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Facing East, Living West: Israelis in Philadelphia Straddle Two Cultures

May 14, 2014 By:
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Israeli Scouts lend their woodworking skills to the Zionist cause.

Na’ama Yarden has a message for the Israeli community living in Philadelphia: Get involved.

“I’m very disappointed at how scattered Israelis are in not reaching out to the community and community events,” said Yar­den, a Perelman Jewish Day School teacher who moved to Philadelphia with her three children in 2000 when her husband decided to pursue  a doctorate here. “I think most Israelis don’t do enough.”

Labeled in the past as yordim — a barbed insult in Hebrew meaning “to go down,” aimed at those who move away from the Jewish homeland — the estimated 30,000 Israelis living in Philadelphia face steep challenges to their identity as Israelis. They also wrestle at times with integration into American and American Jewish life.

Citing the local Israeli community’s geographic dispersal and its penchant for resisting overtures to integrate with American Jewish institutions, Yarden said she is particularly concerned about the identity of children of Israelis living in the United States.

“Distance doesn’t break Israeli identity for parents, but for our kids it’s very different,” Yarden explained. “They don’t know the songs, they don’t know the jokes, they don’t know the slang. In order to make their identity strong, a lot of action needs to take place, not just thoughts and talking.”

The challenge surrounding Israeli identity among those living in America is not a new phenomenon, but there does appear to be a shift in attitudes about their status.

As recently as 2011, the Jewish Agency for Israel, a Jerusalem-based organization whose stated goal is “to secure a vibrant Jewish future,” released a commercial campaign warning Israeli expatriates living abroad that their identity as Israelis was at risk of disappearing.

The campaign, a concerted effort to convince them to return to Israel, featured one commercial with a young Israeli woman walking into her candle-lit apartment with her American boyfriend. He mistakenly assumes she is trying to create an ambiance of romance when in fact she is honoring Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror. The screen fades on her forlorn face as a fatherly voice-over in Hebrew intones: “They will always be Israeli; their partners won’t always know what that means.”

The campaign was abandoned soon after its debut due to widespread complaints regarding the insensitive nature of the advertisements. Now there is a general sense that efforts by the Jewish Agency and others to return Israelis living abroad to Israel has shifted to helping them maintain their culture and identity.

“Now they’re not looking at Israelis in a negative way, but looking at them as ambassadors,” said Sharona Durry, founder and director of PhillyIsrael, a grassroots group that facilitates Israeli cultural, educational and social programming.

Indeed, her group co-sponsored a Hebrew-speaking gathering at a local synagogue this week entitled: “The Next Generation: Worth Fighting For?” to explore issues of Jewish identity among Israelis.

Durry, a sabra from Kfar Saba, near Tel Aviv, moved to Philadelphia in 1987 with the intent of assisting her then-pregnant older sister and ended up staying. In 2005, she founded PhillyIsrael to address what she saw as a growing need for Israelis living abroad to retain their cultural identity.

Those involved with PhillyIsrael “decided that the Israeli community needs to come together and create something independently that will serve the Israeli community,” Durry said. “We believe the Israeli community needs to be cohesive, needs to be active and needs to be heard.”

While the challenge of connecting the Israeli community in Philadelphia is complicated by its small and spread-out nature, the questions surrounding identity are shared on a national scale.

Enter the Israeli-American Council, an organization that was founded in Los Angeles in 2007 to support Israelis living in the United States. The IAC has branched out over the last several years to Las Vegas, Boston, Miami and, just this month, New York City. With big-time financial backers, including Chaim Saban and Sheldon Adelson, the latter of whom is married to an Israeli, the IAC has supported PhillyIsrael with $10,000 in grant money over the last six months.

Though the group has expressed tentative interest to follow up in greater depth with the Israeli population in Philadelphia, they don’t plan to open a regional office in the area.

“We’ve grown so quickly that we’re focusing on the offices we have,” said Miri Belsky, chief operating officer for the IAC. She estimates that there are 500,000 to 800,000 Israelis currently living in the United States.

“It’s an important investment in our future,” said Belsky. “I think there’s an opportunity for bridges to be built.”

One group that has experienced some success in building bridges is the local chapter of the Israeli Scouts in America. The scouts, modeled on the youth movement in Israel, bring together Hebrew-speaking children in North America in grades 3 to 9 for weekly activities run by high school students. In the two-and-a-half years since its establishment here, the group has swelled to 65 participants.

“The students feel they are finally in a place where they meet others like them that come from Israeli families,” said Neta Burshtein, an Israeli shlicha — an emissary dedicated to promoting Jewish heritage and Israeli culture abroad —  who heads the group as part of her duties for the Center for Israel and Overseas of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. “They don’t have that anywhere else.”

One family found that the Israeli Scouts helped their 16-year-old son maintain his identity as an Israeli so much that after 15 years of living in the United States, they will be moving back to Israel in July. The Neemans want to be there when son Omer joins the Israel Defense Forces in a few years.

“It’s always been a dream of his —  he’s more Israeli than us,” said Omer’s mother, Yonit Neeman.

The Neemans were one of the first Israeli families approached about the Scouts by representatives from the Washington, D.C., office of the Israeli House, a joint project of the Israeli Ministry of Immigration and Absorption and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Its purpose is to maintain and strengthen the link between the state of Israel and Israelis living abroad.

“At the time, I didn’t think it was so important, but now I know why it is,” Neeman said. “Kids of Israelis have a double identity, and it’s important for them to understand Israeli culture and tradition and to share that experience with other kids who have the same background.”

Another, more traditional way for Israelis to connect as a community has been through the Israeli folk dancing scene, which has also served as an outlet for Israelis to meet American Jews.

Several of them gathered recently for a dance marathon in honor of Israel’s 66th birthday at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park.

Haim Soicher, who moved to Princeton, N.J., with his family as a teenager in 1952, and Osnat Reichert, who moved to Somerton from Kibbutz Ramat Yochanan with her husband and three children in 1990, both said they have befriended many American Jews through the Israeli dancing scene.

The sessions are held on a weekly basis at various locations, including Adath Israel on the Main Line and Germantown Jewish Centre in Mount Airy.

“Israeli dancing is a common language, it’s universal,” said Marek Milbar, originally from the Galil region in northern Israel until he moved to America 20 years ago.

The Israelis who come to the dance events, “some of them are just addicts and some are coming for the collective experience,” Milbar said.

Some Israelis and Israeli-Americans say they have no trouble navigating and integrating their identities.

Yerachmiel Daskal, who moved to the United States in 1963 to study medicine and now owns a trendy bowling alley in Northern Liberties, said that while his family has retained a strong Israeli identity,  they have also successfully integrated into American society and the local Jewish community.

“We’ve never felt left out,” Daskal said. “We’re part of a group that feels very comfortable here.”

Levels of immersion into Jewish American life aside, every Israeli interviewed for this article agreed that public perception of Israelis living abroad has improved.

“I do think that people see us now as ambassadors culturally and educationally in a positive way,” Daskal said.

But one sentiment that hasn’t changed is the Israeli community’s shared longing for Israel.

“As an Israeli, you’ll always be torn,” asserted Galit Iloni, a Tel Aviv native who relocated to Upper Dublin with her husband in 2002 for his job with the Israeli company Teva Pharmaceuticals. “Always in your heart there will be a ‘rip.’ ”

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