Over the past few years, the Jewish community has wept and lamented—as it should have– over and over, about the bleak findings of the 2013 Pew Report. Assimilation, loss of identity, intermarriage, and a mass exodus from our community, were mourned by all. And yet, at the same time, we are ignoring The Largest Jewish influx the Jewish community in America has seen in this generation: American-Israelis. The number of Israeli-Americans in the United States is estimated to be between 500,000-800,000 (!) people. The Israeli consulate in New York estimates that the number of Israelis living in the tri-state area alone is between 180,000-200,000. Tragically, these great numbers, are not met with great enthusiasm. Reports show that there is a profound and bilateral disconnect between Israelis living in the US and local Jewish communities. We are not embracing the Israelis living here, and, unsurprisingly, they are not embracing us. It’s time to end that. Using John F. Kennedy terminology, it’s time to tear down that wall.
Sadly, this is not the first time in American Jewish history we see this destructive pattern of poor integration. Between the 1880’s and the 1890’s, as America was flooded by a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, the German and upper class Jewish American community, were troubled and dismayed by the arrival the new migrants. These migrants, then known as the “pauper migrants,” were welcomed with fear and apprehension. Attempts to change the new migrants, and even attempts to stop their immigration, were made by Jews who had already felt comfortable in the United States. The discord between established American Jewry and the new migrants, caused strong feelings of resentment and alienation, remembered to this day by decedents of the new migrants- many of who are now ironically the new establishment of the Jewish community.
The alienation that Israelis experience when they come to live in the diaspora has had so far a profound cost. Israelis living in American, assimilate at a higher rate than the general Jewish population. This should not be this way. Israelis should not be assimilating at the rate of-or higher than- American Jews who grew up with no Jewish connection. This lack of connection is one that does not, and should not, have to take place considering the strong Hebrew background and cultural familiarity they have with Judaism. So how do we end this disconnect? An extensive study by the Re’ut Institute for Strategic Thinking, recommends several paths to stopping this trend of assimilation and alienation. Most important and impactful is, the integration of Israeli-Americans into existing Jewish schools and communities.
Orthodox shuls, schools, families, and organizations need to consciously focus on how to be more welcoming, inclusive, and understanding of Israeli-Americans. Even if they don’t come to your door knocking, find out where they are, and invite them. There is nothing that is more
powerful– nor is there something that can substitute– for the integration and invitation of “newcomers” into existing Jewish communities. We must embrace Israeli-Americans with open arms, see what we can do that will make them more comfortable in our communities, and let them know that we are here for them.
No words, can better capture, what our attitude to Israeli-Americans should be like, as much the following ones, written more than a century ago:
“We would have no apology made for this immigration. We would not have our Jewish friends feel that such immigrants, however humble, are unwelcome. We will find room for them, work for them, homes for them, ballots for them. They will add to our strength, to our wealth, to our material, and in the end, to our moral forces . . .We welcome them… we offer them our liberties and our opportunities. Let them come!” Tragically, these words were written about Jewish emigrants from Eastern Europe in the late 1880’s- by an American Christian newspaper-not by an American Jewish newspaper. Let’s not make that historical mistake again, and, this time, let’s welcome our brothers and sisters with open arms and make them part of our schools, shuls, families, and communities. We both have too much to gain and too much to lose, for us to forfeit this historic opportunity.
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is the founder and Director of EITAN USA, an organization dedicated to strengthening the Jewish identity of Israeli-Americans and their integration into the American Jewish community.