In Brooklyn Heights and on the Upper West Side, Jewish families with young children get together once a week for an hour of music and stories and play time — all in Hebrew. The activities are part of KesheTOT (Keshet is Hebrew for rainbow), a program that began three months ago under the auspices of the Israeli-American Council (IAC).
KesheTOT is the latest sign of a growing and increasingly visible Israeli community in the New York area, where an estimated 200,000 Israeli-Americans live.
In Washington, more than 600 Israeli-Americans and members of the wider Jewish community will take part in a conference this weekend that will feature workshops on Israelis’ relations with American Jews and with American politics. The national conference, the first sponsored by the IAC, signals the Israeli expatriate community’s growth on a national level.
In recent years, Israelis in this country have taken to calling themselves Israeli-Americans and have become more involved with their local Jewish communities. Israel has come to see the estimated 650,000 Israeli citizens living in the U.S. as strategic assets in the worldwide battle for Israel’s image and for political support.
IAC was launched seven years ago in Los Angeles to create a national organization for the country’s growing contingent of Israeli-Americans.
“It’s a huge diaspora that did not have its own voice before,” said Sagi Balasha, CEO of the Council. “There was no framework for Israeli-Americans. We are trying to become part of the wider [Jewish] community.”
Balasha, in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, called this weekend’s conference “a huge statement” about Israeli-Americans’ increasing confidence in their hyphenated identities and their willingness to openly advocate on behalf of Israel.
For Israel’s first decades, Israelis described citizens who became expatriates as “yordim,” those who go down, who commit “yerida” — the opposite of the olim who make aliyah, going up to Israel. “A bunch of cowards,” Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin once famously said of the Israelis who sought riches and comfort abroad.
In the U.S. and other lands of the West where they settled, they called themselves Israelis, but they had their bags packed, planning to return home in a few years; they rarely joined a synagogue or other Jewish institution where they were working or studying, and made few connections with the local Jewish community.
That’s changed. Yordim no more.
IAC quickly expanded, aided by a $10 million grant last year from philanthropist Sheldon Adelson.
Large numbers of Israeli-Americans have become involved in national pro-Israel groups such as AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobbying organization, and with local advocacy campaigns, such as federation-based efforts. But the cultural gap between Israelis and many American Jews still requires a separate group for Israelis here, Balasha said.
“There was a huge need” for a separate Israeli-American organization, Balasha said. “You need to speak the language, to speak with the [Sabra] mentality and culture.” Without a group like IAC (israeliamerican.org), he said, “The Jewish people are losing the abilities of a half-million members of the Jewish community.”
The IAC conference will include workshops on such topics as mobilizing American Jews for Israel, improving the U.S.-Israel relationship and lessons to be learned from the American Jewish community. Speakers will include political notables like former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, Israel’s former UN Ambassador Dan Gillerman and its current one, Ron Prosor.
More than half of the sessions will be conducted in English; the rest, in Hebrew.
Another sign of new initiatives for Israeli-Americans: the recent establishment of a “Hebrew track” of the Birthright Israel 10-days-in-Israel program for participants from Israeli-American families. Called “Shelanu,” or “Ours,” the trip is designed to “create future Jewish-Israeli community influencers,” according to a press release that announced the program’s founding.
A group like IAC “really has been a long time coming … a spontaneous movement from the Israeli community itself,” said Barry Shrage, president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, the greater Boston area’s Jewish federation. Several thousand Israel-Americans live around Boston. Some guesses put the number as high as 15,000. “Our best guess is 4,000,” Shrage said.
“There’s an increasing understanding” among both Israeli-Americans and American-born Jews, he said, “that raising the next generation of Jews in America is different than raising the next generation of Jews in Israel.”
In other words, Israelis who settled in the U.S. and the children of Israeli-Americans who were raised here with a heavily Israeli mindset don’t readily fit into Jewish life in the U.S. “We have to work pretty hard to make them Jewish,” Shrage said.
He and Israeli-Americans who spoke to The Jewish Week cited this summer’s war in Gaza — which fomented anti-Semitism in several Western countries and weakened political support for Israel — as an incentive for all American Jews to join on behalf of Israel. “We’re all in this together,” Shrage said.
The participation of Israeli representatives in the D.C. conference and other recent outreach efforts towards Israelis living in the U.S. indicates that Israel’s government sees the reality — and value — of Israeli-Americans, many of whom will stay permanently on these shores, said Oren Heiman, chairman of Moatza Mekomit, an umbrella organization for some 30 New York-area, Israel-related groups.
“Israelis have changed their approach to Israelis living abroad,” Heiman said. “Times have changed.”
No more shunning, no more stigma.
In Israel last week, Heiman took part in a Knesset conference on the subject of the Israeli diaspora.
Ronny Alpern, 73, a native of Tel Aviv who has lived in Southern California since she got married in 1963, said she at first thought she and her Jewish-American husband would move to Israel within a few years. Then children arrived, and the family stayed.
A community college math teacher with no plans to retire, she will attend the IAC conference as a sign of support for Israel, she said.
Her son, Leeor, 38, vice chairman of IAC’s young professionals group in Los Angeles, calls this weekend’s conference the “coming out” of the Israel-American community.
A public policy expert, he called himself typical of his Israeli-American generation. He has returned with his parents — his father died in 1997 — frequently to Israel, sometimes for long stretches. But his future is in the U.S. “I would find it hard to say, ‘The bags are packed,’” he said.
Like people his age from many lands, “very few want to go back to the ‘mother countries,’” he added.
He is an active supporter of such Israel-related organizations as Friends of the IDF and Magen David Adom.
“You can,” he said, “be a good Israeli without living in Israel.”