Ma nishtana? For the Israeli-American community, pretty much everything.
A decade ago, there was no such thing as an Israeli-American community. An Israeli was someone living in Israel, an American was someone living in America and we, the people who moved from there to here, were yordim — “those who went down [from Israel].” There were hundreds of thousands of us in the U.S., but with Israel denouncing us as a drain of human capital (or “a fallout of wimps,” as former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin had once famously put it), and American Jewry politely ignoring us so we would go home, we lacked the resources to form any communal infrastructure. We functioned more like a scattering of cats.
What this meant for me was that in April 2007, my second month in New York, I had nowhere to go for Passover. Alone and homesick and needing to feel like I belong, I looked for seders that catered specifically to Israelis. There were none. I finally made my way to a Chabad House in Flatbush, where I joined a seder with two-dozen other Israeli expats, from severely mismatched backgrounds, ages and levels of observance. We all said the words and drank the wine and sang the songs, but the magic didn’t happen: We didn’t feel like “a people.” We remained a random group of chronically misplaced strangers, neither Israeli nor American, painfully stuck in-between.
Things are dramatically different today. Coordinated and financed by the national umbrella organization IAC (Israeli American Council), Israeli-Americans have not only found their place, but have become a defining force within American Jewry. “It’s a total 180,” Yehudit Feinstein, regional director of the IAC in New York, said in a phone interview. “The transformation of the [Israeli American] community over the past few years is astonishing. … This is a real historical moment for us.”
Feinstein is both an architect and a prime example of this transformation. In 2000, she arrived in the city, along with her future husband, to study for her BFA at the School of Visual Arts. They found little here in the way of community. There were a few commercial entities catering to Israeli expats, primarily the local Hebrew newspaper Yediot America, the “Jewish Yellow Pages,” Dapey Assaf, and some Israeli shops and restaurants that hosted Israeli events. “But if you didn’t belong to a [Jewish American] institution, like a synagogue or a Hebrew school, you were basically cut off,” Feinstein recalled.
For their first Passover, Feinstein and her husband gathered up a hodge-podge of nomads who had nowhere else to go: Israeli newcomers, foreign art students and the Jewish-Indian woman from across the hall. The feel of that first, awkward-but-touching seder came to define Feinstein’s experience both as an immigrant and a community builder. “There’s always that mix of fear and excitement … the feeling of a lack on one hand and the drive to build a new home around myself on the other.”
Feinstein was working as an educator in Brooklyn’s CBE (Congregation Beth Elohim) when, in 2010, the birth of her twin sons propelled her to seek out other Israeli families. “All I wanted was to meet a few people like me, with kids about the same age, so we could speak Hebrew and get together on Friday nights and holidays,” she said. She opened a Google group for Israeli families in Brooklyn and it quickly exploded, gathering hundreds of new members within weeks. Recognizing “a real need and hunger for a local Israeli community,” Andy Bachman, then CBE’s senior rabbi, volunteered the space. Thus was born CBE’s Israelis in Brooklyn, a set of Hebrew programs focusing on Israeli-Jewish culture. Among its staples were Keshet and Keshatot, Hebrew programs introducing children and toddlers to Israeli-Jewish culture, and the monthly Shira Beshishi, an Israeli chiloni (secular)-style Shabbat service with dinner and a Hebrew sing-along.
Similar grassroots initiatives have already been popping up across the nation. The Manhattan-based Dor Chadash had been fostering ties between young Israeli and American Jewish professionals since 2003. In 2007, the 92nd Street Y launched Israeliness, a comprehensive Hebrew platform for Israeli kids, teens and families. The Kaplan JCC in Tenafly, N.J., runs its own Israeli Center. In Los Angeles, a group of local Israeli powerbrokers, including Israeli-born Hollywood mogul Haim Saban, created the Israeli Leadership Club, which in 2006 began reshaping Israeli-American community life there with large-scale events and Hebrew-based programs.
Top-to-bottom changes were also happening. With cheaper airfare and global connectivity boosting emigration worldwide, Israel was forced to rethink its longtime policy of alienating those who had left. In 2011, during a first-of-its-kind international conference, the world Council of Israelis Abroad reported that the number of Israelis living outside of the Jewsih state now exceeded 1 million; finally recognizing their importance to Israel, Yuli Edelstein, then diaspora affairs minister, suggested that Israel should start relating to its “yordim” more as “partners in outreach.” The Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) followed suit in 2012 by amending its charter to include “strengthening Israeli communities abroad,” thus opening the floodgates for the Israeli-American community and allowing good old Jewish-American dollars to finally flow in. In 2013, Jewish philanthropist/casino mogul Sheldon Adelson threw his weight behind the Los Angeles-based ILC, funding nearly half of its $17.5 million annual budget, helping to make it a national player.
In 2013, the Israeli Leadership Club rebranded itself more inclusively as the Israeli-American Council (IAC). Later that year it kicked off a national expansion plan, which is advancing at breakneck pace: Today the IAC has offices in 13 states. Everywhere it expands, from Arizona to Chicago, the IAC adopts local Israeli-American initiatives and reproduces them on a national scale. Born out of Feinstein’s personal loneliness, Keshet and Keshatot are now national enrichment programs; IAC Shishi Israeli (the former Shira Beshishi) is a nationwide staple with thousands of participants. “In the world of Jewish-American organizations, we are currently the fastest-growing nonprofit,” Feinstein said.
What all this means for Israeli-American individuals is that mistakes of Passovers past need not be repeated. A nifty little grassroots initiative run by IAC Moatza (formerly known as Moatza Mekomit), 100 Chairs, not only matches lonely newcomers to Israeli-American families that would host them for the seder, it matches them well. Participants of the program, both guests and hosts, fill out an online form detailing their professions, religious affiliations, kosher and dietary restrictions, marital status, if they have kids and if so how many and how old and of what gender. After matching participants based on their answers, Anat Ziv, head of the project and a licensed professional counselor, does the fine-tuning by interviewing both parties and personally feeling out their vibes. “An immigrant can feel cut off during the holidays, and sitting by the seder table with a family you actually feel at home with can make a huge difference,” said Pazit Levitan, director of IAC Moatza. “But our goal here is to create connections that go beyond just having a good seder. … We’re trying to create lasting friendships, build a community from the ground up.” The program, which started in 2014 and was only promoted by word-of-mouth, has surpassed its initial goal of filling 100 chairs.
As for me, I have family and friends of my own now, and I host my own seders. That’s not to say I’m no longer awkwardly wedged in between nationalities: I have a weird accent in both Hebrew and English, stumble over cultural misunderstandings with both Americans and native Israelis, and will complain about Israelis being rude just like I complain about Americans being fake. I don’t quite fit in with either Israelis or Americans. But that’s OK: I have a community of people just like me surrounding me now, and to us being “inbetweenish” is just normal.