Keeping it Israeli

Orna Eilon is a wife, a mother, a real estate broker and an avid hiker. Somehow, in addition to all that, this superwoman also manages to find time to run the nonprofit MATI, an Israeli community center operating at the JCC at Milken in West Hills. With the help of other Israeli women in the San Fernando Valley, Eilon founded the organization in 2008 and is the current CEO.

Eilon raised her three children in Oak Park and sent them to public schools. Throughout their childhood, she felt that they were losing touch with their cultural roots and rapidly moving away from feeling Israeli. Eilon’s personal battle to preserve her Israeli culture at home inspired her to help other families with the same struggle.

The idea that an Israeli community center was the answer started at an evening advocating women’s empowerment led by Galit Dayan, wife of Consul General of Israel in Los Angeles Jacob Dayan.

“When she asked us what’s missing in the Israeli community here, we all knew the answer. We’re missing a home,” Eilon said.

So, for the next nine months, Eilon and 14 other Israeli women — including Dayan — devoted their time to establishing the foundation for MATI, which stands for Merkaz Tarbut Israeli, or Israeli cultural center, a place they hope will one day become a home away from home for Israelis living in the Valley.

Eilon believes that MATI’s central mission is to provide an authentic Israeli atmosphere where Israeli ex-pats and their children can stay connected to Israeli culture and language.

“We can’t expect our children to be involved and show interest [in our heritage] if we don’t show them how to do it ourselves,” she said.

Orna eilon, CEO of merkaz tarbut israeli

With that goal in mind, MATI offers after-school activities such as Krav Maga, Israeli folk dancing and singing lessons, as well as activities for adults such as a book club, creative writing classes and salsa lessons — all taught in Hebrew. The center also offers weekend family hikes, Chanukah and Purim holiday parties, and community Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron ceremonies, Israeli style.

“Every party is a blast,” says Rachel Liani, a mom from Newbury Park. “The people, the music, it all feels familiar and welcoming. We also like to take our kids on MATI’s family hikes, where they hang out with kids their age who also speak Hebrew.”

The center has been so warmly received by the Valley Israeli community that MATI’s founders decided to open a branch in Beverly Hills to serve the Israeli population in the city. In October, MATI opened at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, staffed by women who live in the area and are familiar with their community’s needs. The new branch offers monthly lectures and plays, as well as children’s weekly afternoon activities, such as piano and drumming lessons.

Unfortunately, running a nonprofit — even one that deals primarily in fun activities — is not all fun and games.

“MATI is always in need of money,” Eilon said. Although the organization manages to operate on a minimal budget, Eilon and the other volunteers sometimes struggle to fund the events and activities that bring the community together.

In the future, Eilon hopes to see more support from the Israeli community in keeping Israeli culture thriving outside of Israel. She aspires to see even more children being enriched by the Israeli education that MATI offers and more adults enjoying the environment that MATI provides. 

“I want the Israeli community here to feel welcome, to feel at home.”