Generation Bet: Just How Jewish Are the Children of Secular Israelis in America?

A new study shows Israelis abroad are fast losing their connection with the Jewish state.

Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker

NEW YORK - They have been living for many years in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco, working for or even managing business enterprises in English and their children are attending American schools. However, many of them have a hard time giving up Israeli newspapers, watching television stations that broadcast programs in Hebrew or listening to the Galgalatz radio station via the Internet. Furthermore, a good proportion of Israelis now living in the United States finds it difficult to create close social ties with Americans in general and even with Jewish Americans. To that end, some of them - even if they considered themselves totally secular back on the kibbutz or in Tel Aviv - join the synagogue near where they live.

"One of the anomalies of Zionism has been the emergence of a large Jewish Israeli community that is hostile to the religious institutions and alienated from them, but still feels deeply devoted to Judaism and Israeliness," says Gidi Grinstein, founder and president of the Tel Aviv-based Reut Institute, which works on strategic issues relating to Israeli society and Zionism, including the connection between world Jewry and the Jewish state. "However, outside of Israel, the synagogue is not just a place for worship but also a community center and a gathering place," which may help Israelis maintain their identities.

Many of those in the diaspora believe their Israeli identity is resilient and that they will be able to maintain it, even after many years abroad. However, a new study by Grinstein's nonprofit institute has found that "Israeli identity among non-Orthodox Israelis in the U.S. is fragile and quickly erodes, especially among families that send their children to non-Jewish schools and do not make the effort to observe Jewish holidays, mark the Sabbath or become members of a synagogue," he says. "Many [Israeli-born] parents only become alarmed when their children bring home non-Jewish partners."

Holon-born Grinstein, 41, has a master's degree in public administration from Harvard and has recently completed a sabbatical in Los Angeles with American Jewish University on behalf of his institute to write a book about Jewish history; he resides in Tel Aviv with his wife and five children. Between 1999 and 2001 he was secretary of the Israeli delegation responsible for negotiating on the permanent status agreement with the Palestinians in Prime Minister Ehud Barak's bureau.

"Israel may lose tens of thousands of Israelis who are living abroad, perhaps hundreds of thousands," he warns, explaining that "many of the children of secular Israelis living in the United States are moving away from Israel, from Judaism and from Hebrew and are intermarrying. Among the third generation, grandchildren of Israelis who immigrated to the United States in the 1950s, there is extensive assimilation."

The study of Israelis in the United States is part of a larger Reut Institute project dealing with the issue of Israel's future international standing. The findings, which relate among other subjects to Israeli attitudes toward the expats in America, indicate an increasing gap in general between the Jewish world and the Jewish state.

The study was conducted by a team of three institute staffers, headed by Netaly Ophir-Flint, Reut vice president. "We didn't conduct a statistical examination per se," says Ophir-Flint, "but we interviewed dozens of people in various communities in the United States, and spoke with people in Israel who are familiar with the issue. We did not focus on people who relocated for a short time for work or education in the United States, but rather on Israelis who have been in the U.S. for a few years and have de-facto emigrated, with no real intention of returning."

Despite the nonempirical approach of the team, one cannot deal with the subject of the U.S.' Israeli diaspora without some data. The precise number of members of that community has been a matter of debate for many years. "The numbers range from 400,000 to 800,000 individuals," says Grinstein. "The range is very wide and the question is how to define who is an Israeli."

For example, is an Israeli someone who holds an Israeli passport, a person who was born in Israel but lives in the United States, a Hebrew-speaker, a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, or someone who owns property in Israel? Can children or grandchildren of a person who fits one of the above definitions also be considered Israeli?

Grinstein says that with respect to the latter question, one of the main problems of "Israeliness in the diaspora" involves continued denial of the immigration reality. "Many frame their presence [in the U.S.] as relocation and not immigration for a long period of time. Practically speaking, they are living 'out of their suitcases.'" He adds, "we found that usually after eight to 12 years abroad, this pretense ends and there is an internalization of the immigration to a new country, which requires adopting a hyphenated national identity: American Israeli or Israeli American. Only a minority from within this group returns to Israel."

