In U.S., Israeli expats turn to growing number of Israeli rabbis

Itzik Abu-Hatzera rarely attended synagogue in his native Haifa when he lived in Israel.

But last December his family was among those of nearly 200 other Israelis in South Florida at a Chanukah party sponsored by the Chabad Israeli Center in Boca Raton.

“In Israel you don’t need it, Jews are all around you,” says Abu-Hatzera, who moved here 10 years ago.

Like Abu-Hatzera, the rabbi of the Chabad center, Naftali Hertzel, is Israeli. At the Chabad he runs with his wife, Henya, Hebrew is the lingua franca. That, rather than the specific religious components of the evening, was why Abu-Hatzera and his family came here rather than to one of many similar Chanukah events organized by American Jews in this heavily Jewish area.

“It’s the Hebrew, the culture, everything,” says Abu-Hatzera, a 35-year-old father of two.

Waving his arm at the loudspeaker blasting Israeli pop music and the buffet table laden with falafel and sufganiyot—Israeli jelly doughnuts—he says, “It’s what I belong to.”

About140,000 Israelis live in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, though Jewish and Israeli sources say the number actually is closer to 500,000. Whatever the exact figure, many if not most of the Israeli expatriates in America are secular, like approximately 80 percent of Israeli Jews.

While few of the Israelis in this country went to shul in Israel or consider themselves religious, now that they are far from home some have begun attending services and making sure their children receive some kind of formal Jewish education.

Some say they are doing it for themselves, to feel closer to what they left behind. Some are doing it for their children, so they will grow up with a sense of Jewish identity.

Whatever the reason, the phenomenon seems to be growing. In recent years a number of Israeli rabbis have set up shop in the United States to minister to Israelis in their own language.

It’s easier to bring Judaism to Israelis when they’re outside the Jewish state, says Rabbi Menachem Landa, an Israeli-born Chabad emissary who runs the 4-year-old Chabad Israeli Center in Palo Alto, Calif.

“They’re more open, they’re looking for friends and to deepen their Jewish identity,” he says.

Some two dozen Israeli Chabad rabbis are gearing their outreach work to Israelis in the United States. Most of the rabbis arrived here within the past five to seven years, according to Landa, and are located in areas with large Hebrew-speaking populations such as New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Atlanta. They support each other through informal networks, including special programming during the annual Chabad emissary conference in Brooklyn, N.Y., every fall.

It’s not just Chabad. The Shehebar Sephardic Center, which has ordained 150 Sephardic rabbis at its Jerusalem yeshiva, has sent 10 of its graduates to pulpits in the United States, most within the past five years. They work among the Hebrew-speaking Sephardic populations in Florida, Texas and Los Angeles, as well as along the Eastern seaboard.

Many Israeli-born Chasidic rabbis also are serving various Chasidic communities in North America. But it’s the Israeli Chabad and Sephardic rabbis, along with individual non-chasidic Israeli rabbis, who represent a new phenomenon: Israeli rabbis in the United States reaching out to largely non-observant fellow expats.

“Our main job is outreach, to instill an awareness of Judaism, tradition and culture in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people,” says Rabbi Sam Kassin, founder and dean of the Shehebar Sephardic Center, one of the few institutions that trains rabbis in the Sephardic tradition. “We feel that the best rabbi to address the needs of Israelis is someone who knows the language and understands their cultural needs. That’s why we place Israeli-born rabbis, who also speak some English, in Israeli neighborhoods in the U.S.”

Yoav Kiesler, who moved from Israel to the San Francisco Bay Area 13 years ago, began studying Jewish texts with Landa five years ago.

“I clicked with him, even though he’s from Bnei Brak and I served in the Israel Defense Forces,” said Kiesler, who lives in San Rafael, just north of San Francisco. Bnei Brak is a heavily Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv.

“You’d think we have little in common,” Kiesler said. “But I felt we shared the same background. When someone speaks the same language, things flow much easier.”

Eyal Shemesh, the Los Angeles-based publisher of We in America, a Hebrew-language magazine catering to Israelis in Southern California, left Israel for the United States 25 years ago, right after his military service.

