we got Israelis to enter through the doors of a Jewish institution is practically a miracle,” she said. It was a sentiment shared by Orli Moss, the shlicha at New York’s B’nai Jeshurun synagogue who called it a “major achievement” to welcome 50 participants to its first ever Yom Kippur service for Israelis in 2013.

The key to successful outreach, communal activists say, is finding creative ways to connect to Israeli Americans who are not drawn to the three key pillars of the American Jewish community: membership in synagogues and communal organizations, Jewish education and philanthropy.



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