The Crisis of Israeli American Jews
by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
Over half a million Israelis are now living in countries other than Israel. The majority of these have settled in the United States and Canada for the long haul, teaching at universities, running business and becoming entrepreneurs. The vast majority identifies as secular and sends 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, their Jewish life and especially their children’s’ Jewish life and culture is in grave danger. Instead of absorbing Chanukah in the street, they have only Christmas to bombard them at holiday time. Instead of kiddush on Friday night and a national ambiance of Sabbath on Shabbat 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 as foreign to them as paying for synagogue membership.
Diaspora Jews, no matter their denomination, 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 have been 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. Yet, ironically, secular Israelis are much easier to engage in Judaism than disconnected American Jews.
Recently I met with two Israeli women who had moved with their families a decade ago to St. Louis for their husbands’ jobs. Having heard from other Israelis that I was welcoming and could be trusted, they came to talk to me about creating a class of Israeli women to study Jewish thought. They explained that they are secular, do not belong to any congregation, and that their children attend public school and receive no regular formal or informal Jewish education beyond the kiddush they recite at home as a family on Friday night. Toward the end of the conversation they each proceeded to pull out of their handbags a Hebrew copy of tihilim, psalms, which they periodically recite. I told them there is not a secular Jew in the United States, not belonging to a synagogue or providing her children any formal Jewish education, who carries a tihilim.
The irony of all this is foreboding. It tells of a population that is so connected in some ways to its Jewish roots and memories and yet unfortunately whose children will assimilate into American culture more quickly than the children of immigrants who came here a century ago.
Israelis who have moved here stay connected to their cultural heritage through their social connection to fellow Israelis and by gathering for events such as Israel Independence Day and Chanukah parties. 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 can not do this. There is little substitute outside of Israel for synagogues as the places in which Jewish religious community is built, educated and fostered.
Several years ago an Israeli came to my synagogue, Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis, Missouri, and told us that there was something even secular Israelis want from the Jewish community: a school to teach their children to read and write the Hebrew language. Their children speak some Hebrew they have learned at home but they do not learn to read and write Hebrew. 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 school, “Shelanu”, to teach Israeli expatriate children of elementary school age to read and write Hebrew. We staffed the school with Israeli language teachers and a volunteer principal. I used the holidays as opportunities to teach these children about Jewish life and culture because the holidays are something that their secular parents see as national rather than religious.
Over the first few years family after family told me they had never expected to feel at home in a synagogue with religious people. They expected coercion, derision, and alienation. Instead, they were surprised to feel embraced and at home in a Jewish religious environment. Indeed Bais Abraham is particularly suited for them, as an Orthodox congregation that has consciously removed as many barriers to entry as possible. It boasts a most diverse congregational makeup of religious from birth, Jews raised secular, converts, intermarrieds and people on a spiritual journey.
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 Shelanu Hebrew School now acts as a foundation upon which we provide holiday parties, free High Holiday seats, Shabbat meals and classes for 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. We now face not much more than a 20 year window before the children of these Jews assimilate en masse. It happens as they finish high school and go to college in America with almost no Jewish religious knowledge, identity or practice. There is little except the desire of their parents and a fuzzy connection to a land across the ocean to stop them from marrying the gentile they have met on campus. They have less to hold them back 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. It is much easier than engaging a secular American Jew since Israelis all have much stronger Jewish identity and memory. They are in more danger yet are more readily engaged. If we do not wake up quickly and 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.