Israeli Cultural Centers Sweep Through North America

by Abigail Pickus

Eight years ago, Jennie Starr started an Israeli playgroup in her hometown of San Diego to teach her daughter Hebrew and expose her to Israeli culture.

Today, Starr’s playgroup has evolved into a wide-reaching Israeli cultural center called Tarbuton. Now entering its second year as a registered nonprofit, the center serves approximately 100 students from preschool on up (1,000+ families), with a menu of options that includes everything from modern Hebrew language instruction, Jewish and Israel education and Israeli cultural chugim, such as film or dance.

Tarbuton is one of a host of Israel-centered educational initiatives that have been popping up across North America, offering everything from more formal Jewish education to social and cultural events.

“Over the last few years, the tide has been turning in terms of the attitude of the place of Israel education in Jewish education. These initiatives are symbolic of what is going on in a grassroots way across the country and it’s really exciting,” said Anne Lanski, Executive Director of the iCenter, an independent Israel education initiative that serves as a hub for the field of Israel education. “At the end of the day, what they are all trying to do is to give young families and young people the portal to enter the space of Jewish education through Hebrew language and Israeli cultural experiences.”

Each initiative is unique and caters to a distinct demographic – with a group in New York offering Israeli cultural, social and current events for 20-and 30-something Americans and Israelis and a Hebrew-language preschool in Chicago that has recently added an after-school program through middle school. But one uniting factor is the grassroots nature of the initiatives and its appeal to that golden demographic: those unaffiliated from organized Jewish life. And while the majority of the projects are launched by Israelis expats, the initiatives now serve equal numbers of Israelis and native-born North Americans.

San Diego, for example, has a smaller Jewish (and even smaller Israeli) population and an extremely high unaffiliated rate, with over 80% of its 100,000 Jews “unaffiliated,” according to Starr. There are also fewer options when it comes to Jewish education. There are day schools in San Diego, but there is no Hebrew high school and no agency for Jewish education to oversee and fuel Jewish educational efforts.

Enter Tarbuton, which offers everything from traditional Jewish education courses, ways to celebrate the Jewish holidays and an Israeli dance troupe. In addition to its center, they also oversee a modern Hebrew enrichment program offered after school in the public schools that is organized by the district. Additionally, there is a program to prepare for a bar or bat mitzvah in Israel for those who don’t want a traditional American style bar mitzvah. All of these services are offered at a fraction of the cost of a day school or synagogue membership. (“Jewish day school costs $17 to $20 thousand a year and most people are not going to do that,” said Starr.)

In that sense, these Israel initiatives are responding to a real and pressing need of 21st century North American Jewish life. Instead of having to choose culture at the expense of tradition or observance at the expense of pluralism, families can have it all in a one-stop-shop at an affordable price with the focus being the Jewish Diaspora’s ancient unifying factor: Israel.

Not surprisingly, 99% of Tarbuton’s participant-base are unaffiliated, but perhaps the surprise factor is that 80% of its students are not Israeli, but rather “kids growing up in America,” according to Starr, who grew up in Chicago with one American and one Israeli parent.

“I don’t think there are a big difference between ex-pat [Israeli] children being raised in the Diaspora and non-expat children with regard to whether or not they can learn modern Hebrew proficiently,” Starr continued. “In fact, very few people speak proficient Hebrew in America. In many cases, the perception is that an Israeli center is only for Israelis or Israeli expats because who else wants to learn Hebrew? But the answer is a lot of people want to learn Hebrew as a bridge connecting them to Israel.”

And that, precisely, is what separates these new initiatives from good old-fashioned Hebrew schools or day schools: the emphasis on mastering Hebrew and connecting to Israel and Israeli culture as an essential link to Jewish Peoplehood itself.

“We see Israel education as an integral component of a full and comprehensive Jewish identity,” said Lanski of the iCenter.

In other words, what experts like Lanski have found is that Hebrew proficiency coupled with a connection or experience with Israel helps develop rich Jewish identities in young people – the kind of deep-rooted Jewish identity that is a powerful safeguard against the much-publicized alienation by the younger generation of Jews.

