According to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, an estimated 20,000 Israelis leave the country each year to live abroad, while between 7,000 and 10,000 return each year. While the government has long been disappointed by “yerida” — the often disparaging term for this out-migration — that is still a considerably low rate for a country of nearly eight million faced with constant security threats, economic challenges, and relative isolation from the Western countries it most closely resembles.
American-Jewish organizations have always been ambivalent about Israelis who are living in America, and as a result were reluctant to offer services that acknowledged this mobility. But that seems to be changing. As Johanna Ginsberg notes in this week’s cover story, local and national Jewish organizations and major philanthropists are taking notice of Israelis here and their need to connect with Jewish communities. The Israeli American Council is expanding in order to “build an engaged and united Israeli-American community that strengthens our next generations, the American-Jewish community, and the State of Israel.” Community centers and synagogues are offering services and programs that connect Israelis to Judaism on their own terms.
With Israel under attack from the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, American Jews who have roots in Israel are being seen as an enormous asset. “I think the Israeli people are best equipped to communicate the truth about Israel, because they are not naive like many in the American-Jewish community,” Adam Milstein, one of IAC’s founders, told JNS.org. “They know the Israeli people, they know that we have very high standards of human rights and freedom, they know the propaganda war of Hamas and Iran.”
Jewish leaders are reaching out to Israelis here, not as a rebuke to Israel or Zionism, but because to do otherwise is decidedly un-Jewish. They say that ignoring any Jew’s impulse to engage with their people is a waste of a valuable community resource. The new Israeli outreach programs are often directed at the children of immigrants and help strengthen their identity both as Jews and Israelis. And American Jewry benefits from the influence of the Israelis in their midst, who bring first-hand experience of living in Israel and help form the human bridge between their Jewish community and this one.