'Ignorance and resentment'

Grinstein notes that the prospects of Orthodox Israelis to sustain their Jewish identity and association with Israel after immigrating to the U.S. are much greater than those of a secular emigrant, because "these people are absorbed into the network of [U.S.] Orthodox communities. The secular Israelis lack the ability and the tools to link up with the Jewish community and remain detached."

Why don't secular Israelis succeed in being absorbed in the Diaspora Jewish community?

Grinstein: "The approach taken toward Israelis by the established [U.S.] Jewish communities is in some cases a combination of ignorance, arrogance, anger and resentment, which stem from significant cultural gaps. For the Americans, for example, paying membership dues to a synagogue is the expected norm. Israelis are not used to paying for such worship. There is also anger at the way Israelis will use communal services, but won't make much of a contribution in time and money to the greater community."

Israeli expats often find it hard to appreciate the importance of internal discussion within the [Jewish] community aimed at preservation of the strength and unity of the Jewish community, adds Grinstein.

"They are impatient with decision-making processes and sometimes scorn community institutions. Furthermore, most of them cannot afford Jewish education, which can amount to $25,000 a year per child, though many would like such an education. Meanwhile, enrollment in a public school is free. Those that do not contribute time and money cannot become leaders in the Jewish community and influence its priorities and course.

And the Israeli government? Where does it stand?

"The government does not have a vision and there is no strategy regarding the Israeli diaspora. Very few resources are invested in the direction of this community and the Jewish Agency is only taking its first steps in this direction. Much of the discourse revolves around whether diaspora Israelis should have a right to vote in Knesset or on repatriating them through generous government benefits. But these are very limited dimensions of the overall connection between Israel and the Israeli diaspora, and do not reflect the understanding that a vibrant Diaspora is a Zionist imperative.

"We [at the institute] are coming to the government and saying there is both a threat and an opportunity here: The threat is the possible loss of hundreds of many thousands of Israelis, some of them educated, successful and lovers of the State of Israel, who may in one or two generations fade into the non-Jewish expanse. The opportunity lies in the fact that most of this population [in the U.S.] wants to retain some of its Israeliness and to contribute to the Israeli state and Israeli society, even if from afar."

Grinstein stresses that Israeli emigrants and Jews abroad can maintain a significant relationship with Israel without living there, by means of investments, visits, buying property, acquiring Israeli art, and so on. Just as many Israelis whose lives are anchored in Israel may own property abroad or study and work there for considerable periods of time, so Jews and Israeli expats in other countries can maintain a center of their lives in Israel.

"There is an opportunity here," he asserts, "to turn the Israeli diaspora, in effect, into a bridge between Israel and the Jewish world. To produce this bridge, it is necessary to create an identity and a discourse on what we at Reut call the New Tipus of a diaspora Israeli: a person who combines within their identity the Israeli, the Jew and the American. A person who understands the implication of immigration, the need to create a hybridic American-Israeli identity for himself and his children, and who realizes that this identity has to be within the bosom of the local Jewish community in the diaspora. This means joining a synagogue and integrating into a Jewish organization, marking the Sabbath and celebrating the Jewish holidays. The new type is aware that his children are reverting to being Jews in the diaspora."

Israeli 'pioneers'

Is there any room for optimism?

"Definitely. Up until recent years, the local [Jewish community] leadership in the United States didn't see serving the Israeli community as part of its top priority. This is changing: For example, the Toronto Federation in Canada realized the potential for forging connections with the [expat] Israeli community and trying to integrate it into its institutions. In Palo Alto, California, an Israeli leadership arose that assumed certain responsibilities in local communal institutions. In Los Angeles, a body called the Israeli Leadership Council [which aims to organize the Israeli immigrants and strengthen relations with the local Jewish community] has been assuming greater responsibility for the Israeli community. Similar groups can be found in New York, Boston and Miami. They are committed and giving people who are pioneers in their field. Some of them see their mission as a kind of reserve duty.

