May 23, 2024
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An Endangered Species: The Children of Israeli Yordim

Large numbers of Israelis live in Bergen County, especially in Tenafly and Fair Lawn. Israelis have settled in very large numbers in many countries outside of Israel. The reasons for this yerida are complex and are not my focus at this time. My concern is our failure as a community to successfully reach out to these families in a meaningful way. The outreach of which I am speaking is much more nuanced than a Yom Ha’atzmaut program, Tzofim, Israeli dancing or falafel restaurants.

Most Israeli adults have fully integrated themselves into our American culture. They have built businesses and became educated, and their children are full-fledged Americans. Most identify as secular and send their children to public schools. The parents speak Hebrew at home, to their children and to their friends, read Israeli newspapers, watch Israeli television, eat Israeli foods and maintain a vague Israeli identity, even to the point of claiming (often after many years in this country) that they are going back to Israel. Their children, however, are fully Americanized. They are no longer in Israel, which provides its citizenry with some formless Jewish identity by osmosis. Their Jewish life, identity and culture are at risk.

Most Jews who are interested in maintaining their Jewish identity affiliate with synagogues and send their children to Jewish schools. Secular Israelis do not attend synagogues regularly, neither here nor in Israel. They are for the most part anti-religion. Israelis in the diaspora maintain some aspects of their “cultural” heritage through interactions with other Israelis, and by gathering for events such as Israel Independence Day. However, this Israeli “culture” such as it is does not always trickle down to the second generation, and does not serve as a safeguard against extensive assimilation. We have not begun to address this population’s Jewish needs and are not sure how to do so.

It may be an overgeneralization, but most secular Israelis conflate Jewish identity with Israeli identity. This problem is being approached in Israel by Gesher, The Sholom Hartman Institute, Oranim College, Ellul and on occasion by the Ministry of Education, depending on the party in power. [Full disclosure: Twelve years ago I participated in developing a Jewish Identity curriculum to be team taught by a secular and religious teacher in selected middle schools in Israel sponsored by Oranim and The Ministry of Education.]

Some Israeli parents are concerned by the total assimilation of their children, despite occasional trips back to Israel. When I worked at the UJA as Director of Jewish Educational Services, we tried on several occasions to start an after school-program that would focus on Israeli culture, Hebrew language, current events etc. It never got off the ground. Despite assurances that there would be no religious indoctrination, and despite parental frustration that their children no longer shared their values, we could not get this program started. There is an Israeli gan in the community and there was an Israeli supplementary school. But there is still nothing for Israeli middle school and high school students. We have the excellent Bergen County High School for Jewish Studies, but very few students there are Israeli. Students come from the various synagogue schools in the community, but since secular Israelis do not affiliate, they do not continue on.

I was sensitized to this problem on a trip I led to Israel many years ago with high school students from the Jewish Student Union (a Jewish culture club in local public high schools), BCHSJS and the now-defunct Bergen Academy For Reform Judaism. An Israeli teen brought his tefillin for the non-mandatory davening in the mornings. When I offered him a siddur he told me he could not read Hebrew! Here was an Israeli kid, who spoke Hebrew at home but could not read Hebrew. In addition, despite prior trips to Israel to visit family, this was his first time in Jerusalem.

We need to engage secular Israelis on their own terms, and engage them in the Jewish community and Jewish life. We have many talented and Jewishly committed Israelis teaching in our day schools. Perhaps synagogues and the UJA are the wrong venues. Can we open a day school-based program specifically for the children of self-identifying secular Israelis? It may sound like a charter school, but would be an after-school program. We can staff the program with Jewishly committed Israeli teachers and teach about Jewish and Israeli life, about which, to their parents’ chagrin, they know almost nothing. It’s worth a try.

Sufficient funding will become available to retain children as part of the Jewish people and engage them in Jewish life. The children of these Israeli Jews are assimilating at an alarming rate. It happens as they finish high school and go to college in the U.S. with almost no Jewish knowledge, identity or practice. Our community hosts secular educators from Nahariya, our twin community in Israel, annually. A number of years ago on such a visit they were most impressed that students in the Reform and Conservative synagogue schools knew what a siddur was, knew what a synagogue was and knew about Shabbat and holidays. Sadly, their Israeli students did not. [This led to a project of studying parshat hashavua with local yeshivat hesder students.]

We can help keep these parents and their children as part of the Jewish people and connected to Yiddishkeit. It can be done since Israelis already have strong Jewish connections and Jewish memories. We must put our resources toward this challenge. We must engage Israelis and understand their culture and needs. It will soon be too late for the next generation.

By Wallace Greene

 Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as an educator. He developed many innovative programs in this community and was instrumental in creating many programs with the schools in Nahariya, Israel.

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