October 18, 2018

The Dilemma Facing Israeli American Jews

Over half a million Israelis now live in countries other than Israel.   The majority of these have settled in the United States and Canada for the long run, teaching at universities, running business and becoming entrepreneurs.  Most identify as secular and send their children to public schools.  These children, though they maintain a vague Israeli identity via their parents, call their current country of residence home.

Far removed from Israel which offered them Jewish identity by osmosis without any effort required to affiliate, their Jewish life and especially their children’s Jewish identities are threatened.   Instead of absorbing Chanukah in the street, now only Christmas bombards them at holiday time.  Instead of a national ambiance of Sabbath on Saturday, they have soccer practice and the myriad extracurricular activities of the average American child and teen.  When the High Holidays come, whereas in Israel they might have stepped into a synagogue or community center for prayer, they now must contend with the notion of High Holiday tickets for the first time, something those grown up in the Israeli zeitgeist find bizarre, as strange and foreign to them as paying for synagogue membership.

Diaspora Jews, no matter their denomination, for the most part retain their Jewish identity by forming religious communities around synagogues.  Synagogues provide American Jews with a religious connection, communal identity and association, rudimentary education and a vital sense of Jewish peoplehood.  Most secular Israelis did not attend synagogues in Israel and many may never have been in a synagogue.  They are acculturated to see religion as dangerous, political, and coercive.  They do not easily connect to non-Orthodox synagogues, because, as the cliché goes, for secular Israelis the synagogue they do not attend is Orthodox.  Thus Israeli Americans do not have the connection with synagogues that American Jews might have with which to retain their Jewish culture.

Israeli Americans are a population that is so connected in some ways to their Jewish roots and memories, but whose children will assimilate into American culture more quickly than the children of immigrants who came here a century ago.

Israelis who have left Israel stay connected to their cultural heritage through a connection to fellow Israelis and by gathering for events such as Israel Independence Day.  They hope their children will avoid intermarrying and assimilating, but in reality Israeli culture will be difficult to maintain for this next generation and will not be enough to act as a bulwark against assimilation. In the United States it is religious community, of whatever denomination, that keeps one Jewish.  Secular Israeli culture is little substitute.

Several years ago an Israeli came to my synagogue, Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis, Missouri, and told us that there was something local secular Israelis wanted from the Jewish community: a school to teach their children to read and write the Hebrew language.   Realizing this was an opportunity to engage secular Israelis on their own terms, and perhaps eventually to engage them in the Jewish community and religious life we opened a Hebrew school to teach these Israeli children to read and write Hebrew.  We staffed the school with Israeli language teachers and a volunteer principal and used the holidays as opportunities to teach about Jewish life and culture, because the holidays are something that their secular parents see as national rather than religious. 

They never expected to feel at home in a synagogue with religious people, rather they expected coercion, derision, and alienation.  Instead, they were surprised to feel embraced and at home in a Jewish religious environment.

Two years into the school’s existence the Israeli families began to trust us and to realize the importance of some Jewish education to the extent that they asked for an extra hour of study each week for their children to learn about Judaism.    I saw this as the schools’ true raison d'etre.   The Hebrew School now acts as a foundation upon which we provide an array of engagement for secular Israeli families. 

I am convinced that opening up Jewish Community Centers and other culturally Jewish institutions to Israelis will never be enough to retain Israelis abroad as part of the Jewish people.   It will take congregations that are open and welcoming in nature, many of them, learning about Israeli culture and the subtleties of engaging this population and meeting their needs, to retain their children as part of the Jewish people and engage them in Jewish life.  It requires Israeli shelichim who both understand Israeli culture and appreciate a synagogue's religious life and who can be part of the synagogue and school and serve as a bridge to local Israelis.

Time is running out before the children of these Jews assimilate en masse.   It happens as they finish high school and go to college here with almost no Jewish religious knowledge, identity or practice.  Despite being Israeli they have much less Jewish connection and knowledge than their Reform or Conservative American born, synagogue connected, counterparts.

We can make a big difference in retaining these Jews and their children as part of the Jewish people and Jewish religion.  If we do not put resources toward this challenge, equipping synagogues across the country to engage Israelis and to understand their unique culture and needs, it will soon be too late.