Bringing Israelis and American Jews Together in America
By Rachel Raz
My friend Elana Markovitz approached me a few years ago at Temple Emunah, a Conservative synagogue in Lexington MA, and shared her dream to bring Israelis and American Jews together. She was frustrated that both communities reside in the same town with minimal to no interaction. She said, “I want to hear more Hebrew, I want my kids to have Israeli friends … we must do something … will you help me?”
I indeed was in a position to help. I was one of the few Israelis who dared to join an organized Jewish life. I have been a member of our Conservative synagogue since 1999. I grew up in Israel, spoke both “Israeli” and “American Jew” vernacular, and I was ready to take on this mission. I listened to Elana and agreed to try. Our first effort was Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, a community celebration. The Israelis prepared songs and dances to perform, and the American children created a beautiful art exhibit based on what they learned about Israel in religious school. We planned Israeli dancing, and Israeli food. However, the American Jews in charge of music unintentionally made a huge mistake by inviting a Klezmer group to play. The Israelis heard the Klezmer music and were immediately turned off. Klezmer is definitely not the kind of music that Israelis listen to during Yom Ha’Atzmaut. Klezmer reminds them of Europe and was everything they did not want to be, the opposite association with Israel independence.
We did not give up; I suggested trying to collaborate with the Israeli school of Lexington. It is important to bring both communities to the table to make sure we understand the cultural gaps and find common ground for collaboration. Avigail Gans, who was the Director of the Israeli School of Lexington, joined the committee. Together, we chose to start with Lag BaOmer. Lag BaOmer is a big event in Israel even with secular Israelis. It takes place outdoors, has no religious ritual, and is the perfect opportunity to bring American Jews and Israeli Jews together. We formed a committee with members from each of the two communities. We divided responsibilities, selected activities, songs, food etc. A few days before the event the committee received an email from one of the organizers announcing that everything for the “fire pit” was ready. The small scale of a “fire pit” would not be sufficient, since Israeli Lag BaOmer is about a huge bonfire, not about a small fire pit. I met with one of our Rabbis to share my concerns and I walked with him outdoors to suggest the location for the huge bonfire. He listened and agreed. He even called the fire department about a permit, and obtained wood from Craig’s list. The Israelis brought more wood, potatoes, bows and arrows and it was a true celebration. Now four years later, the Lag BaOmer celebration has become a tradition in our community with hundreds of participants, both Israelis and American Jews.
Over the years we have witnessed how these interactions enriched each other’s Jewish experiences. For example, the Israelis learn from American Jews how to raise Jewish families in a country in which they are the minority and follow the Gregorian calendar, and the American Jewish community benefits from immersion in the Hebrew language and gaining personal connections to Israel.
This year, Temple Emunah worked with the Israeli community to jointly commemorate Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen IDF soldiers and victims of terror. Over eighty people were in attendance and it was a deeply moving and meaningful program for both the Israelis and Americans in attendance.
Temple Emunah and the Israeli community have made significant progress in bringing the two communities together through joint community celebrations. We are now working together to expand this effort with new leadership from the Israeli community. After graduating from the Israeli American Council (IAC) “Gvanim” leadership program, Avigail Gans has taken it upon herself to extend and deepen this collaboration between the Israelis and the American Jewish communities.
“How good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together” (Psalm 133)
Rachel Raz is a member of, Temple Emunah, (Lexington MA) and has served on its Israel Action Committee for over a decade. Rachel serves as the Director of the Early Childhood Institute of Hebrew College and is an active participant of the Israel American Council (IAC) of Boston.
Elana Markovitz is a member at Temple Emunah. She is the daughter of an Israeli father and Jewish American mother. She is a member of the CJP Boston Haifa Living Bridges Committee and volunteers in many programs to bring Israelis and American Jews together.
Avigail Gans is a recent graduate of the “Gvanim,” leadership program of the Israeli American Council (IAC). She is former Director of the Israeli School of Lexington and currently serves as a member of the CJP (Combined Jewish Philanthropies) Boston-Haifa Living Bridges Committee.