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New York Yordim

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.

Celebrating Israel in New York, by FaceMePLS

Celebrating Israel in New York, by FaceMePLS

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”?

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  1. Michael W. says:

    As an Israeli-born American, I admit that my fluency in Hebrew has declined significantly since moving to the States. In my case, I think this is due to a couple of reasons.

    One, my American grandparents. They are very secular and a bit hostile to the “religious” community, especially the orthodox. When my dad was a kid, his parents (my American grandparents) made a deal with the Reform synagogue so that they can send him to Sunday school with out becoming members of the shul. Additionally, their insistence that I learn “proper” American manners that stripped my of Israeli behavioral norms.

    Two, the Reform synagogue. Their heavy use of English in services was unexpected for me. I only been to a service once before moving to the States and it was in an orthodox shul in Paris for my brother’s bar mitzva, since I grew up on a kibbutz. Also, their Sunday school system is terrible.

    I didn’t meet Israeli Americans my age till I reached high school(3 chatichot), but they had much stronger connections to the ol’ country. One of my Israeli American friends went back after high school to join the IDF. I didn’t since I had no family there and since my family moved to the States, my parents never made it seem to me that I should have a connection with Israel, though they have dozens of Israeli American friends.

    One of my dad’s friends is a JNF director for the Maryland/Delaware/DC area. He says there are a lot in this area, especially Rockville(DC suburb).

  2. LB says:

    Many immigrant communities have lost their native tongue because they strove to become as American as possible. One example of this is Eastern European Jews. How many young American Jews speak Yiddish? Back to this topic – do you think any Israelis in the US share this immigrant mentality?

  3. Michael W. says:

    The main reason my family affiliated with the Reform movement is because my dad works for a Reform shul. Not as a rabbi, but as a business manager of sort, a comptroller. My grandparents had no influence on oour affiliation. Though, I must note if I haven’t before, we lived a very secular kibbutz life in Israel. On the kibbutz, we didn’t do shabbat prayers. In the States, we do. We NEVER went to shul in Israel. Not only my dad works at a Reform synagogue, but my mother belongs in the choir and that makes them go to services often. On the kibbutz, holidays tended to be focused on the harvest and not focused on God. At home in the States, holidays are focused more on God, even though my family is deeply agnostic/athiest.

    Also of note, my parents made me go through “confirmation” even though I went to a Jewish highschool. Confirmation is like a Sunday school for teenagers up through grade 10. After that, I stopped going to Reform services at the shul unless my parents absolutely made me.

    In college, I became the Hillel vice president. Not so I can have people to pray with, but so I can have a community to connect to. That’s how I look at religious institutions. I don’t need them for prayer, I need them to connect to the community.

    My American grandmother thinks that what defines the Reform movement is the amount of English used in services. She thinks that the less English they use, the more Orthodox it becomes. She doesn’t like rabbis, especially Orthodox ones that are revered. She got a science degree and used a different name in college so that she can fit in, even though the college she went to has a very large Hillel today.

    As to your comment, I think overall, Israelis are just like any other immigrant group. One group doesn’t strive to be more American any faster than any other immigrant group. I think in my case, because half my family lives in the US, and the other in France, my roots in Israel were very weak. Weaker the roots are to the native country, the faster the family would assimilate. My dad grew up in the States, and he bought his parents’ house so we know live in the house he grew up in. So I was technically an American when I lived in Israel, as well as a French citizen (though my French family is almost completely of Tunisian descent). I was a tri-citizen from birth. We regularly went to France and the US for vacation. I still had a little culture shock when I moved to the States, and I’m still not used to it completely, meaning I prefer the Israeli way in certain aspects.

    In conclusion, Israelis are like any immigrant group. The move to the US for work. In my family’s case, since my mother was the only non-American citizen, my family wasn’t immigrating in the fullest sense of the term. The US wasn’t completely new and our roots in Israel were weak.

  4. [...] of Occidental Israel talks about Israelis living in NY and examines a recent study about this [...]