He says the American Israeli community is mixed, comprised of newcomers, temporary residents and long-timers like his family. Shemesh and his Israeli wife have been here for decades and have U.S.-born children that move between both cultures.

Shemesh says even so-called secular Israelis like him attend Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah services in America, and need the Jewish community to say Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, as well as for other lifecycle events.

If there is no Israeli congregation, he says, local Israeli Jews will go to “an American synagogue,” but that’s not their first choice.

On the High Holidays, the Shemesh family joins many other local Israelis in a rented hall for services run by Rabbi Rafael Gaye, an Israeli rabbi who is the spiritual leader of Shuva Israel, a Sephardic congregation in nearby Tarzana, Calif.

“We’re secular, but we still respect the traditions,” Shemesh said. “And sometimes the synagogue is part of meeting each other, a social center.”

Children are a big impetus for both Israeli and American Jews. Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Sholom, a large Conservative synagogue in Encino, Calif., notes that the Israelis who move to America as adults have grown up in a predominantly Jewish culture and have absorbed more of the religion than they realize. They come here, don’t join a synagogue and are shocked when their children don’t have a strong Jewish identity.

“There’s a rude awakening when they realize their kids aren’t growing up Jewish,” Feinstein says. “I’ve had some difficult conversations with parents.”

Professor Steven Gold of Michigan State University, author of the 2002 book “The Israeli Diaspora,” says two groups of Israelis are living in the United States, with different preferences.

There is the more educated, professional Israeli, often Ashkenazi, who is secular in Israel and feels more comfortable in a liberal, American synagogue.

“They realize if they don’t do anything their kids won’t have a Jewish identity living in the United States, so they join a Reform, Reconstructionist, even a Conservative synagogue where the family can sit together,” Gold says. “It’s more compatible with their lifestyle.”

Then there are the more traditional Israelis, often Sephardim, “who want to maintain their traditions and feel more comfortable in an Israeli setting,” Gold says. “It’s a class and an ethnic divide.”

Feinstein says it doesn’t matter which synagogue Israeli Jews choose, as long as they go somewhere.

“I’m delighted that Israelis are affiliating anyplace,” Feinstein says. “Whether they affiliate with Hebrew-speaking or English-speaking congregations isn’t as important as the fact they’re coming to America and living as Jews and raising their kids as Jews.”

For Israeli ex-pats, the homeland is calling

Merav and Roy Lobel are going back to Israel. Since the birth of their baby boy, now eight months old, they have longed to be with their families. Each time they’ve hung up the phone after a call to Israel, they’ve felt as if part of their heart was still there.

Guilty feelings about living so far from home had always been there, but it escalated once Harel was born.

“Both of our families came here for the birth of our son, and after they left I felt such emptiness,” said Merav Lobel, 30, a teacher at a Jewish day school in the San Fernando Valley. “While we do have a good circle of friends who are very supportive, it can’t replace our family in Israel.”

Merav and Roy have lived in the United States seven and six years, respectively, and while they’ve had a good life and good jobs in the United States, they are planning to return to Israel this month. They admit that they are going to miss their friends, the comfort and the seemingly peaceful life in America, but they are happy to replace it with the chaos of life in Israel.

“Only in Israel you feel that you truly belong, that this is your country. America sells you an illusion. But in Israel you have substance,” Lobel said.

The American dream that brings many Israelis to this country doesn’t always come true. More Israelis than ever before are making aliyah (immigration to Israel) after spending 10 years or less in the United States, and those who help Israelis move back say they have seen a growth in the trend as the economy declines.

Roughly 19,000 Israelis leave their native country each year, but the number returning has increased from about 2,600 in 2000 to more than 4,000 last year, according to Israel’s Absorption Ministry.

While specific numbers of Israelis emigrating from Los Angeles were not available, Shani Kamara, director of the L.A. consulate’s Israeli House office, which aids returning citizens, says the number of Israelis seeking to return this year has grown significantly.

“There is an increase of 44 percent in the number of returning citizens from all around the world to Israel. New York and Los Angeles have the most returning citizens,” she said.

