Dr. Shaula Yemini grew up on the Israel-U.S. line. After spending some of her formative years in the U.S., she completed high school, the army, and her bachelor’s degree in Israel, returned to the States for her doctorate, got comfortable and decided to stay.
Like many in the high-tech world, she moved largely within her own professional circles, and felt no need to seek out the company of other Israelis or Jews. Nor did her dual identity ever become an issue for her.
“I never felt torn, or anything like that,” she said. “I enjoy both cultures I grew up in — the Israeli one and the American one — and for me they only complement each other.”
But when her daughter, raised secularly, married a non-Jew — well, that did become an issue. Forget about preserving the family’s Israeli identity; how was she to maintain the family’s once-obvious connection to Judaism?
“Israelis tend to take being Jewish for granted; but for the [secular] Israeli, what connects him to his Jewishness is the State of Israel,” said Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi of the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue (SWFS) on the Upper West Side. “Take the Israeli out of Israel, and over a generation the ‘glue’ holding him to Judaism will dissolve.”
Last Sunday, SWFS held an all-Hebrew panel discussion about what it means to be Israeli, American and Jewish: our so-called “tridentity.” The panel, a collaboration between the synagogue’s Israeli program and the Moatza Mekomit (the new umbrella organization for New York’s Israeli community), featured Rachel Barak-Stein, an Israeli psychologist; Dr. Shaula Yemini, an Israeli high-tech leader; Oren Heiman, chairman of Moatza Mekomit, and Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch, the only American onboard. It was moderated by Haim Handewerker, a New York correspondent for the Israeli daily Haaretz, who arrived here 20 years ago for a work assignment and somehow never found his way back. He used to think of himself as an all-out Sabra, but now he’s no longer sure: is he an Israeli living in the U.S., or an American who used to live in Israel?
This is not mere semantics, Barak-Stein pointed out. The answer to the question will determine much about an immigrant’s life: where he chooses to live, who his friends are, what music he listens to, what he eats, his political stance. There are those who settle down in the “Little Israels” and “Israeli shtetls” of the city, living as if they’re still in Israel in every way but geography; others renounce their Israeliness altogether and disappear into wider America, often while developing a grudge against their former homeland. Most people’s place on this scale keeps changing, with a general drift towards the center over time.
Our affiliations, substantial for us, are perhaps even more weighty for our kids. We already know where we came from and where our loyalties ultimately lie, but will they? Statistics show they might not. According to a recent study by the Reut Institute, intermarriage rates are higher among the offspring of Israeli immigrants than in the wider American-Jewish community.
Impossible, the audience muttered. Are we not the embodiment of Zionism? Don’t we teach our kids all about Israel? Isn’t that enough?
Not quite. Apparently you can’t instill strong Jewish values merely by feeding your kids falafel.
“In order to maintain a Jewish identity, you must be attached to a synagogue,” said Rabbi Hirsch.
“In Israel, when we’d go to shul on the high holidays, the religious people would go in and pray, while us seculars would hang outside and talk,” one audience member replied. “I haven’t found a reason to do something like that here.”
I didn’t get it either, and Rabbi Hirsch had to painstakingly explain to me how in America, synagogues replace what we get from the state. “There are three main institutions that build a Jewish identity in the diaspora: Jewish schools, Jewish summer camps and synagogues,” he told me after the panel. “Out of the three, the synagogues are the most important, because they anchor an individual to the Jewish community and tradition from cradle to grave.”
Israelis here largely don’t participate in American synagogue life. Some of this has to do with cultural gaps, and with Israelis’ innate suspicion of anything that is not Israeli. Some of it has to do with Israelis not getting the diversity of choices offered by American Judaism: you’re either religious or not, OK? What’s “Reform?”
Some of it, though, is related to American Jewry, and the community’s former lack of recognition towards the Israeli expat community. In line with Israel’s sharp denouncement of all “yordim” (expatriates) as bad apples, we got the vibe that all Jewish American establishments wanted from us is that we go back home.
The panel revealed that all of this is changing. Israel has reached a point where emigration is no longer an existential threat; the Israeli population abroad grew in numbers and wealth, and has been recognized as an important asset in shaping international opinion. Globalization and technology created a reality in which one can identify as an American-Israeli-Jew without it being an obvious contradiction in terms. And most important, perhaps, is the fact that American Jews realized they need us, too. “Over time, the American Jewish community is also growing weaker … our ties to each other, to Judaism and to the state of Israel are growing weaker,” said Rabbi Hirsch. “Bringing the Israelis into American Jewish community life will no doubt revitalize it.”
In 2011, seeing they could not entice most Israelis to join synagogue and community life by talking about Judaism, the Jewish Agency decided to change strategies and appeal to our Israeliness instead. Thus we came upon this golden age, in which American Jewry pours money into Israeli-run programs that teach our kids Hebrew and Israeli culture, and into synagogue programs such as SWFS’s Chofshi B’Manhattan, which essentially brings us to shul to hang out with other Israelis and discuss in Hebrew how we are also American Jews. Not bad for people who until recently were considered deserters.
“A couple of weeks ago, Sheldon Adelson, the Zionist billionaire, contributed $10 million for the strengthening of Israeli communities abroad,” remarked Moatza Mekomit’s Heiman. “Today American Jews donate money to the Jewish federation, and the federation donates money to Israelis in New York so they in turn can strengthen the Jewish community. This is something that was never heard of before.”
After the panel was over, as always, the Israelis flocked to one side of the hall, and the few Americans huddled in the other. I had to cross two rooms and a flight of stairs to ask both community leaders the same question: “You talk about being one people, but you seem to be promoting different goals. The American Jewish community wants Israelis to become part of them, while Israelis want to fortify their own separate identity. How do you resolve this?”
“We’re opening our doors wide, no questions asked, no conditions,” said Rabbi Hirsch. “If all they’re interested in for now is movies and lectures in Hebrew and hanging out with other Israelis — that’s OK. … Their children, growing up here, still become part of Jewish American life.”
Said Heiman: “A strong Jewish infrastructure already exists here — we’re working on developing a specifically Israeli one. If you try to reach out to Israelis through religion, through synagogues, you’ll lose them.
“It’s two different mechanisms, but they use the same materials to produce the same results,” he added.
That is, it may be a marriage of convenience, but at least the children will be Jewish.
Orli Santo is a correspondent for the New York-based weekly Yediot America. Her column appears monthly.