If there is a crimp in the silver lining of these ventures, it’s that there is no umbrella group overseeing them, which means that many of the projects are scrambling both for funding and to create their ventures from scratch. The UJA Federation of the Greater Toronto Area sponsored the first global conference of Israelis living abroad in Toronto in 2011, but as of now, there has yet to be a follow-up conference.

“The challenge is there no framework because we are all independent,” said Starr. “This was an issue for all of the centers at the conference and in some cases, there is the issue of sustaining them. Some are supported by a few philanthropists and if you have a community that is strong enough, like in a big city, you may be able to find some individuals able to support the center, but in the majority of cases they struggle without having any institutional connection, which brings about the question of sustainability of the program for the long term.”

Often, it’s not as simple as connecting with the local Jewish institutions.

“In some cities, the Federations or JCC may not be interested in this kind of programming or its donors may want to focus their funds on traditional synagogue or day school programs. For the same reasons, often times [these programs] are cut because they aren’t a priority for the institution, so they don’t fight to maintain it. Israeli Cultural Centers need their own breed of funders or those who would fund innovation as they are different, hybrids, alternatives,” said Starr, a lawyer by profession who has volunteered 20-30 hours per week on the center for over eight years. While Tarbuton struggles with sponsorship, they did receive innovation grant support from the Jewish Federation of San Diego County and from the Leichtag Foundation for scholarships in 2011 and 2012.

The UJA Federation of the Greater Toronto stands out for having taken on this new Jewish educational model. It and the and Schwartz/Reisman Centre, the Jewish Community Center in Toronto, are the primary supporters of Kachol-Lavan, an Israeli center launched by two Israeli moms seven years ago from their basement.

What started with 70 students in its first year now has about 350 students from junior kindergarten through adulthood, according to Kachol Lavan’s Managing Director Ariel Zaltzman.

Operating out of three different locations, with a fourth opening next year, the center offers everything from Hebrew language instruction, Torah and Jewish holiday study, and classes about contemporary Israel. There is a program that links up with existing Hebrew schools and another that connects with different congregations from across the denominational spectrum for bar and bat mitzvah preparation. Soon they will offer bar and bat mitzvah students even more options with hands-on ritual training to augment the Jewish educational curriculum and the celebration that are already part of the program.

In line with the other initiatives, 95% of Kachol-Lavan’s families are unaffiliated, according to Zaltzman.

“The success of Kachol-Lavan is we are listening to the parents and kids needs and they need a place that they feel is like home, like Israel is there with them. They want Hebrew to lead. They want to hear boker tov, not good morning and they want to find opportunities to learn about what is to be an immigrant in North America,” said Zaltzman, since 70% of its students have at least one Israeli parent, even though he is quick to add that the center is not just for Israelis. (As a side point, a number of the families do consistently return to Israel, so the program gives them a taste of home, away from home.)

Toronto, in fact, boasts a robust Israeli Diaspora. There are over 50 thousand Israelis in Toronto, with Israelis making up 25% of Toronto’s 220,000 Jewish population, according to Zaltzman.

Even though Kachol-Lavan is successful, Zaltzman feels the time is ripe for additional support to take the program to the next level to serve even more members of the community.

“We would love to see somebody step forward and help us develop what we have been doing for the community for the last seven years. We are today’s newest organization that is saving many Jews from being separate from the community and we’re helping them to live a Jewish life in the Diaspora,” he said.

If the concept of an Israeli Diaspora center has yet to become a household name, its ambassadors and educators are already being trained and dispersed across the country.

The iCenter, for example, which launched in 2008 with the support of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and the Jim Joseph Foundation, has a home office in Chicago but has consultants and educators around the country, according to Lanski. The center is developing what they call the “aleph bet” of Israel education and they work in partnership with educators and institutions, such day schools, Jewish summer camps and Hebrew and public schools. They also offer a Master’s in Israel education via a cohort of six academic institutions, including Brandeis University, Yeshiva University and Hebrew Union College.

The point, said Lanski, is to focus on Israel education as “something that unites us instead of divides us.”

But what of the critics who feel that these independent Israel initiatives are a threat to not only day schools, but especially to synagogues?

“This isn’t threatening to anyone,” insists Lanski. “At the end of the day, nothing competes with anything else. Anything that turns a kid onto being Jewish is a good thing for all of us. We all want the same thing in the end: to ensure the Jewish future. What is important is that we meet the kids where they are and get them in.”