Israel’s Absorption Ministry’s new initiative, Returning Home on Israel’s 60th, is targeting an estimated 700,000 expatriate Israelis worldwide with tax breaks to make the move easier. Local Israelis planning to return trace their incentive for moving to missing family, wanting to raise children in Israel and suffering due to the downturn in the U.S. economy. For some, economic hardship highlights the lack of support in the United States and reminds them of the family they’ve left behind.

Arik Hezroni the owner of Dynamic L.A., an international moving company in Los Angeles, says that business is brisk these days with the rise of aliyah. While some have made their fortune in the United States and want to return to enjoy the fruits of the labor in Israel, he says most are simply losing their jobs and homes and have no fallback position.

“Many Israelis in Los Angeles are working in real estate and construction,” Hezroni said. “Some of them had lost their homes to the banks, some lost their jobs and decided that if they have to struggle financially then they are better off struggling in Israel and having the support of their families, rather than stay here and struggle alone.”

Some are so desperate they cannot afford the airfare back to Israel and call the Israeli consulate hoping to get a free ticket home, according to a consulate official who asked not to be identified. Others cut their losses, sell whatever they have left and return to Israel with little to show for their time in this country. Berni Eger is one of them.

Eger came to Los Angeles three years ago hoping to work construction, make some money and get some distance from personal problems in Israel.

“I just got divorced, and I wanted to start a new page somewhere. Los Angeles seemed like the right place. Somebody had offered me a job, and it was a good opportunity to come here,” he said.

Eger’s boss stopped paying him recently after construction work dried up.

“I know it was hard for him, as well, but as much as I sympathized with his situation, I couldn’t go on living on nothing. There were times I hardly had enough to buy food, and at that point my boss took a check from his daughter’s checking account and gave it to me. I felt so embarrassed for him and for myself. I think that was the breaking point, when I knew it’s time to leave,” he said.

For others, the decision to make aliyah is based entirely on a desire to raise children in Israel. Orly Hillel is trading economic stability in the United States for uncertainty in Israel.

“It was a good opportunity for us to come here and experience life in the States,” said Hillel, who moved to Los Angeles five years ago with her husband, Yossi, and three children — currently ages 15, 12 and 9 — after winning a green card lottery. “But now it’s time to go back home while the kids are still young.

Hillel says that while they are financially secure in Los Angeles, there’s some uncertainty about what awaits them upon their return to Israel. And yet she’s sure her family will manage.

“We were alone here, and there is no price for loneliness. Even though we do have friends here, they don’t come in the place of a family; they don’t come in place of feeling like you belong, that this is your country and this is where you should live,” she said.

Israeli official woos expats — you <I>can</I> go home again

The message from the high Israeli official addressing more than 100 Israeli expatriates at Stephen S. Wise Temple was simple and direct.

“We want you to come back.”

Catchy slogans are one thing, translating them into reality is vastly more complex, Zeev Boim admitted.

Boim is Israel’s minister of immigration absorption, and he was in Los Angeles with a backup team of government and private industry representatives as part of a concerted campaign that touched down in seven U.S. and Canadian cities.

In the early decades of the Jewish state, Israelis abandoning the homeland were scorned as weaklings, traitors and “yordim,” those “going down” from the peaks of Israel to the depth of the Diaspora.

Ostracism didn’t work in stemming the outflow, and for some time the Israeli government has been wooing, rather than denigrating, the growing number of Israelis abroad. Boim’s North American tour, toward the end of last year, represented Israel’s strongest signal yet of its earnest intent to welcome its departed sons and daughters back into the family fold.

For any campaign, it is useful to know the size of your target audience, but pinning down the number of Israeli expatriates in any given country or city is the despair of demographers. Do you count only native Israelis or include those who, for example, went from Russia to Israel, became citizens but then moved on to Europe or the United States? And what about the American-born children and grandchildren of Israelis?

During an interview at the Israeli consulate, Boim offered a relatively straightforward criterion: All holders of Israeli passports, including those with dual citizenship, are considered Israelis.

