Israeli-Americans Can Bridge Growing Gaps in the Jewish World

Presenters at an IAC Eitanim Hackathon in Boston; photo by Sivan Lahav Photography.

By Barry Shrage

Many of us who care about the Jewish future are deeply concerned about the growing gap between Israelis and American Jews. In polls and public statements, opinion pieces and Shabbat table conversations, observers are pointing to increasing tension between the two great pillars of global Jewry today.

As President of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston (CJP) I believe more deeply than ever that Israelis and American Jews need each other, perhaps more than ever before.

Instead of standing on the sidelines and observing this trend – or even worse, widening our divides – Jewish institutions have a responsibility to look for new ways to bridge gaps and build understanding between Israelis and American Jews. The Jewish future depends on it.

At the heart of any strategy to bridge the gap must be mifgash, real engagement and real relationships between American Jews and Israelis. This truth is clear from our actual experience here in Boston seeing how our Boston Haifa connection has transformed our Boston Jewish community and also the lives of many of our Haifa partners.

But over the past four years, CJP has begun to leverage a potentially more powerful (and more local!) mifgash for bringing American Jews (and non-Jews as well) closer to Israel: Israeli-Americans.

For decades, most Israeli-Americans existed on the periphery of Jewish life in the U.S. Federations, JCC’s, and synagogues had little success attracting them to programming or engaging them as part of our community.

In the past ten years, this paradigm has shifted in large part because of the work of the Israeli-American Council (IAC), which has unified a national Israeli-American community through its own programming and joint efforts with partners in American Jewish institutions, including CJP.

Working with the IAC, we have been able to bring Israeli-Americans into Jewish life in Boston like never before. The partnership has given us access to a new community that now represents more than 10 percent of our area’s Jewish population. More importantly, it has demonstrated that connecting Israeli-Americans and Jewish-Americans can greatly enrich the Jewish experience of both groups.

Boston’s experience with Israeli-Americans is replicable, as has been demonstrated in the new partnerships that IAC has built in many communities across the country. I believe that there are at least four important principles our American Jewish institutions should deploy in effectively partnering with the Israeli-American community.

First, engage IsraeliAmericans on their terms. For years, American Jewish leaders unsuccessfully tried to fit Israeli-Americans into our box of existing programming or looked to this group solely as a source of fundraising. They didn’t account for the complexities, challenges, and preferences of Israeli-Americans – driven by the community’s history and hybrid identity. The IAC has changed the game.

We have built a successful partnership with IAC by letting IsraeliAmericans develop programming that speaks to their unique needs and leverages their unique capabilities – and then providing Federation resources and knowhow to help make these programs successful not just for Israeli-Americans, but also the wider community.

For instance, in Boston, the IAC partners with us to organize the Celebrate Israel festival. Drawing on their unique knowledge of and passion for Israeli culture, IAC has created a dynamic and fun-filled event that re-creates the experience of being in Israel – with food, music, art, and thousands of Israelis! – unlike anything we have ever had in Boston. It now attracts more than 3,000 visitors, 100 volunteers, and more than 30 community partners, including Jewish day schools, synagogues, and arts and culture organizations. Other American Jewish organizations are partnering with the IAC in more than 15 cities with similar success.

Second, embrace IsraeliAmericans as a means to teach the value of Jewish peoplehood.

Many in the American Jewish community have long assumed that education is the key to ensuring Jewish identity. While critically important, Jewish education without a strong connection to the Jewish people lacks purpose and stickiness. If you don’t understand how you fit into the Jewish story and how you are connected to the Jewish people, why bother to study Judaism at all? Why not chose to engage with one of the thousands of other dynamic cultures that exist in American society? Considering that half of American Jews come from interfaith households – with many potential cultural identities – this question is critically important.

Israeli-Americans can fill this gap. They are uniquely familiar with the notion and value of Jewish peoplehood, as they come from a society where Judaism is rooted in life itself, the calendar, the language, the culture, and the rhythm of daily routine, whether their grandparents came from Belarus, Bombay, or Baghdad.

We know that an Israel experience has a transformational impact on Jewish identity. We’ve always known the power of missions to Israel and programs like Birthright are critical to the Jewish engagement of the next generation. We have seen that engagement with Israeli Americans can also provide a gateway to Jewish peoplehood.

For instance, in Boston, the IAC’s Eitanim program uses Israeli-style project-based learning and the example and inspiration of Israeli entrepreneurs to teach leadership and other skills to prepare middle and high school students for college and life. Jewish-Americans – not from Israeli parents – now comprise 30 percent of the rapidly growing program.

When visiting Eitanim “hackathons” – a centerpiece of the program, where students gather for an intense multi-day project to propose solutions a pressing issue, ranging from water scarcity to Jewish education to fighting BDS – I get the same sense that I do when visiting a Birthright bus. Immersed in Israeli culture and surrounded by Israeli-American peers, Jewish American teens begin to connect with the broader Jewish people – and their own identity – in new ways.

Third, empower IsraeliAmericans as advocates. There is no one who can tell Israel’s story in America better than Israeli-Americans, offering unique fluency in both cultures and a wealth of personal anecdotes to share about Israel. The Israeli-American community has emerged in recent years in our region as a passionate and effective advocacy force, whether that is by mobilizing hundreds of advocates to speak out against vile anti-Israel comments that Roger Waters made at a local concert, to helping to stop the progress of a BDS resolution in Cambridge, to creating pro-Israel programming on college campuses.

Fourth, dont be afraid to engage IsraeliAmericans in religious life. For years, the conventional wisdom was the secular Israelis had no interest in setting foot in a synagogue. The truth is Israelis and Israeli-Americans have much to gain from exposure to American Jewry when it comes to exploring spirituality and religious pluralism – and they are interested in exploring.

Without the domination of the Rabbinate – which drives most religious life in Israel – I have found that Israelis and Israeli-Americans often expand their ideas of Jewish spirituality – and develop a more significant relationship to Judaism – after their time in America, whether that is by joining a non-Orthodox synagogue, studying with a female rabbi, appreciating a woman cantor, participating in an independent minyan, or taking their children to school at a non-Orthodox synagogue. The IAC has helped to facilitate this engagement for Israeli Americans in Jewish life in America.

Israeli-Americans now present a once-in-a-generation opportunity for our Jewish institutions. By making a nationwide effort to engage this unique and growing community, we Strengthen our Jewish life, our relationship to Israel, and our common future.

Barry Shrage is the President of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston.