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Israeli Americans feeling at home abroad
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Israeli Americans feeling at home abroad

With grassroots energy, immigrants are starting to organize and engage

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Aya Izraely-Levi has been organizing events for Israelis in the area. 
Aya Izraely-Levi has been organizing events for Israelis in the area. 

Hanukka party for Israelis living in the area, to take place Saturday evening, Dec. 20, at the Leon and Toby Cooperman JCC, has been a long time in the making — about 10 years, to be exact.

In 2004, Aya Izraely-Levi and her husband, Micha Levi, both Israelis, moved to Montclair after stints in Ann Arbor, Mich., where they were graduate students, and San Francisco, where they held their first professional positions. They moved to Montclair to raise their three children. 

They settled in and made friends, but, they realized, they weren’t meeting any other Israelis. 

“We wanted a community to belong to. We wanted something to connect us to Israel socially and educationally for our kids,” she told NJJN over coffee and sandwiches at the Red Eye Cafe in Montclair. “We wanted them to belong, to have Israeli life experiences, and not just speak the language of their parents.”

Until recently, that was a familiar story for the 500,000 to 800,000 (estimates vary widely) Israelis living in the United States. Jewish organizations, either uncomfortable with the idea of Israelis leaving the Jewish homeland or simply unfamiliar with their brand of Jewishness, did little specific programming for Israelis. 

Israelis melted into their adoptive hometowns, but often with little connection to the organized local Jewish community. Sometimes they found other Israelis; sometimes they didn’t. But there was no one, officially, to reach out to.

“For years, Israelis were treated as wrong to have left Israel,” said Moshe Levi, the shaliah, or Israel emissary, for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ. “The only question shlihim or the Jewish Agency for Israel would answer were questions on aliya,” or immigration to Israel. “Israelis were left on their own.”

But that attitude has changed. 

In 2012, the Israel-based Jewish Agency added “strengthening Israeli communities abroad” to its mission. It began training its emissaries to reach out to local Israeli communities — so much so that Levi now views interacting with local Israelis as an integral part of his job. 

“If we don’t talk to them, we’ll lose them,” he said. 

In the meantime, Israelis began creating their own organizations. Moatza Mekomit was launched in the spring of 2013 at the 92nd Street Y in New York City as an umbrella organization for Israelis living in New York City. The Israeli-American Council was established in Los Angeles in 2007; in 2013, with the financial backing of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, it started expanding around the country. 

In November, the IAC announced the opening of an office in Paramus, headed by Shai Nemesh, who formerly recruited Israelis for Jewish summer camps. IAC estimates that there are 30,000 Israelis living in New Jersey.

“There’s a very strong Israeli-American presence in New Jersey and a growing desire for local programs that directly address their needs,” IAC’s chief executive officer Sagi Balasha said in a statement. “By opening a new local IAC chapter in the Garden State, we can serve this important population by meeting them where they are, just as we have in other centers of the Israeli-American community nationwide.”

Locally, Izraely-Levi was doing her own community organizing.

It started with a move that not many non-Orthodox Israelis would consider. After concluding that there really was no way to connect locally with Israelis, she and her husband joined a synagogue. It was only after “a lot, a lot, a lot of hesitation,” she said, that they joined Bnai Keshet, the Reconstructionist synagogue in Montclair. 

“It became a very significant community in our lives,” she said. She eventually joined the board, and then introduced the idea of a Merkaz Israeli (Israeli Center) three years ago. Bnai Keshet agreed to invest in it. 

More than 100 people showed up for their first program, a Friday evening “Kabalat Shabbat Israelit.” She said she was happy to have the help of the federation shlihim who preceded Moshe Levi in planning and executing the evening.

She’s held similar kabalat Shabbat events several times, along with a few other “one-off” programs. The rishonim — young Israeli emissaries from the federation’s Israel Program Center — have come to do programming with the congregation’s teens. And as the synagogue’s religious school was re-envisioned, Izraely-Levi was able to have some input in creating more portals for Israeli families, like a focus on conversational Hebrew. 

The Merkaz Israeli at first added “Montclair” to its name to make it clear that its programs and events were open to all Israelis, not just Bnai Keshet members. In September, it extended its reach again, to become the Merkaz Israeli-MetroWest NJ. Although not officially part of the GMW federation, the name seemed appropriate, according to Izraely-Levi. “Bnai Keshet still supports it, but sees it as something that is indeed beyond members, about reaching out to the Israeli community, connecting to and supporting it,” she said.

The Hanukka party on Dec. 20 at JCC MetroWest in West Orange will be the first program held outside of Bnai Keshet. It is being cohosted by the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life along with the Israel Program Center, both associated with the federation. The party will offer a sing-along and arts and crafts projects for children, conversation and sufganiyot for adults, and opportunities for teens to volunteer to help with the younger children. Running from 5-7 p.m., it will also offer Havdala and a hanukkia lighting. The event is open to the community; donations of $10 will be requested.

Other efforts for Israeli immigrants are becoming more visible. Many local Israelis have their kids participate in Friends of Tzofim, the Israeli Scouts. The Friends organization was established in the United States in 1995 to strengthen the bonds between teens from Israel and their American peers; there are chapters in Tenafly, Fair Lawn, and West Orange. About 50 youngsters participate in the West Orange chapter, about 300 scouts altogether in New Jersey, according to Marina Gelfand-Kaplun, whose children participate and who has led the West Orange group with Roey Harel on a volunteer basis for the last three years. 

Gelfand-Kaplun, who, like Izraely-Levi, came from Israel to the United States as a graduate student and stayed to raise a family, said she also found it hard to find Israeli connections for her children. 

When IAC held its first meeting of 700 Israelis in New Jersey in November 2013, Gelfand-Kaplun and Harel attended. They started as skeptics of the organization’s intentions. 

“We’re all volunteers, and what we do comes from the heart. We didn’t want someone coming in and taking away our power and telling us what to do,” said Gelfand-Kaplun. “But after the meeting, I realized it’s about bringing people together and celebrating our Israeli identity, and now I’m feeling positive.” 

She added, “From what I understand, IAC is trying to put us all under one umbrella so we can cooperate to create something better.”

Izraely-Levi is more focused on her own local efforts than on IAC, and she is now considering submitting requests for grants to IAC.

“If they will support more activities — great!” she said. “I’m sure what we want to do will align really nicely, and that will be a good opportunity to collaborate.”

In the meantime, she said, she would like to provide more consistent, regular programming and have other people step up to take on leadership roles. To that end, she has been brainstorming with Moshe Levi, the shaliah, and she has sent out a survey to learn more about what local Israelis want. Wherever she finds a critical mass of people with similar ideas, she hopes she will be able to provide programming. 

So far, she sees a lot of interest in Hebrew language activities — for kids and adults. The more opportunities for her kids to engage, she said, the more likely they will be to retain and embrace their Israeli identities.

“It’s an interesting time for Israelis here,” she said.

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