The New Jew

For Diaspora Week, Israelis learn about their slightly alien brethren across the ocean

Creator of a mini-series on American Jewry and activist Moshe Samuels impresses upon Zichron Yaakov crowd the importance of Israel-Diaspora connection, warns of growing rift

Roughly two dozen people gathered in the lone Masorti synagogue in the Israeli coastal town of Zichron Yaakov on Wednesday night to learn about something most of them already knew about intimately: American Jewry.

The meetup was part of a weeklong series of events throughout the country as part of national Diaspora Week, which was organized by the Jewish Agency, Gesher, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry and the National Alliance Strengthening Israelis’ Connection to World Jewry.

The events covered a broad range of topics about Diaspora Jewry, from the music of Leonard Cohen to the experiences of Jewish Agency shlichim, or emissaries, and the burning question of whether or not Spiderman is Jewish. Though the series was called “The People at the Bar,” many of the events were in fact held in teetotaling community centers.

Indeed, save for mint tea and instant coffee, no beverages were to be found in Zichron Yaakov’s Kehillat Ve’ahavta, which hosted Moshe Samuels, a longtime activist on the Israel-Diaspora scene and the creator of a four-part mini-series about American Jewry, “HaYehudi HaChadash” – “The New Jew” – which was funded in part by the Ruderman Family Foundation, the Maimonides Fund, Jim Joseph Foundation, UJA-Federation of New York and the Jewish Agency, and was aired on Israel’s Kan public broadcaster in 2021. (Unfortunately, it cannot yet be streamed in the U.S.)

The audience included American immigrants and some native-born Israelis who had spent an extended period of time in the U.S., along with some who hadn’t done so themselves but had close family living there.

Samuels, who was born in the U.S. but moved to Israel at a young age, now runs an organization called Shazur, literally meaning interwoven, which educates Israelis about “dynamic Jewish life around the globe, especially in North America” This is primarily through trips to the United States for various Israeli groups and organizations, from schools to government ministries, but also includes shorter programs within Israel in which participants “encounter expressions of Jewish peoplehood locally.” According to Samuels, Shazur does not rely on donations but instead acts as a service provider, getting paid a fee to organize and run the trips.

“Most of my career, I did Israel education, teaching Jews from the Diaspora about Israel. But in recent years, there’s a feeling that there is a crisis that is worsening between Israel and liberal American Jews, who account for 75% of the Jewish population of the United States,” Samuels told the crowd.

Relying on segments from his show, Samuels described an American Jewry that is profoundly different from, possibly even alien to, Israelis. It is a group that is more universalist, who define their Jewishness by things like a commitment to social justice, a good sense of humor and intellectual curiosity, rather than religious practice or belief, according to a Pew study Samuels cited during his presentation.

Comparing Jews in America to Jews in Israel, Samuels said that for the former being Jews is one part of the “mosaic” of their identity, while for the latter it is “the background that the mosaic rests on. It’s always there.” (He also noted that when secular Israeli Jews relocate to the U.S. and lose that background, they are often more likely to lose their connection to their Jewish identity than their American-born counterparts.)

One clip from the show about an Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity in Boulder, Colo., that elicited groans and chuckles of discomfort from the audience showed the Jewish college students describing the complexities of Israel’s conflict with the “Pakistanis” (sic). When the presenter of the show, comedian Guri Alfi, tried to get them to say a prayer before eating decidedly nonkosher pepperoni pizza, the fraternity members began reciting what appeared to be the only prayer they knew by heart: the one for lighting a Hanukkah menorah, “lehadlik ner shel… pizza.”

But after chuckling at their ignorance, Samuels instructed the crowd to consider the fact that despite not knowing much about Israel or Judaism, despite being free to join any fraternity on campus, these young American Jews decided to set themselves apart, to seek out their coreligionists and to take part in an organization that is explicitly Jewish. Samuels stressed to the Israeli audience not to belittle the significance of being a “Jew by choice.”

Samuels, who is now working on a second season of the show, said he was particularly concerned by the growing divide between American and Israeli Jews, which he warned was potentially reaching a breaking point because of the current tensions in Israel.

“Unfortunately, today we are in the midst of perhaps the worst crisis with American Jewry,” Samuels said. “It doesn’t matter what your political affiliation is or who you support or don’t support, you should know that one of the consequences of what is happening in Israel today is a tremendous disconnect with American Jews, not with the far-left extreme, but with the mainstream, Zionist Israel-lovers who give money to Jewish institutions and federations. We need to think seriously about how to preserve this connection.”

He warned: “A messy divorce would be a tragedy.”