As soon as a plane with the blue and white flag completes its journey from Ben Gurion airport to anywhere else in the world, disembarking Israelis are under the illusion that they have a secret language. Israelis think they can yell to each other in the street, without anyone understanding what they’re saying. And, if they stay away from certain areas in India, then for the most part that is true. In most of the world, Hebrew is not a language most would even recognize.
New York City is not one of those places. It is not uncommon to see someone reading Maariv on the subway, or eating Bamba on the street. You can also eat at a hummussia (reviews will be posted over the next few months, as promised) and drink prigat grapefruit juice. I have walked into a convenience store, picked up a Shabbat newspaper, and had a short discussion with the cashier about the register not working, (yet paid in US legal tender) – all without uttering a word of English. I was not even asked if I speak Hebrew. It was understood, expected even.
Partly because of the preponderance of Israelis in the greater New York area, the Jewish Federation of New York recently commissioned a study, titled “Israeli Jews in Greater New York.” The study “aims to provide fundamental and policy-relevant information on [the Israeli population in the New York Area].” Based on a variety of definitions, the study found that somewhere between 31,000 and 41,000 Israelis live in the New York area. Maariv seems to think this is a low number (Hebrew), which baffles me. The implication is that that are larger “communities” of Israelis elsewhere in the U.S. However, that does not mean that it is a low number. According to this study, more Israelis live in New York than in Ramat HaSharon.
Much of the study focuses on counting Israelis, definitions of Israelis for the purpose of the study, and comparisons to previous studies done on Israelis in the U.S. One interesting finding mentioned is that approximately 100,000 Israelis live in the U.S., a far lower figure than the 500,000 estimated by some communal leaders. This means that somewhere around one-third of Israelis in America live around NYC.
Another finding is that 75% of Israeli-born adults in New York speak Hebrew. My personal experience with children who were raised in such families, however, has led to me a non-scientific conclusion: Hebrew-speaking is not a tradition that is passed on to the next generation. I have met many Americans of Israeli heritage, yet their Hebrew skills would not enable them to follow Shalom Sesame. This first figure regarding language leads to a second, unmentioned conclusion. 25% of those who were born in Israel, and now live in New York, do not speak Hebrew, possibly because they moved to the States at a young age. As the study reports, 65 percent of Israelis living in New York have been there for over 15 years.
The Maariv article about the study focused on Jewish involvement and observance. Israel is seen by many as one backwards, fanatic religious stronghold among many others in the Middle East. Those who know a little about Israel tend to have an opposite view – a secular, liberal, first-world state. Israelis are not as secular as many (would like to?) believe, but it is still a first-world country. Nevertheless, it is ironic that many who go through the Jewish State’s educational system are rather ignorant of their own heritage.
In New York, on the other hand, Israelis “outscore their American counterparts on almost every measure” with regards to Jewish involvement. This is true even when Orthodox Israeli Jews are excluded from the analysis. A greater proportion of Israelis light Shabbat candles (61% to 30%), keep a kosher kitchen (60% to 27%), and attend a Pesach Seder (95% to 76%). These numbers do not include Orthodox Jews (a larger portion of Israelis in New York identify as Orthodox than do Americans), and still illustrate a significant difference.
Socially, as well, Israelis are more Jewishly connected than their non-Israeli brethren. The study found that “[m]ore Israelis have Jewish spouses and many Jewish friends than do non-Israelis.” The “in-marriage” rate among Israelis is 75%, compared to 38% among Americans. And finally, while a highly subjective issue, it is valid because it goes to the core of Jewish identity, “Israeli Jews outscore their American counterparts when asked how important being Jewish is to them.”
Overall, the study is interesting, but it does not offer much more than numbers. What does this all mean? Stronger Jewish identity, adherence to religious rituals, and lower rates of intermarriage are good for the community as a whole. Israelis, however, are not American-born Jews. They are people who, for various reasons, chose to pick up and leave Israel. But why? The Israeli foreign ministry continues to hatch plans to entice Israelis to return home, but without asking why, let alone addressing the root problem.
It is often assumed that economics and opportunity are what drive Israelis to look elsewhere for better lives. If economics are such an overwhelming force, the necessary question is, where is the ideology? Is Zionism still at the core of these people’s beliefs, relegated to the back burner only out of temporal necessity?
Further, how many Israelis do return? I recently attended a Yom HaZikaron memorial ceremony, organized by the Israeli Embassy. I was astonished by how many Israelis live in the area. Most were families, settled in the area. My rough approximation is that 500 people were in attendance. The overwhelming majority were Israelis.
Another thing I noticed at the ceremony was the significant presence of Israeli scouts. Children who grow up in their “Little Israel” of sorts (there is an area in Rockville, MD that has been dubbed “the kibbutz”), now participating in an Israeli youth group, in America. This is not just a youth group, however. Garin Tzabar, an IDF program for Israelis who grew up in America (as well as new olim), is tied to the Israeli scouts, and scouts often join Tzabar. I wonder how many second-generation Israelis do indeed go back to Israel? Will they return or will they just grow up to be the next generation of a “culturally distinctive and socially connected Jewish subpopulation”?