Boim, who should know, estimated that there are 700,000 to 1 million Israeli expats in the world, of whom some 600,000 are in North America, including 150,000 to 200,000 in the Los Angeles area. Some local Israelis maintain there are as many as 300,000 of their compatriots in Los Angeles, which would represent more than half of all Jews here.

More realistically, Boim’s ministry has given out considerably lower figures than the boss, and local demographer Bruce Phillips of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) insisted that the count is completely out of line, with only 26,000 Israelis in the Los Angeles area.

Whatever the number, Boim argued that the key to luring back expats lies in providing decent jobs, and that Israel’s strong economy, especially in the high-tech sector, is in a position to offer such employment.

In each of the cities Boim visited and after his pep talk, seriously interested expats could talk to specialists from his ministry and private industry about jobs, establishing businesses, housing, government assistance and liaison with local Israeli consulates.

Although the expats, classified as “returning residents,” would not receive as much government aid as new immigrants, Boim held out inducements in the form of tax relief, cutting bureaucratic red tape and even deferment from mandatory military service. Additional sweeteners are reserved for those willing to settle in the underpopulated Galilee and Negev regions.

The “come back home” push aims for long-range, not immediate, results, Boim said. He cited the return of some 6,000 expats in 2005 as a promising sign. On the flip side, however, around 8,000 to 9,000 Israelis left for overseas residence during the same year.

A large majority of those attending the Los Angeles meeting with Boim came on a look-see basis, but about 10 percent stayed to talk about the nuts and bolts of returning home.

Among them was Angie Geffen, the American-born daughter of Israeli parents, who traveled from Scottsdale, Ariz., with her husband, Amir, an Israeli electrical engineer.

Contacted a week after the meeting, she was bubbling over with enthusiasm, praising the excellent organization and helpfulness of Boim’s support staff. She said the meeting had saved her weeks of research.

“We’ll move in a couple of months,” she said confidently.

During a follow-up call two months later, Geffen had come down from her high. She complained about protracted disputes with Israeli housing authorities about obtaining land and shelter for her and 32 other families in a Galilee community.

She, her husband and their young son still hope to leave for Israel before Passover, “but we will have to rethink our finances,” she said.

Another participant was “Ehud,” a 31-year-old teacher at a Jewish day school here, who left Israel as a child and asked that his real name not be used. Ehud said he was impressed by Boim’s talk but not by a 10-minute follow-up interview with one of the minister’s assistants.

“When I talked about available job opportunities in Israel, I was told, ‘We’ll try to find you something when you get there,'” Ehud said. When he pressed the matter, the interviewer told him, “We don’t start the process until you get there.”

Ehud still wants to marry and start a family in Israel, but he might first visit on his own to check out the job situation.

What keeps Israelis in the Diaspora, and what draws them back home? The individual answers and motivations differ, but talks with expats yield some common themes: The big draw in coming to the United States is almost always economic opportunity. The big pull to return is the sense of social intimacy and togetherness few expats can find elsewhere, and the worry that their children and grandchildren will lose their feeling of Israeli connectedness.

Ravit Markus is an independent producer who dreamed of going to Hollywood while a film student at Tel Aviv University.

Since arriving here more than two years ago, she has produced some well-received documentaries, most recently, “Yiddish Theater: A Love Story,” in collaboration with fellow expat, director Dan Katzir, and she is now turning her hand to a romantic comedy.

Now in her late 20s, Markus considers herself quite typical of the local expats, both in their ambitions and conflicts.

Political Journal

Expatriates’ Vote

It’s long been more socially acceptable for Jews to immigrate to Israel than to emigrate out of it. Some Israelis feel that they’re abandoning the project of the Jewish state, not doing their part, not facing the same risks as those they leave behind.

So it’s somewhat understandable that Israelis living abroad have never been able to vote in Israel’s elections, even though other democracies make such allowances for their citizens abroad.

However, attitudes are shifting both here and in Israel. Between 150,000 and 300,000 expatriate Israelis live in the Los Angeles area, and some of them are pushing for the right to cast absentee ballots in Israeli elections. The Council of Israeli Community L.A., a group that organizes local cultural and political events for Israelis, is stoking the debate.

