“On behalf of the citizens of Israel, I wanted to say thank you,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote in a letter addressed to guests at the Israeli Leadership Council’s (ILC ) first annual gala, held at the Beverly Hilton hotel on May 13. “For standing shoulder to shoulder with Israel, for working to ensure that the deep feeling of solidarity you have toward Israel will be passed onto the next generation and for strengthening unity among our people, which is more important than ever.”
Times sure have changed for Israeli expatriates.
In 1976, in a nationally televised interview on the state of the nation, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called Israelis who had left the homeland “nefolet shel nemushot” — essentially, fallen weaklings. To leave Israel, the official stance had always been, is a yeridah, a step down, an abandonment of the Holy Land and a cowardly move.
The sentiment stems from the Zionist belief that all Jews belong in Israel, considered their ancient and rightful homeland, and from the Israeli conviction that all Israelis should bear arms in its defense and also contribute to the nation’s growth — economically, socially and politically from within its borders.
Despite the stigma of emigration, there have always been many who proudly identify as Israeli and whose ties to their homeland remain strong, but who nevertheless emigrate and lay down new roots around the world. Los Angeles, in particular, has been a huge Israeli outpost, given its familiar Mediterranean climate and its lure of secure jobs and a comfortable life.
Israelis in the Diaspora, however, still recall the bite of Rabin’s words, and so, as they gathered at the ILC gala for a new kind of unity celebration — outside of the Jewish state — they paid particular attention to Netanyahu’s words.
The current head of state’s unprecedented praise of a community of Israeli expatriates for their contributions to Israel, along with the dazzling display of influence and initiative apparent at the ILC gala, clearly indicate a coming of age for Los Angeles’ Israeli community. After a turbulent childhood and a confusing, awkward adolescence, the community appears to have come into its own. With 700 people in attendance at the Beverly Hilton International Ballroom last month, the Israeli community of Los Angeles walked — indeed strutted — with heads held high, crossing the threshold into maturity.
The recent explosion of activity — which includes political activism, social gatherings and cultural programming — has been fueled by a widespread and growing desire in the community to support Israel from afar, as well as to connect with one another in social settings and, most fervently, to perpetuate their Israeli Jewish identity via their children, whom many Israelis living here fear are being lost to assimilation.
At the heart of this communal blossoming is an organization teeming with business savvy that has managed in less than two years to make its name known to every established Jewish — Israeli and American — organization in town. The ILC went from formation to its first event in the span of mere months, and its lightning-fast implementation, now a hallmark of the organization, has led to a host of other projects, making the ILC an unofficial Israeli Federation of sorts in Los Angeles.
The idea for it was first articulated by Ehud Danoch, the former consul general of Israel, in the summer of 2006, when he approached a couple of successful and well-connected Israeli businessmen with the notion of forming an organization to empower and unite the untold thousands of Israelis who call Los Angeles home. By February 2008, the ILC had produced Live for Sderot, a benefit concert for the Israeli city being targeted by rockets from Gaza, starring the popular Israeli singer, Ninet Tayeb, and featuring video messages of support from three U.S. presidential candidates.
Since then, the ILC has revitalized the all-but-withered Tzofim, or Israeli scouts; partnered with the Israeli Consulate to raise the first Israeli flag over its Wilshire Boulevard headquarters; pioneered an online Hebrew education school; drew an unprecedented thousands of Israelis to demonstrations supporting the Jewish state during the recent war in Gaza; and hosted its glamorous gala with first-class entertainment, A-list Israeli celebrities and a pulsating dance floor that had Israelis — in Israel! — raising their eyebrows in admiration.
The ILC may be the popular new kid on the block, as one veteran of the community dubbed it, but it is certainly not the only crew energizing the neighborhood. There are the musicians of Moadon Israelim; the mothers of the MATI Israeli Cultural Center; the Israeli Division of The Federation’s Valley Alliance; the intellectuals of Katedra; and even the diplomats at the Israeli Consulate have displayed a new fervor and enthusiasm for community activism (with Consul General Jacob Dayan leading the way), along with a smattering of other initiatives that have sprouted for the suddenly ravenous-for-involvement local Israeli population.
Clustered mostly in the San Fernando Valley, they also enjoy an unprecedented abundance of restaurants catering to them, which serve as informal social centers, as well — Aroma Bakery and Café, Hummus Bar and Grill, Super Sal Market, Itzik Hagadol, the Pita Kitchen and other Israeli establishments that offer a Tel Aviv air to Ventura Boulevard, which not so long ago boasted only one well-known Israeli hot spot: Tempo.
Coalitions of Israelis in Los Angeles have not been entirely dormant during the past six decades. There were previous efforts and important milestones along the way, but despite its populousness, the community never really came together to the extent that it has now.
No one can say for certain just how many Israelis live in Los Angeles. The most recent Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey was released by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles in 1997 and counted approximately 14,000 Israeli-born adults here, as well as another roughly 48,000 who identified themselves as Israeli — most likely the children of Israelis. The Israeli Consulate today estimates that between 150,000 and 250,000 of its citizens live here, based on the 50,000 Israeli families it has on file.
The ILC has its own notion of the numbers. Taking into account second-generation self-identifying Israelis, the organization believes the population numbers more than 200,000 — a figure it hopes to confirm through a new population study it intends to sponsor in the near future.
Until then, there will be doubters: “Communities that congregate around themselves tend to overestimate their numbers,” said Carol Koransky, executive director of The Jewish Federation Valley Alliance, who supervised the 1997 study. “There has certainly been a huge growth since 1997, but it’s difficult to say how much. Besides, what does it matter? There are many Israelis who are here, and they have needs and desires, and that’s what matters.”
So why have Los Angeles’ sabras taken so long to engage in activism, unite, organize and connect to the greater American Jewish community? Why has the population been so slow to cozy up to the term “Israeli American,” when every other ethnicity or nationality has been happy, even eager, to adopt a dual identity?
Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, recently profiled the ILC in an article that touched upon one of the community’s major historical roadblocks, addressing it head-on with the headline, “Yordim L’Hatkafa,” which translates to “descenders to the attack” but plays on the derogatory term for Israelis who leave Israel. In the article, several ILC board members spoke of the long-standing stigma of “yordim,” a uniquely Jewish-Hebrew term that assigns shame and betrayal to the act of emigrating from Israel. An Argentine who leaves Argentina isn’t considered a traitor to his country, they pointed out.
“Until recently, we were caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Eli Tene, a 23-year resident of Los Angeles and ILC co-chair with Danny Alpert. “Israelis in Israel were disappointed in us, and the Jews here looked down on us…. It wasn’t a coincidence either. The Israeli government wanted it to be so. It asked Jewish organizations to refrain from helping Israelis who had left Israel so that they would be encouraged to go back.”