Community in Translation: Israelis and Americans Find a Common Language in Brooklyn

by Yehudit Feinstein-Mentesh

In the beginning, I was overwhelmed – but then again, what new mother isn’t? I had twin boys, and it took me almost a year just to figure out how to get the two of them out of the house. I would take them to a local sing-along, and though my boys had a great time listening to the music, for the first time in my decade in America I felt totally lost.

I moved to New York from Israel to attend art school. Part of what I loved about the States was the sense of freedom and independence that came with being away from my small Israeli community. But after I got married and had kids, I had other things to consider. Motherhood brought with it an urge to connect to other people who were similar to me. I found myself craving that very same community I had left. I’d go to these sing-alongs, but I didn’t know the songs. Old MacDonald meant nothing to me. I didn’t know why a spider would ever want to climb up a water spout – or even what the point of a water spout was. I wanted my sons to be in a Hebrew environment – one that I would be familiar with – and I couldn’t find it.

So, I decided to make it myself. My husband suggested that I start a Google group – to send out an invitation to a few friends, and ask them to forward it along. I sent it to five people. By the next morning, 30 people had joined the group. Within a few weeks, I decided to try hosting an event. My good friend Rabbi Andy Bachman, to whom I’d poured out my woes of lack of community, had promised me that if I ever needed it, I could use space at his synagogue, Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn. So I planned an indoor picnic in April and 30 people showed up. Thirty people, many of whom were crying by the end, not because they didn’t like the food, but because they too had that same need for community that hadn’t previously been fulfilled.

At the same time, I was preoccupied with how to define my own identity as an Israeli living in Brooklyn, as well as a mother. I read a book by Dr. Udi Zomer about Israelis living in the U.S. and it felt like he was speaking precisely to my experience. I invited Dr. Zomer to facilitate a workshop for my growing group of friends, who were all hungry to talk about their dilemmas, fears, and longing that comes with living so far away from family and community. During the workshop we learned that we needed to give our kids some sense of Israeli culture, to help them form their own rich and complex identity that was different from our own. I went out to dinner with a few moms that night and we decided to start something big. With the support of Congregation Beth Elohim, Rabbi Bachman, and these other parents, we founded Keshet: Kehillah, Safa, Tarbut – Community, Language, and Culture.

Keshet is a Hebrew-immersion Israeli education program that takes place after school for children ages 4-11. Its corollary, Keshetot, which was established with generous support from UJA Federation of New York, is for children ages 0-4 and meets every other Sunday morning – parents included. These programs are the first of their kind, certainly in Brooklyn and possibly across the U.S. Keshet meets weekly to explore aspects of Israeli identity, Jewish values, and holidays, all with a unique Israeli spin. With art, music, stories, and games, kids delve into the beauty of Israeli culture, folklore, and history. Our goal is to help our children develop a love of and pride in their Israeli heritage and a desire to become lifelong learners. We believe that this doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it’s important to us that our community is not just the children, but their families, too.

Soon, we found that families who enrolled in Keshet and Keshetot were hungry for even more. So we started hosting events, including holiday celebrations and an Israeli-style Kabbalat Shabbat. Meanwhile, our Google group had exploded, and people wanted more materials online, so we created a website with Hebrew blogs about living in the U.S., along with a marketplace section and information about our programs.

With our growth came even more surprising results, and suddenly we were adding a new group to our community: Americans. Congregants from Beth Elohim and local community members were interested in and passionate about Israeli culture, Hebrew, history, and community. We started opening our doors to these Americans, and we found our programs changing for the better. It wasn’t just about Israelis anymore, but about a connection to Israel, Hebrew, culture, and identity. Now we have many families involved who aren’t there because they’re Israeli, but because they want their kids to get an authentic slice of Israel, right here in New York.

What was once a small community of Israelis in Brooklyn is now stronger because of our interactions with non-Israelis who also want to celebrate Hebrew and Israeli culture. It’s no coincidence that the Israelis in Brooklyn logo is a tree – we believe that we must take root in our community, while branching out to others. We aspire to create a unique and inclusive Jewish experience for people of all sorts of different backgrounds, and are proud to say that we’ve also become a home for unaffiliated and interfaith families. We are grateful to all those that helped us get to this point, and believe that we can serve as an example to other potential communities across the country, as we branch out and continue to create more programs for families in the United States who want to feel connected to Israel.

Yehudit Feinstein-Mentesh is the Revson Fellow for Israeli Community Engagement and Keshet Program Director at Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn, New York.