  5. Dear Occidental Israeli,

    Ayelet Hashachar’s ‘Chavrutah’ program engages 16,000 Israelis in weekly study/discussion sessions by phone. As an organization that dedicates itself to bridging between Israelis in Israel with incredible success, we would like to know if you would have contact or lists of Israeli ‘yordim’ whom we can interest in our “Chavrutah World” Program (see draft proposal ideas)




    Israel – A Divided Nation.
    According to statistics, Israel is facing one of it’s biggest crises. It is not the threat from without, but the threat from within. Polarismization has had the effect of creating two Israeli societies, the secular and Ultra Orthodox.

    Chavrutah Israel is a unparalleled unique program run by the Ayelet Hashachar Organization who’s aim is to foster friendship and understanding among Israelis of differing cultural backgrounds in a grassroots effort to engender peace and good will.

    At present 16,000 individuals (8,000 partners) participate in the weekly phone conversations, sponsored and arranged by the staff in our Jerusalem-based offices. In the space of six years, the program which started as a good idea, has now blossomed into the country-wide success familiar to so many. We expect to expand the Israeli Chavrutah program to 20,000 participants by September 2011.

    Established in the Spring of 2005, the overall Director, Riki / Shlomo Raanan, has many years of on-site experience with running and maintaing such programs.

    The Israeli Chavrutah Men and Women’s Offices employ 40 staff members, trained to match viable partners according to age, background and educational level.

    The Chavrutah Team comprises fully trained men and women who initiate and maintain the matching of study pairs, provide backup information where necessary, maintain contact with each participants including regular assessments and success of their chosen program..

    Bridging. It is our experience, that one of the most effective methods of finding common ground is to allow and enourage each pair to alot a portion of their time, usually an hour a week by phone, to self chosen discussion topics. . Subjects might include poetry, literature, history, music, medical ethics, sports or Jewish texts. Material and phone expenses are covered by the organization. Group meetings bring these pairs together intermitantly for face- to-face gatherings. Similarly, tours and social events encourage a sense of the wider community.

    Each ‘Chavrutah’ undergoes careful assessment and initial matching, with folloup involving in- depth review with each participant, assessing the relationship and its success at the hands of trained staff who provide guidance and support to each participant. The Chavrutah Team is always available as a sounding board and encouraging support system.

    Aims : Chavrutah phone session’s main aim is to bring opposing sides of Israeli society together in an amiable positive atmosphere, leading, in many cases to strong bonds and extended family friendships. This combines the Ayelet Hashachar motto of ‘Bridging, Education and Jewish Identity’.


    Based on our current experience with the highly successful Israeli model, it is our wish to expand this program worldwide, aiming at Israelis living abroad.

    Major World Cities – According to our statistics, close to 250,000 Israelis live in Los Angeles alone. In many cases, these individuals have no connection to the general Jewish populace in the way that most American born Jews do. In many cases, Israeli youth and children in particular, eventually loose all connection with their language and culture while never making strong connections to the American community.

    Creating an American-Israeli culture – Lacking any connection to the local Jewish organizations, Israelis often feel ostrasized. They struggle with a new culture and language, often poorly assisted by local fellow Israelis, but never quite adapting to their new surroundings. Later, when they wish to return to Israel, as many often do after a number of years, they see they have broken ties and lost connection. This is especially true for their children who may have even been born in the States.

    Chavrutah World and Pen Pal Chavrutah World, will provide a network whereby adults and adults and children alike will be able to bond with Israelis in a pleasant and positive way, leaving the door open for their return to their country of birth or, at the least, boosting their confidence through strong and familiar ties with their country of origin.

    Reasoning behind Chavrutah World Project. The decision to expand the project to include Israelis living abroad is in response to the vast number of enquires received annually by our offices to include Hebrew speakers from all over the world in our highly successful technique.

    PEN PAL Hebrew Speakers Internet Project
    Chavrutah equivalent project for Israeli children living abroad to connect them with youngsters their own age living in Israel.
    Aim : To give them a strong human connection to their home country
    To help them adjust healthily, while maintaining their language and culture
    To maintain their Jewish and Israeli identity
    To give them the opportunity to learn about their native background

    your assistance would be very much appreciated as this promises to be a fantastic project,
    many thanks

  6. Gf says:

    I miss israel very much. There is nothing wrong with the u.s. , it is a great place and nyc is a great city. It is very welcoming to immigrants but it will never be home. Every day I pray for two things:
    1. That we will find our way back one day.
    2. That I will succeed in growing my children with the feeling that israel is their home.

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