"The main challenge with which the leadership of the Israeli community in the United States must deal with is building its institutions to ensure that the inevitable weakening of Israeli identity will occur concurrently with the creation of a stronger Jewish identity and engagement with local community institutions.""

In New York there is a very active organization called Dor Chadash (New Generation ), of expats and American Jews.

"Dor Chadash has been a visionary and a pioneer in this area by engaging and mobilizing the community in this area, and has successfully attracted large audiences. This has been very important. Our work has highlighted the need to complement such efforts with developing strong community institutions such as synagogues, youth movements, schools and old age homes."

There are also children of Israelis who are participating in the Taglit-Birthright project [which brings young Jews to Israel, virtually for free, to encourage ties with the state ; Grinstein helped develop the Birthright model in 1995-9].

"This is a very positive phenomenon. The project was aimed from the outset at young Jews who hadn't visited Israel. When Taglit was created, organizers didn't believe that Israelis who had immigrated to the U.S. would be interested in a visit to Israel within that framework. In recent years it has emerged that the second generation of Israelis is deriving tremendous benefit from the program. For the most part, on their previous visits to Israel they were with relatives. They felt estrangement, deriving from the difference between what they saw as their comfortable and 'modern' life in the United States and life in Israel, which was perceived as provincial and rough. Some of them visited family in Israel many times but were not at all familiar with its history, its landscapes, or its complexity. Thanks to Taglit they get to know Israel in depth, in the company of peers from the Diaspora and Israeli soldiers, and fall in love again."

Are those young Israelis the best potential for immigration to Israel?

"The chances that these Israelis will be disenchanted with life in the United States and repatriate to Israel are low. However, their prospects of living a life that combines Israel and the diaspora, as well as Israeliness with Jewishness, are significantly greater."

A different view

At first glance, the findings of the UJA-Federation of New York's recently published "Jewish Community Study of New York: 2011" seems to contradict those of the Reut Institute study. First of all, according to this survey - conducted by a team headed by veteran sociologist Prof. Steven M. Cohen, of H.U.C., and Dr. Jacob B. Ukeles, a consultant on policy-oriented research studies - the Jewish population in New York City, Long Island and Westchester numbers 694,000 households, up from 643,000 in 2002, and a total of 1.54 million Jews, up from 1.41 million in 2002.

The authors found that Israeli Americans are more involved in Jewish life than the average native-born Jew: 65 percent of the expats, as compared to 43 percent of the American Jews, belong to synagogues; also more Israelis than American Jews (64 percent as compared to 55 percent ) donate to U.S. Jewish organizations. They evince a commitment to Jewish life and have Jewish friends.

Reut Institute's Gidi Grinstein explains that the lack of correlation between the two studies is related to the definition of an Israeli. The Federation survey stipulated that the connotation is of a person whose mother or father was born in Israel.

"Our work," says Grinstein, "also related to second-generation families (the parents were born in the United States to immigrants from Israel but identify themselves as Israelis ), in which there is a third generation."

Grinstein notes that many ultra-Orthodox Jews who were born in Israel but have moved to the United States live in the New York area, and says the Orthodox emigrants are particularly able to create strong social relationships with Jews in the diaspora. The main challenge, he says, is maintaining the identity of secular Israelis who lack behavior patterns that help them link up with the local community.

"We have seen that Israelis of the first generation that immigrated to the United States are a relatively closed group, in which most of the members maintain close ties with Israel, speak Hebrew and link up with other Israelis in their community," says Grinstein.

"When you analyze the data in the Federation survey and subtract the Orthodox Israeli community from it, the problem of the dissipation of the secular community begins to become clear. In any case, our main contention was that there is a significant Israeli diaspora that requires serious attention, both from the State of Israel and the [U.S.] Jewish community, because it embodies a great opportunity" for enhancing relations between American Jewish communities and Israel in general.

A Celebrate Israel Parade in New York.Credit: Getty Images



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