Life in the United States has never been easy for Israeli Jews.
Besides the language adjustments and cultural differences, getting acclimated to an unfamiliar area has often caused them to step away from the mainstream.
Is it any wonder then that American-Israeli Jews often hang out with their own, distancing themselves from their non-Israeli neighbors and, in the process, often distancing themselves from their religion?
The Israeli American Council (IAC) is try to change that and bring both segments of the community closer together. Since opening an office here five months ago, it’s already made inroads through Shishi Israeli, a joint program combining Shabbat dinner and services.
And they’re just getting started, with Main Line Reform Temple (MLRT) hosting a Tu B’Shevat celebration on Feb. 10. MLRT Rabbi David Straus said his congregation is thrilled to be a part of it.
“I am absolutely convinced the best way to engage people who feel a deep, emotional attachment to Israel is not by arguing politics, but by connecting and getting to know their stories,” said Straus, who indicated the dinner portion of the event is sold out, though anyone is welcome to attend 6 p.m. Kabbalat services beforehand. “They’re our neighbors.
“They’ve come to America for business opportunities or to study or because their family is there and America has become their home. They still feel a connection to Israel, but they’re staying here.
“The challenge this community faces is that their children don’t have the same Israeli identity or religious connection. So this is an incredible opportunity on a lot of different levels. All sorts of things could blossom out of this.”
That’s kind of what the IAC was hoping for when it began operations in Philadelphia, the 10th of what is now 11 markets.
“Ten percent of the Jewish population here are Israeli, and most of them are not affiliated with any synagogue or feeling part of the local Jewish community,” explained Yoni Ari, IAC executive director for the tri-state region. “Our mission is to bring those Israelis together with their Jewish friends and be part of the Jewish community.
“There’s a cultural gap between Israelis and American Jews. Most Israelis are secular and don’t have any particular synagogue connection. Here, there’s a different kind of Judaism, and they’re looking for an affiliation. What we’re doing is bringing Israelis together to be part of the local Jewish community.”
Some 275 people attended a September Sukkot event at MLRT. More are expected for the Tu B’Shevat event, where they’re hoping to raise money to plant trees in Haifa, which has been ravaged by forest fires.
For both adults as well as children, such an experience can prove invaluable.
“I’ve lived here since I was 12,” said Iris Hami, chair of IAC’s Philadelphia region, whose family came to Long Island in the early 1990s. “I still remember the time I didn’t speak English and had to go to school and make new friends.
“When people have a community around to help them, that makes it so much easier. You don’t have to be religious to feel Jewish here. You just have make more of an effort. It’s important for us to make that effort.”
The results are promising.
“We had it during Sukkot, and it was phenomenal,” said Straus, who’s hopeful this could lead to other educational and cultural projects, perhaps even a joint trip to Israel. “They spent time in the sukkah, the community prepared the main course and we had a band which led us in singing and dancing.
“Last time we had maybe 50 kids. This time, we’re hoping for more.”
That’s quite a difference from what Ari remembers when he moved here 28 years ago.
“At that time, there were few Israelis on the Main Line,” recalled Ari, who has plans to bring IAC events to Elkins Park, South Jersey and Delaware in the near future. “When I saw Israeli kids my age, I wondered, ‘Will the next generation be Jewish anymore? What will be their connection with Israel?’ It was bothering me then.
“That’s why I like the job of the IAC. We want to keep Hebrew and tradition alive in our children. For Israeli Jewish Americans, in order to keep their Jewishness, they need their Israeli spirit. What we’re trying to do is bring them all together and celebrate as Jewish Americans.”
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