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Monday, December 10, 2007

Coming home

A study of Israelis living abroad has greatly upset the chattering classes. The study, done by the Rappaport Center for Assimilation Research and Strengthening Jewish Vitality of Bar-Ilan University, showed that - not surprisingly - many Israelis who move abroad lose their Jewish identity:
The Rappaport Center for Assimilation Research and Strengthening Jewish Vitality of Bar-Ilan University found that children of Israelis who left the country to seek their fortune elsewhere are undergoing a process of speedy assimilation, Israel Radio reported Saturday overnight.

A quarter of young Israelis living in Europe are intermarrying and 60 percent of them do not belong to any Jewish community and do not participate in any Jewish activities.

The study found a gap between the Israeli identity of expatriates, those who were born in Israel but decided to leave, and their children, who were born abroad. The parents' generation, despite having made the choice to leave the Jewish state, continues to retain its Jewish identity in the Diaspora.

In 2007, 4,000 young Israelis returned to Israel. According to a recent study conducted by the ministry, some 700,000 Israelis live outside of the country, with 60 percent in North America, 25% in Europe and 15% spread across the rest of the world.
This really should surprise no one. When you live in Israel, even if you are secular, you cannot help but be aware of the Jewish holidays and the Sabbath - all of which are days when businesses are closed here. Your children learn Hebrew, so even if they pick up a Tanach (bible) to read as an historical book, they understand it and they are learning about the Jewish religion. There is (or was, at least until recently) very little intermarriage in Israel, because until the last fifteen years, nearly all the non-Jews here were Arabs, and most Jews would have nothing to do with our sworn enemies.

But take many secular Israelis out of Israel and they're likely to forget most of those things and not teach them to their children. Their connection is to an empty concept called "Israeliness" which lacks the substance that a Jewish connection has. Moreover, unlike the Jews who live in the diaspora (or Jews who immigrate to Israel, don't make it here and emigrate back abroad), the native Israeli who leaves for the diaspora doesn't realize until it's too late how easy it is to cut his family off from the Jewish people and to be lost in the assimilation abroad.

Just to give you some appreciation for the scope of the problem, consider this story which appeared in the Jerusalem Post (originally) two years ago. Clearly, these people did not belong in State College, Pennsylvania (the wife is American, the husband Israeli, they left Israel for faculty positions at Penn State):

The truth is that after living so many years in Israel, we didn't give much thought to what Jewish life would be like out there in central Pennsylvania. We knew there was a small Jewish community centered around the university, one small synagogue with several hundred members, yet no full-time Jewish schools. But that was fine for us. After living so many years in Israel, we thought it would be a good idea for our children to experience something they could never experience in the Jewish state: feeling what it was like to be part of a minority.

James Carville, the political consultant and former Clinton aide, once said that Pennsylvania is Philadelphia on one side, Pittsburgh on the other, and Alabama in between. This Alabama is precisely where we landed in the summer of 2004 with four Hebrew-speaking children who had never seen snow, sung Jingle Bells or heard Silent Night.

But not for long.

Right after Thanksgiving, when the neighbors began decorating their homes with Christmas lights and trees, we were able to confirm what we had suspected from the start: that we were the only Jewish family on the block. Next to all the brightly lit and ornamented homes, many of them featuring Nativity scenes on their front yards and giant Santas on their roofs, our own unlit undecorated house stuck out like a sore thumb.

Our third child, Iddo, then five years old, pleaded with us to dress up our house like all the others. Those lights are for Christmas, we tried to explain to him, and Jewish people don't celebrate Christmas. "Not even one teeny, tiny light?" he begged.

If that's when we learned we were outsiders in the neighborhood, our children had already discovered that they were not like everyone else in their respective schools. Matan, then in fifth grade, and Tamar, in third, turned out to be the only Jewish children in their public school. Iddo had one other Jewish child in his.

It was at about this time last year, when our children had their first exposure to Christmas, that we received an invitation to an evening event at their school called the "Holiday Sing." All we were told was that the children would be performing songs for their parents that they had learned in their music classes.

How could we have known what we were in for? It all started rather innocently with the children singing what we have since learned are called "secular Christmas songs" - an oxymoron if there ever was one. Granted, the name of Christ was not mentioned in these songs, but watching my little Jewish children up there on the stage with their classmates singing Christmas classics like Jingle Bells and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer did make me cringe.

And that wasn't the worst of it.

After the children had finished performing, a group of parents handed out sheets with the lyrics to all the songs that would be sung in the next part of the event, the group sing-along. That's where I was introduced for the first time to the lyrics of Silent Night. To say that I was stunned to find myself in an American public school surrounded by parents and children singing out verses like "Christ, the Savior is born," "Son of God, love's pure light," and "Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth" would be an understatement.

