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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“The word ‘synagogue,’ the word ‘religion,” aren’t good words for Israelis,” said Sarit Ron, director of Israeli Outreach Initiative at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan. Last March the synagogue launched the program for Israeli Americans in a way that bypasses these stumbling blocks. It offers the opportunity for free tickets for holiday services without a need to become a member, and organizes special programs. “We want Israelis not to feel alienated,” she said.

“Will Israelis come and join the traditional suburban synagogue? No.” Mallach said. “But can we develop programs that will connect them to the community? Of course we can.”

Serving as an umbrella organization for Israeli groups in New York is the Moatza Mekomit, Hebrew for “local council.” The IAC’s expansion plans have already led to some turf wars when it turned down offers to join Moatza, and instead it is leading its own expansion efforts in the New York region. While the Moatza prides itself on being a grassroots organization that accepts only small donations and is driven by the needs of local Israelis, the IAC has shaped itself as a top-down group where big donors play a larger role.

Beneath this internal struggle, the bigger challenge facing Israelis in the United States lies in asserting their identity as Jews who left Israel on their own and now seek a new community outside the Jewish homeland.

For years, Israeli emigrants carried the stigma of “yordim,” a derogatory term used to describe those who had ”gone down” by leaving the country. This sense of guilt of abandoning the struggling homeland led the first generation of Israeli immigrants to lie low and refrain from taking an active rule in the Jewish American community.

“The whole notion of guilt doesn’t exist anymore,” said Evenhaim, who noted that the influx of Israelis traveling and studying around the world and the constant movement of Israelis, mainly in the high-tech industries, to and from the United States have eradicated the negative feelings toward those who left Israel.

Lev Ari, who researched the issue, believes this is only partially true. She noted that while resentment toward “yordim” is not as fierce as it was several decades ago, it still exists. A harsh reminder of this reality came last October, when Israel’s finance minister Yair Lapid reignited the discussion by stating that those who leave Israel “are willing to throw to the trash can the only country Jews have just because life in Berlin is more comfortable.”

In the debate that ensued, Israelis living abroad, in the United States and in Europe, responded to Lapid angrily, making clear that while the issue is far from dying down, the new generation of Israeli expatriates feels strong enough to answer back.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter, @nathanguttman


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