In U.S., Israeli expats turn to growing number of Israeli rabbis

A little girl points to a menorah made of ice at a Boca Raton Hanukkah party that attracted some 200 Israelis and their families in December. Photo: Sue Fishkoff/JTA

By Sue Fishkoff, JTA BOCA RATON, Fla.

Itzik Abu-Hatzera rarely attended synagogue in his native Haifa when he lived in Israel.

But last  December his family was among those of nearly 200 other Israelis in South Florida at a Hanukkah party sponsored by the Chabad Israeli Center in Boca Raton.

“In Israel you don’t need it, Jews are all around you,” says Abu-Hatzera, who moved here 10 years ago.

Like Abu-Hatzera, the rabbi of the Chabad center, Naftali Hertzel, is Israeli. At the Chabad he runs with his wife, Henya, Hebrew is the lingua franca. That, rather than the specific religious components of the evening, was why Abu-Hatzera and his family came here rather than to one of many similar Hanukkah events organized by American Jews in this heavily Jewish area.

“It’s the Hebrew, the culture, everything,” says Abu-Hatzera, a 35-year-old father of two.

Waving his arm at the loudspeaker blasting Israeli pop music and the buffet table laden with falafel and sufganiyot – Israeli jelly doughnuts – he says, “It’s what I belong to.”

About 140,000 Israelis live in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, though Jewish and Israeli sources say the number actually is closer to 500,000. Whatever the exact figure, many if not most of the Israeli expatriates in America are secular, like approximately 80 percent of Israeli Jews.

While few of the Israelis in this country went to shul in Israel or consider themselves religious, now that they are far from home some have begun attending services and making sure their children receive some kind of formal Jewish education.

Some say they are doing it for themselves, to feel closer to what they left behind. Some are doing it for their children, so they will grow up with a sense of Jewish identity.

Whatever the reason, the phenomenon seems to be growing. In recent years a number of Israeli rabbis have set up shop in the United States to minister to Israelis in their own language.

It’s easier to bring Judaism to Israelis when they’re outside the Jewish state, says Rabbi Menachem Landa, an Israeli-born Chabad emissary who runs the 4-year-old Chabad Israeli Center in Palo Alto, Calif.

“They’re more open, they’re looking for friends and to deepen their Jewish identity,” he says.

Some two dozen Israeli Chabad rabbis are gearing their outreach work to Israelis in the United States. Most of the rabbis arrived here within the past five to seven years, according to Landa, and are located in areas with large Hebrew-speaking populations such as New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Atlanta. They support each other through informal networks, including special programming during the annual Chabad emissary conference in Brooklyn, N.Y., every fall.

It’s not just Chabad. The Shehebar Sephardic Center, which has ordained 150 Sephardic rabbis at its Jerusalem yeshiva, has sent 10 of its graduates to pulpits in the United States, most within the past five years. They work among the Hebrew-speaking Sephardic populations in Florida, Texas and Los Angeles, as well as along the Eastern seaboard.

Many Israeli-born Hasidic rabbis also are serving various Hasidic communities in North America. But it’s the Israeli Chabad and Sephardic rabbis, along with individual non-Hasidic Israeli rabbis, who represent a new phenomenon: Israeli rabbis in the United States reaching out to largely non-observant fellow expats.

“Our main job is outreach, to instill an awareness of Judaism, tradition and culture in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people,” says Rabbi Sam Kassin, founder and dean of the Shehebar Sephardic Center, one of the few institutions that trains rabbis in the Sephardic tradition. “We feel that the best rabbi to address the needs of Israelis is someone who knows the language and understands their cultural needs. That’s why we place Israeli-born rabbis, who also speak some English, in Israeli neighborhoods in the U.S.”

Yoav Kiesler, who moved from Israel to the San Francisco Bay Area 13 years ago, began studying Jewish texts with Landa five years ago.

“I clicked with him, even though he’s from Bnei Brak and I served in the Israel Defense Forces,” said Kiesler, who lives in San Rafael, just north of San Francisco. Bnei Brak is a heavily Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv.

“You’d think we have little in common,” Kiesler said. “But I felt we shared the same background. When someone speaks the same language, things flow much easier.”

Eyal Shemesh, the Los Angeles-based publisher of We in America, a Hebrew-language magazine catering to Israelis in Southern California, left Israel for the United States 25 years ago, right after his military service.

He says the American Israeli community is mixed, comprising newcomers, temporary residents and long-timers like his family. Shemesh and his Israeli wife have been here for decades and have U.S.-born children that move between both cultures.

Shemesh says even so-called secular Israelis like him attend Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah services in America, and need the Jewish community to say Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, as well as for other lifecycle events.

If there is no Israeli congregation, he says, local Israeli Jews will go to “an American synagogue,” but that’s not their first choice.

On the High Holidays, the Shemesh family joins many other local Israelis in a rented hall for services run by Rabbi Rafael Gaye, an Israeli rabbi who is the spiritual leader of Shuva Israel, a Sephardic congregation in nearby Tarzana, Calif.

“We’re secular, but we still respect the traditions,” Shemesh said. “And sometimes the synagogue is part of meeting each other, a social center.”

Children are a big impetus for both Israeli and American Jews. Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Sholom, a large Conservative synagogue in Encino, Calif., notes that the Israelis who move to America as adults have grown up in a predominantly Jewish culture and have absorbed more of the religion than they realize. They come here, don’t join a synagogue and are shocked when their children don’t have a strong Jewish identity.

“There’s a rude awakening when they realize their kids aren’t growing up Jewish,” Feinstein says. “I’ve had some difficult conversations with parents.”

Professor Steven Gold of Michigan State University, author of the 2002 book “The Israeli Diaspora,” says two groups of Israelis are living in the United States, with different preferences.

There is the more educated, professional Israeli, often Ashkenazi, who is secular in Israel and feels more comfortable in a liberal, American synagogue.

“They realize if they don’t do anything their kids won’t have a Jewish identity living in the United States, so they join a Reform, Reconstructionist, even a Conservative synagogue where the family can sit together,” Gold says. “It’s more compatible with their lifestyle.”

Then there are the more traditional Israelis, often Sephardim, “who want to maintain their traditions and feel more comfortable in an Israeli setting,” Gold says. “It’s a class and an ethnic divide.”

Feinstein says it doesn’t matter which synagogue Israeli Jews choose, as long as they go somewhere.

“I’m delighted that Israelis are affiliating anyplace,” Feinstein says. “Whether they affiliate with Hebrew-speaking or English-speaking congregations isn’t as important as the fact they’re coming to America and living as Jews and raising their kids as Jews.”