LOS ANGELES (JTA) — The message from the Israeli official addressing more than a hundred Israeli expatriates at a Los Angeles synagogue was simple and direct: “We want you to come back.” Translating the catchy slogan into reality is complex, Immigrant Absorption Minster Ze’ev Boim acknowledges.In the early decades of the Jewish state, Israelis abandoning the homeland were scorned as weaklings, traitors and “yordim,” those “going down” from Israel to the diaspora. But the Israeli government for some time has been wooing the growing number of citizens abroad.Boim was in Los Angeles recently with a team of government and private industry representatives as part of a campaign in seven American and Canadian cities. Boim is focusing on holders of Israeli passports, including those with dual citizenship. He estimates that there are 700,000 to 1 million Israeli expats, of whom some 600,000 are in North America, including 150,000 to 200,000 in the Los Angeles area.Meanwhile, Los Angeles demographer Bruce Phillips maintains that there are 26,000 Israelis in the city. In each of the cities Boim visited, expats could talk to ministry and private industry specialists about jobs, establishing businesses, housing and government assistance. They also could speak to liaisons with local Israeli consulates. Boim held out inducements in the form of tax relief, cutting bureaucratic red tape and even deferment from mandatory military service. Additional perks are reserved for those ready to settle in the underpopulated Galilee and Negev regions. Boim cites the return of some 6,000 expats in 2005 as a promising sign. Conversely, however, about 8,000 to 9,000 Israelis left for residence overseas during the same year. Some of those at the Los Angeles event stayed to talk about 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.A week later she praised Boim’s support staff as organized and helpful, and said the meeting had saved her weeks of research. “We’ll move in a couple of months,” she said confidently. Two months later, however, Geffen was complaining about protracted disputes with the Israel housing authorities over obtaining land and homes for her and 32 other families in a Galilee community. Geffen, 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 first he may visit to check out the job situation. Talks with expats yield some common themes: The draw in coming to the United States is nearly always economic opportunity. The 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. Rivka Dori is among the veteran expats in Los Angeles, arriving in 1966 with her future husband, who came for a college education. As a longtime teacher — Dori is director of the joint Hebrew studies program at Hebrew Union College and the University of Southern California — she is especially focused on the second generation of American-born Israelis.The second generation, she believes, “is neither here nor there, not Israeli and not American.” Dori established an afterschool program for second-generation Israeli high school students to expose them to modern Hebrew and Israeli culture. Her students, she said, are exposed to the pressures and attractions of American teen life while their parents try to indoctrinate them with a feeling of loyalty and belonging to Israel — up to a point. “When the youngsters absorb their parents’ lesson and one day tell them that they want to join the Israeli army, the parents are usually horrified,” Dori said. Dori doubts that many of them will follow Boim’s exhortation to resettle in Israel, and that when the members of the third generation grow up, “they will be less conflicted and more Americanized.” Avner Hofstein, a reporter for Yediot Achronot, has been the paper’s West Coast correspondent for the past four years. Israelis here, as in their native country, are full of contradictions, Hofstein observes. They have bought into the materialistic life of America while trying to re-create the Israeli neighborhoods and milieu they knew in the 1970s and ’80s. “Israelis have their own cafes, markets, dances, and social and business networks,” he said. “They pop into each others’ homes unannounced and are very much into each others’ business,” he adds. “On the one hand they tend to be hawkish and super Israeli patriots, on the other hand they are highly critical of Israeli society, perhaps to justify their own departure.” The Council of Israeli Communities is the closest to a central expat organization in Los Angeles, with a membership of about 5,000, according to its president, Moshe Salem. Founded in 2001 to speak up for Israel and its policies, the council now focuses mainly on strengthening relations with the people and culture of the home country. A sign that the Israeli community is coming of age is that academic researchers are beginning to pay attention to it. Through the Israel American Study Initiative, a group of UCLA scholars and librarians is trying to collect and analyze the chronicles and documents that tell the history and development of the community.IASI tracks Israeli culture and life in the United States in its BAMA magazine and on its Web site, www.IsraelisinAmerica.org. Writing in BAMA, Professor David Myers, director of the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies, noted one crucial contribution of Israeli expats, along with Jewish immigrants from Iran and Russia. Without them, Myers wrote, “The Los Angeles Jewish community would either have hit the wall demographically or be in decline.”
Tom Tugend is JTA's Los Angeles correspondent. A veteran journalist, he also writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the London Jewish Chronicle.