The auditorium was so crowded that Amit and I were forced to sit at opposite ends. Somehow, though, we managed to exchange horrified glances across the room. Silent Night was followed by several other religious Christian songs, and then, as if to add insult to injury, Dreidel, Dreidel, I Made it Out of Clay - a silly Hanukka song popularized in America.

After we came home and put the children to sleep, Amit and I stayed up late talking about what we should do, feeling rather sickened by the entire experience, but thankful, at least, that our children were still not fluent enough in English to understand what had been taking place around them.

Read it all.

The Israeli government thinks they have the solution to this problem: Money.
The cabinet on Sunday approved a NIS 150 million plan presented by Immigrant Absorption Minister Ya'akov Edri to offer benefits to Israelis living abroad for under two years if they return home.
But at least in this case, money is not the answer:
"Financial incentives are not a factor for Israeli ex-pats who are considering returning home," said Israel Zionist Council head Moshe Ben-Atar on Sunday in response to government approval for an NIS 140m. incentive program to bring Israeli yordim back to Israel.


Instead, argued Ben-Atar, whose organization is the Israeli branch of the World Zionist Organization, the effort and money "must go in a different direction, in fostering Jewish identity and a connection to Israel among the children of yordim," many of whom grew up or were born outside Israel.

"Most of the people who come to Israel don't come because of the small financial incentives," Ben-Atar claimed. "Surveys show they want family, a connection to the land and to the people. We have to invest in Israelis living in Jewish communities overseas. And there are ways to reach those who don't connect to Jewish communities - for example, investment in Jewish education, bringing the young on visits, sending them to camps."

The efforts should focus on the young, Ben-Atar believes. "How do we create employment tracks for young people in Israel? How do we define the sense of belonging among the young, and are we investing in that sense? The education system certainly doesn't deal with it. These are the questions that the Immigrant Absorption Ministry isn't dealing with."
The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption disagrees:
A ministry official responded to the criticism by noting that "Israelis overseas are Zionists. You can't generalize and say they're a crowd whose connection to Israel is weak. There are many Zionists who contributed to the state, served it in the military. The motivations to leave were not because of weakened identification."

"Alongside the emotional call that they should come home, and the activities to strengthen their identity and connection to the state, we have to provide a real opportunity. They need practical job security. It's a global world and we have to understand that the desire to return home isn't enough. There has to be a real chance to do so," the official said.
As usual, the Ministry doesn't have a clue.

People don't immigrate here from North America to get rich. They immigrate here because of a strong sense of Jewish identity and because of a strong feeling of identification with the country. Give them a decent job that pays enough to live on, and they will do all they can to make it here. Once upon a time, taxes here on things like large appliances were outrageous and unless you were a young couple starting out you couldn't think of making aliya without those financial benefits. You also needed financial benefits to cover the time when you were learning Hebrew or a new field of employment. But the taxes are no longer anywhere near the problem they once were. And returning Israelis don't need help with Hebrew and probably don't need help with training for a new job either.

Making aliya isn't a career move; it's something you do for your children. Most of us who did it recognize that. It's a shame the government doesn't.


At 5:43 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

"You can't generalize and say they're a crowd whose connection to Israel is weak"

YES YOU CAN!!!!!!!!

The vast majority of yordim are secular JINO'S of the "I'm not Jewish I'm Israeli " variety. Moreover, Since secular Israeli culture has become 3rd degree imitations of American trailer trash (YNET has more articles on Britney Spears than all federation rags combined) its no wonder that the yordim quickly become goyim.
However maybe its not so bad. Becoming goyim in the west means they aren't at Peace Now rallies in Israel.

At 5:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I meet so many secular Israelis who are anti-religious it doesn't surprise me that when these people move away from the country the first thing to go is their Jewishness. All they have left is the fact that they speak "ivrit", nothing more.

A secular Israeli friend of mine who lives in LA with his family once shared with me his concern about his children "not growing up with a Jewish identity". I sent him a link to a video clip this Chanukah of a really cool local rabbi (charedi) singing traditional Chanukah songs and … let’s just say the reply I got was venomous to the extreme. How dare I send him “black” religious …

And if they are left-wing, it's the same anti-Israeli snob (Hellenists) who just want us to disappear.

Money won’t bring em back; or make them better Jews. If it’s not in your heart there’s no point.

At 5:59 PM, Blogger Carl in Jerusalem said...


I agree with you.

This all ties in with Israel becoming more religious. Most of the olim are religious. Most of the yordim are not.

At 6:10 PM, Blogger Daniel said...

I can't believe 2 years have passed since that Penn State idiot wrote that article in Jpost. I remember how she was lambasted almost unanamously by the talkbackers.


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