Israel “deals with the question of its own existence on a daily basis,” said Moshe Salem, president of the Tarzana-based nonprofit. So it is “in the interest of [Israel] to grant the Diaspora Israelis the right to vote.” Israelis in America “have a vested interest.” They “want to know what’s happening.”

Israel maintains about 350,000 Israelis on its voter rolls who can’t cast ballots because they live abroad.

“Granting voting rights would unite them around Israel, and means they will influence [non-Israeli] Jews around them,” Salem said.

He’s discussed the matter with Israeli Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Los Angeles Consul General Ehud Danoch, Israeli Maj. Gen. Doron Almog and several members of the Knesset. Salem reported that all have supported the idea.

Bills expanding balloting to overseas Israelis have been raised and defeated in several recent Knesset terms. In January, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said he supported the notion; he even appointed a high-level committee to examine the details, the Jerusalem Post reported.

But earlier this month, opposition emerged from left-leaning Israeli parties, which fear introducing hundreds of thousands of absentee Jewish voters who are generally perceived to be more hawkish. The measure was defeated in the Knesset 25-23. It’ll be at least six months before the Knesset can take up the matter again.

Supporters point out that a growing Arab population could eventually eclipse Jewish voters, and Israelis from abroad could act as a counterbalance. Besides, many expats have served in the Israeli Defense Forces, pay taxes to Israel and intend to return some day.

A compromise that would honor individual rights ought to be within reach, given that numerous democracies around the world have successfully preserved voting rights for their citizens abroad. But any policy that could alter the balance of power between left and right and between Jews and Israeli Arabs is destined to be contentious.

“Everybody will be tuning in,” said Salem, describing the benefits of Israelis voting worldwide. “In a way, you’re affecting the entire Jewry outside of Israel. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it is going to happen.”

Battling Over Message

The college campus has always been a central battleground for hearts and minds — and that includes education about Israel. In Washington, that battle is engulfing H.R. 509, legislation being supported by a range of groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress (AJCongress).

The bill would re-authorize decades-old grants that pay for foreign affairs education, while simultaneously creating a new advisory board to review the instructional content of programs receiving funds. The aim, at least among Jewish supporters, is to balance perceived anti-Israel bias with other perspectives.

“What we’re having now in the college campuses is basically professors using their desks as pulpits for political propaganda,” said Sarah Stern, director of the office of governmental and public affairs for the AJCongress. These academics, she said, are “looking basically at the entire world through the paradigm that America is a colonial hegemonic occupier, and Israel is the persona non grata of nations.”

The underlying argument is not new, as right-wing groups have railed for years about professors brainwashing students with leftist ideology. Common complaints feature professors (like Columbia’s Joseph Massad) supposedly berating a student about Israeli or Zionist “war crimes,” accounts that often turn out to be exaggerated or provoked.

Many professors and Muslim groups, including the Council on American Islamic Relations, vigorously oppose the proposed advisory board as undue interference in academic freedom, because although the board cannot hire or fire academics, its recommendations to the secretary of education would be influential.

Blurring Church-State Separation

A number of Jewish groups are lining up against an education-related measure that could allow the Bush administration to further blur the line of separation between church and state.

At issue is an amendment, HR 2123, which would allow faith-based groups to limit hires to people of their faith in federally funded Head Start programs. Head Start provides child care and education services to low-income families. Amendment supporters, most of them Republican, call the issue “charitable choice.”

Jewish groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, are vehemently opposed, saying that charitable choice deviously groups overtly sectarian churches and synagogues together with service providers like Jewish Family Service by classifying all of them as faith-based organizations.

“The rubric ‘faith-based’ is a ruse,” said Ethan Felson, assistant executive director of the Jewish Council. “They’re trying to use the term in order to get pervasively sectarian organizations into play.”

If the amendment passes, legislators who side with the Jewish groups might have to vote against the entire Head Start re-authorization, which means hurting the low-income families who benefit from the program.