Little America, Just Over the Green Line

Hashmonaim is a comfort zone but also a barrier to Anglo immigrants' integration

The biggest clue that Hashmonaim is so heavily influenced by its American residents is the baseball diamond at the settlement's entrance. It's patchy, semi-dusty field and unkempt lines make it a mere shadow of the lush, green baseball fields in the U.S. towns that its residents hail from and stand in contrast to the upscale look of the settlement's houses - sprawling by Israeli standards, if not Texas ones.

Tamar Morad

Few, if any, communities in Israel have the kind of Anglo influence than the settlement of Hashmonaim does: More than half of its 545 families are immigrants from English-speaking countries, mostly from the U.S. Though some of the original residents of the settlement, located two kilometers east of Modi'in just over the Green Line and formed two decades ago, were Anglos, the biggest influx has arrived in the last decade - and a drive through its quiet streets reflect that. Women take power walks together chatting in English, American men return from morning prayers kibitzing in their native tongue and boys at school recess shout commands at each other while playing basketball in a mix of Hebrew and English.

"In the past 18 years since we arrived in Hashmonaim, the Anglo community has grown from just 10 percent [of the population] to 55 percent today. Over the years, the activism of the Anglos in Hashmonaim made it seem like we were a majority of the residents but it wasn't until about two years ago that we reached 50 percent," says Dov Gilor, one of the original Anglo residents, who publishes the settlement phone directory - and thus has become the unofficial census-taker of the community. He also is editor of Hashmonaim's community newsletter, with articles in Hebrew and English.

It's a quiet, tight-knit modern Orthodox community affiliated with B'nei Akiva, the religious Zionist youth movement, whose Ner Tamid boys' yeshiva grew from a one-room classroom in a private home to two large buildings and several smaller ones. Hashmonaim has nine synagogues: four Ashkenazi, three Sephardi, two Yemenite and one Chabad. It has a community library with a robust selection of English books, a youth center, a mikva (ritual bath ) and a senior citizen community meeting place. Of all of these facilities, only the elementary school, affiliated with the government religious stream, was built with government money.

The Anglo influence "makes for a very soft landing" after immigrating, says Rafi Mor, who moved here with his wife, Beth, and their three children from Sharon, Massachusetts, in the summer. "We wanted something centrally located that wasn't too deep into the West Bank, and it's a warm and supportive community."

But the heavy Anglo presence has its drawbacks, say some residents and community leaders. First, real estate prices have shot up dramatically in recent years: single family homes begin at $650,000; two-family units begin around $500,000.

The prices both reflect the nationwide price trend and the fact that American immigrants are arriving flush with cash after selling properties abroad. Also, there is limited land to build on, pushing prices up further. A handful of homes have pools, and many are three- or four-story single family homes. Many residents commute to jobs in the U.S. or telecommute for American companies or institutions, thus continuing to earn American salaries that help families support bigger homes.

That's a far cry from its modest origins 20 years ago, when founding families from Petah Tikvah and Jerusalem built small homes and lived without some basic amenities, like door-to-door trash pickup, for years.

The Glenwood synagogue in the town center is named for a former synagogue in Brooklyn containing some of the closed shul's original items. It is attended by many former members of the original synagogue, and its membership is almost all American. Some residents say that Glenwood's presence, while welcoming for many immigrants, only enables the lack of integration into Israeli society.

The integration challenge

Homes on the east side of Hashmonaim have a front-row view of the concrete separation barrier with the Palestinian territories. But inside the settlement, residents face their own type of barrier: that between English and Hebrew, American culture and Israeli culture. It's an invisible line that has developed mostly unintentionally, yet naturally over time as the number of Anglo immigrants has grown, and one that Anglo community leaders are trying to chip away at - despite the comfort it affords to new immigrants.

The prominence of English in Hashmonaim, says Nava Gelband, who heads Hashmonaim's education committee, "makes the adjustment to Israel difficult and more prolonged, especially for the kids." Gelband, who grew up in Israel and the U.S. and is married to an American, initially spoke to her children in English after moving back to Israel from the U.S. But when she saw that her kids were struggling in Hebrew, she switched to Hebrew, and she says it has made "a real difference" in the Hebrew fluency of her youngest children.

"One of the biggest problems we deal with is ensuring the children become integrated into Israeli society, because it is such an Anglo bubble, both in terms of language and culture... The level of Hebrew, even among the people who have been here for years, isn't where it should be," says Bryna Hartman, who moved to Israel from Baltimore in the 1970s and serves as community coordinator. "Somehow, most of the kids end up doing fine because they come from educated families that emphasize learning. But we still think there is work to be done."

As part of Hartman's role, she organizes afternoon activities for kids. "I have tried to create Hebrew enrichment activities for kids, but they've fallen apart because the English activities always seem to take precedent for parents... I was recently at a community meeting where we discussed ways to address this problem [of the lack of cultural and language integration] and one mother said, 'I don't want my kids to be Israeli!'"

In many day care centers, English is the dominant language. Hartman adds that for many kids, it's only when they enter the army or National Service that "they experience their real integration into Israeli society." The most-affected immigrants are the teenagers, who have little time to learn Hebrew before they must begin studying for the bagrut, the matriculation exams given at the end of high school. Some teens, as a result, experience emotional and behavioral problems, and they are referred to various support programs.

To address these kinds of issues issues, the community absorption committee recently created a temporary position of absorption coordinator. Chana Schuster, originally from Teaneck, New Jersey, was hired for the job on a five-month trial basis, and will work with the town's voluntary absorption committee to advocate for parents in the schools.

She will be responsible for working with the committee on finding ways for immigrants of all ages to better integrate into Israeli society in general and Hashmonaim specifically. A translation program for new immigrants was just started whereby volunteers from the community translate bills, letters and other documents into English and serve as translators in meetings with teachers and school leadership.

The Absorption Ministry has agreed to fund another program that will offer Hebrew enrichment for children six hours per week after school. If it gets going, it will help make up for the absence this year of an in-school ulpan, or Hebrew language immersion, that has been offered in past years for new immigrant children; there weren't enough new pupils to justify the expenditure this year.

"We have our challenges here, like in every community, but the bottom line is that everyone who comes to live in Hashmonaim really loves this place," says Edith Mandel-Epstein, a lawyer-turned-jewelry designer who has lived in Hashmonaim for more than 12 years. She adds that in many ways, the community is enhanced by the American influence, a highly educated populace with professionals working in medicine, law and high-tech. "I really wouldn't want to live anywhere else."