On a recent Sunday afternoon at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange, nine children, all first-, second-, and third-graders, played board games, read stories, ran races, and discussed the holiday of Sukkot. They chattered among themselves and occasionally exhibited a little too much energy.
What made this scenario different from a typical Sunday morning in religious school? These children and their teachers — as part of Ofek school — were speaking only in Hebrew. The board game was in Hebrew, the holiday conversation was in Hebrew, even the shouts of encouragement when the children raced were in Hebrew. (There were a couple of lapses; at times, a few of the children could be heard speaking English to one another.)
For the children of native Israelis living in New Jersey, Hebrew ties them to home, to their parents, and to extended family in Israel. But even when Hebrew is spoken at home, for most of these children, the language takes them only so far. “The older they get, the more and more English they use because their vocabulary in Hebrew is so poor,” said Marina Gelfand-Kaplun of Millburn, who founded Ofek with Yasmin Ofek of New Providence, who is also on the faculty of Golda Och Academy, the Conservative day school in West Orange. (“Ofek” means horizon; the match of names is a coincidence.)
“If I were to ask them to tell me about Pokémons, or aliens…or something scientific, there’s no way they can do it in Hebrew,” said Gelfand-Kaplun. “They are smart kids and they’d rather speak the language where their vocabulary is rich and where they can express themselves.”
An estimated 300-400 Israeli families live in Essex and Morris counties. Elsewhere in the state, there are two defined communities of Israelis: a well-organized, tight-knit group in Tenafly and a second, looser one in Fair Lawn.
Gelfand-Kaplun described the Israelis living in Essex and Morris, however, as an accidental, “not looking for an Israeli community” kind of group.
According to Moshe Levi, community shaliah for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, in many cases these are people who thought they would soon return to Israel but kept staying on “just another year,” which stretched into many years; in others, they are in the United States temporarily for a job and will return when the term is completed.
Over the last few years, Gelfand-Kaplun, Ofek, and a host of other Israeli families have begun laying the foundation for a more organized expat Israeli community in this area. In addition to the Friends of Israel Scouts, also known as Tzofim — a prominent Israeli-American youth movement begun in 1995 with 20 chapters (the local chapter in West Orange began over 10 years ago and, with about 55 participants, is now well established but is among the smallest) — they have added holiday parties; Shishi Israeli, kabalat Shabbat gatherings that take place at local synagogues; a secular adult beit midrash; and Ofek, launched in September 2015 with 30 students.
The Ofek school has received support from Levi, who has given of his own time and assigned one of the shlihim (Israelis emissaries working with the Greater MetroWest community) to teach there, and the Israeli-American Council provided a grant.
Ofek rents space at the Cooperman JCC and runs two sessions there every Sunday — an early session for the older children — like the nine students mentioned above, many of whom headed off to a meeting of the Israel Scouts right from Ofek — and a later session for a younger group of 11 preschoolers and kindergartners. In its second year, the school lost nine children, due partly to families moving away — both to other parts of the United States but also back to Israel — and partly to timing.
Not all Israelis recognize the need for any Jewish identity education for their kids, and many shudder at the thought of religious education in particular. For this reason they often shun synagogue religious schools, day schools, and yeshivot.
Gelfand-Kaplun was among them. Originally from Be’er Sheva, she lived in Tel Aviv before coming to the states in 1998. All three of her children, now in 11th, sixth, and third grade, were born here. She explained that not only did she think she would return to Israel imminently, but she also had no sense of the disconnect the children of Israelis can feel from the larger Jewish community. Her husband is also Israeli.
“It took us forever to understand that we are Israelis [but] that our kids are born to us doesn’t mean they are Israelis,” she said. Secular Israelis like her, she said, resent the reach of religion in Israel society. “So once we come here, synagogue is not what we need. We are Israelis. That’s enough,” she said, clapping her hands.
“Then we have babies. Or maybe you came with some kids here. And you realize that — oops. Oops. You’re not giving them any religion, so you are not strengthening or teaching them about their Jewish identity,” Gelfand-Kaplun continued. “Celebrating Rosh Hashana, maybe have a Kiddush on Shabbat once in a blue moon, and Passover is not enough to make you feel like a Jew.”
She added, “You realize that you’ve screwed up their Jewish identity completely. They’re not Israelis, and basically they’re confused, to say the least.”
Reaching that moment of realization with her eldest led Gelfand-Kaplun to join with a group of similarly situated parents to launch Ofek.
The school largely stays away from religion as such and tackles instead fluency in Israeli culture. The curriculum includes holidays, geography, history, and government and structure of the State of Israel. They cover all this while speaking Hebrew. The goal is that while reinforcing the Hebrew, they are also creating community, which will be enough to sustain them. In creating Ofek, its founders researched many similar schools around the country, including three in Bergen County: Beit Sefer Nitzanim in Fair Lawn, Emek at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, and Bereisheet at Temple Emanu-El in Closter.
On this particular Sunday, some of the parents said they were thrilled to have found Ofek. Liron Kormas of Madison brought her daughter, Noya, five, to the school. “I’m so happy,” said Kormas. “What better way to instill Hebrew and have a whole environment of Israelis for these kids? I want her to know that she’s not the only one who speaks Hebrew at home.”
Eli Saadia of Maplewood, whose sons Idan, six, and Liad, eight, are in the school, said he and his wife were looking for an Israeli community “to provide the culture we grew up with.” They were among the first families to join Ofek, after unsuccessful attempts to find community in synagogues. “My wife — religion does not talk to her, and I did not think that’s important for my children. We have a big family in Israel and we want our children to get that experience — not just the language but the culture: the music, the food, the holidays.” He added, “I want Israel at the front, and religion in the back.”
Ofek is not an official JCC MetroWest program; still, Gelfand-Kaplun did meet with rabbis in the area before starting the school, to receive their blessing. She insisted, “We are not trying to compete with synagogue religious schools. Has v’halilah [God forbid]!”
In 2010, the JCC opened its own religious school for families with young children who were not ready to join synagogues. After area rabbis raised concerns that it was encroaching on the synagogue religious school model, it closed at the end of that year.
They do not have similar concerns about Ofek, at least according to Rabbi Clifford Kulwin of Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston. In an e-mail to NJJN, he called Ofek “lovely.” Rather than viewing it as competition for synagogue religious schools, he supports the school, he said, because it is “less supplementary Jewish education, as we traditionally understand, placed in a congregational setting, than a means for Israeli children to remain connected to their native language and culture.”
As for the larger American-Jewish community, “We don’t have a product to sell,” said Gelfand-Kaplun. The entire concept rests on the idea that parents are speaking Hebrew at home and their kids can come into an immersion program with little difficulty. Moreover, if the objective is to keep the kids speaking Hebrew, Gelfand-Kaplun said, welcoming non-Hebrew speakers would undermine their ultimate goal:
“These kids would immediately switch to English.”