Building People-to-People Bridges: Connecting Israelis and American Jews

Israeli MIT Sloan students Kfir and Eitan with Dan Rea, talk show host of Nightside, May, 2016
Israeli MIT Sloan students Kfir and Eitan with Dan Rea, talk show host of Nightside, May, 2016

By Ruth Kaplan and Elana Markovitz

In every large urban area, there are Israelis in our midst – thousands of them. The numbers in Greater Boston for example are estimated to be in the 25,000 range. In addition, there are always Israelis coming and going – for a year or two, for graduate school, for a post-Doctorate.

So why is there so little connection between them and us, the American Jewish community?

There are indeed many reasons: for starters, synagogues are anathema to most secular Israelis. Because of the perceived coercion of the religious authorities in Israel, most Israelis are actually uncomfortable even stepping foot into a synagogue. They cannot grasp the fact that for many American Jews, a synagogue is primarily a communal gathering place, even during prayer services. They simply cannot relate this to their own experience. And the American Jews have trouble understanding that.

Moreover, most Israelis are very insular. If they are here to stay, they are more comfortable being with fellow Israelis. If they are here on a temporary basis, they do not typically seek to form short-term friendships, and besides, for the most part, very few members of the Jewish community reach out to them, so it is no wonder they do not find the community welcoming.

And then there is the elephant in the room: the cultural differences between Americans and Israelis. They are real, let’s face it. Israelis are very direct and Americans more diplomatic and polite. Americans can be offended by their direct, abrupt style, while Israelis often don’t trust the “niceness” of Americans and can find them to be insincere and fake. They are confused by American mores.

The sad thing about this gap is that so many American Jews love and support Israel. They travel there and find meaning in so doing, yet are missing the opportunity to actually get to know the Israelis in their midst. It’s a two-way missed opportunity, as Israelis have so much to learn from our pluralistic Jewish community as well. And not every American Jew can afford to travel to Israel on a frequent basis, or at all.

So let me tell you about some of the efforts that we have undertaken in Boston as volunteers to reach out to Israelis, and in so doing, to bring Israel into our midst. For the past four years, we have hosted Israeli mid-career professionals who come for a year to study at Harvard Kennedy School of Government as Wexner Foundation Israel Fellows. What do we mean by hosting? When the eight or so fellows arrive in Cambridge in the summer, we each invite them and their children to our homes for a Shabbat meal. That way we welcome them warmly from the start. Throughout the year, we continue to meet them for lunch and coffee, attend their lectures at local area synagogues, advise them regarding additional speaking opportunities, welcome them into our synagogues (even to deliver D’vrei Torah!), and most importantly help them to process their experiences with both the American Jewish community and the broader community. When we go to Israel, we re-unite with these amazing Israeli leaders, who have now become our lifelong friends. But they are more than friends – they are partners in strengthening Israel-Diaspora relations. Since we have such a strong people to people connection that we continue to nurture, we anticipate that our partnership will continue to flourish with many unanticipated ripple effects.

But that is not all. We have also reached out to the cohort of Israeli graduate students at the MIT Sloan School, as well as other area educational institutions, and matched them with local families in the area so as to increase these very necessary connections. We very much wish to share our own rich experiences of meaningful people to people connections with Israelis who spend time among us. Recently, we arranged for two of the Sloan students to appear on the locally acclaimed “Nightside with Dan Rea” radio show. Thousands of listeners nationwide listened as these two former IDF commanders and officers explained the extraordinary measures Israel takes to protect civilian life and the high ethical standards practiced by the IDF.

What is at stake here? Nothing less than the future of the Jewish people. Israelis and American Jews need to know and understand each other. There are so many opportunities in our midst to build these bridges and shape our Jewish/Israeli future. There is a very strong need for our community to develop programs to deepen the ties between the people of Israel in our midst and the Jewish people of the Diaspora. Promising programs are just beginning to develop within CJP and the Israeli American Council to address this gap. These efforts are really important and cannot come soon enough.

“If not now, when?”

Ruth Kaplan and Elana Markovitz live in Brookline and Lexington, MA, respectively. Ruth is the former Director of the CJP Boston-Haifa Connection and is currently a free-lance consultant on Israel programs. Elana works at an independent school, and has been volunteering with Jewish and Israel focused organizations for many years. Elana’s dad is Israeli and Ruth’s dad was an ardent Zionist who loved to host Israelis in their Brookline home.