Washington — When a group of Israelis living in the Riverdale section of the Bronx tried to organize a community bonfire to celebrate the holiday of Lag B’Omer three years ago, the first response they encountered was surprise at the custom, largely unknown to American Jews.
When the Israelis explained that they wanted to celebrate the holiday just like they did back home — where the summer sky fills with smoke, and families spend the evening around the bonfire — wheels began to turn.
The Riverdale Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association took on the task, cleared its parking lot, overcame fire ordinance restrictions and, with the funding of the New York Jewish federation, arranged for the first Lag B’Omer community bonfire, in May 2010. It has since become a tradition, drawing not only Israeli Americans, but other Jews, as well.
“Israelis are becoming a force in the community,” said Hadas Oded, who heads the Riverdale Y Israel program. “People understand that Israelis are a group that needs to be attended to.”
The Riverdale scenario could not have taken place a decade ago, when Israelis who immigrated to the United States limited their public activity to living room gatherings on Friday nights and the occasional Israeli folk dance get-together. Nor could the established Jewish community, which viewed the Israeli newcomers as detached from the broader Jewish American experience, have met it with such a welcoming approach.
Now, American Jews are discovering Israeli expatriates at the same time that those Israeli immigrants are overcoming deep-seated feelings of guilt for leaving their county. This combination has led to a flurry of activity, fueled by a fresh flow of philanthropic dollars that is aimed at getting Israeli Americans more involved in the American Jewish community.
“Israelis aren’t half as bad as people say they are,” joked David Mallach, managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People at UJA-Federation of New York. Mallach oversees many of the programs for the local Israeli American community. More seriously, he said, “Israelis are an asset to the Jewish community.”
This view has led local synagogues and community centers to create special programs for Hebrew-speaking members and has put Israelis in the United States, for the first time, on the radar screen of the organized Jewish world. The outreach effort is shaped by the unique sensitivities of Israelis. Programs are conducted in Hebrew; religious elements are set aside in favor of a focus on Israeli and Jewish culture, and many activities take place outside the established world of Jewish groups and organizations that are alien to most Israelis.
Attention to American Jews of Israeli origin could seem disproportionate given their relatively small numbers. According to the recent Pew Research Center survey, only 4% of American Jews were either born in Israel or have at least one parent who was born there. This makes for less than 300,000 Israeli Americans living in the United States. A study of the New York area Jewish community, conducted in 2011, found that 6% of the area’s Jewish families have at least one member of Israeli origin. This figure roughly conforms to the Pew national finding.
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.
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.
“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.