When a group of Israelis living in the Riverdale section of the Bronx tried to organize a community bonfire to celebrate the holiday of Lag B’Omer three years ago, the first response they encountered was surprise at the custom, largely unknown to American Jews.
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When the Israelis explained that they wanted to celebrate the holiday just like they did back home — where the summer sky fills with smoke, and families spend the evening around the bonfire — wheels began to turn.
The Riverdale Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association took on the task, cleared its parking lot, overcame fire ordinance restrictions and, with the funding of the New York Jewish federation, arranged for the first Lag B’Omer community bonfire, in May 2010. It has since become a tradition, drawing not only Israeli Americans, but other Jews, as well.
“Israelis are becoming a force in the community,” said Hadas Oded, who heads the Riverdale Y Israel program. “People understand that Israelis are a group that needs to be attended to.”
The Riverdale scenario could not have taken place a decade ago, when Israelis who immigrated to the United States limited their public activity to living room gatherings on Friday nights and the occasional Israeli folk dance get-together. Nor could the established Jewish community, which viewed the Israeli newcomers as detached from the broader Jewish American experience, have met it with such a welcoming approach.
Now, American Jews are discovering Israeli expatriates at the same time that those Israeli immigrants are overcoming deep-seated feelings of guilt for leaving their county. This combination has led to a flurry of activity, fueled by a fresh flow of philanthropic dollars that is aimed at getting Israeli Americans more involved in the American Jewish community.
“Israelis aren’t half as bad as people say they are,” joked David Mallach, managing director of the Commission on the Jewish People at UJA-Federation of New York. Mallach oversees many of the programs for the local Israeli American community. More seriously, he said, “Israelis are an asset to the Jewish community.”
This view has led local synagogues and community centers to create special programs for Hebrew-speaking members and has put Israelis in the United States, for the first time, on the radar screen of the organized Jewish world. The outreach effort is shaped by the unique sensitivities of Israelis. Programs are conducted in Hebrew; religious elements are set aside in favor of a focus on Israeli and Jewish culture, and many activities take place outside the established world of Jewish groups and organizations that are alien to most Israelis.
Attention to American Jews of Israeli origin could seem disproportionate given their relatively small numbers. According to the recent Pew Research Center survey, only 4% of American Jews were either born in Israel or have at least one parent who was born there. This makes for less than 300,000 Israeli Americans living in the United States. A study of the New York area Jewish community, conducted in 2011, found that 6% of the area’s Jewish families have at least one member of Israeli origin. This figure roughly conforms to the Pew national finding.