In November I attended a conference of Israelis in the diaspora — the first of its kind — hosted by the Israeli American Council and the Jewish Agency for Israel. This gathering in Tenafly, N.J., brought together leaders of Israeli communities in the diaspora, including Israeli educators and representatives from organizations working to bring together Israel and Israelis who live abroad.
Over the last decade there has been tremendous growth in Israelis moving to North America; the agency estimates this population at about 900,000. This trend is creating a shift in Jewish demographics. But while the numbers are growing there are, in fact, two parallel communities: the established Jewish community and the emerging Jewish Israeli diaspora.
To understand the complexity of the Israeli identity in the diaspora requires a new approach. Most secular Israelis would agree that it is different, tied more to language and culture than to religion, but when they actually make an effort to maintain that cultural connection in the diaspora, the Jewish identity question comes up.
In the past, Israelis who moved to the diaspora did not feel comfortable admitting that they had left Israel. They truly believed that they were going back, sometimes referring to themselves as “living in their suitcases.” Usually, they were simply refusing to admit the new reality. These Israelis spoke to their kids in Hebrew, watched the Israeli channel, read Israeli newspapers and visited Israel every summer. They bypassed Jewish community organizations and were able to maintain this approach until their kids grew old enough for them to realize that something was missing. Unlike their parents, first-generation diaspora Israelis don’t have that connection to Israel and to Israeli culture.
Israelis enjoyed a secular Jewish identity that was provided by the state. When they left Israel, the deeper cultural context was missing. This gap couldn’t be bridged by watching the Israeli channel.
The complex questions about identity did not come only from Israelis who refused to admit they had left Israel, but also from the greater Jewish community and Israeli organizations, such as the Jewish Agency and the Israeli Foreign Ministry: How can it be that well-educated, Israeli-born young people are leaving a country they care deeply about?
As emigration from Israel has become more socially acceptable, Israelis have come to terms with living in the diaspora and started to make a deliberate effort to create an Israeli identity abroad. While diaspora Jews focus on Jewish growth and Jewish expression, Israelis in the diaspora have worked to build and create what they felt was missing in Jewish initiatives — a real connection to Israeli culture and language. This trend was evident in the conference: from Hebrew-only institutions and Israeli cultural organizations to the latest establishment of the Israeli American Council as an umbrella organization to help other Israeli communities in the diaspora grow.
The fact that this conference was embraced by the Jewish Agency for Israel and the State of Israel also highlights the shift in attitude. The Israeli diaspora is a phenomenon that can no longer be ignored. Rather than burying their heads in the sand and saying, “There is no such thing as Israeli diaspora,” both Israelis and local Jewish communities need to face this reality.
Israelis need to own up to their choice of living in the diaspora. They are allowed to choose where they raise their families, but every choice comes with a price. They need to admit their choice and acknowledge they are part of the diaspora. They need to work with their local communities to provide serious, thoughtful, creative opportunities for their kids to connect to a Jewish Israeli identity.
The organized Jewish community also needs to accept this new reality and include Israelis in all aspects of their communal work. Israelis can bring a new and fresh perspective to Jewish expressions in the diaspora based on their culture and language.
Both the Israelis and their adoptive Jewish communities would be better served by cooperation. For the Israelis, this would provide smoother integration into their new environment, and the community would benefit from the culture and expertise of the “startup nation.”
What do we stand to lose if the two groups fail to engage? Israelis will not benefit from being part of the debate of Jewish peoplehood and advocacy for Israel. The Jewish community will lose the opportunity to successfully integrate Israelis who are able to meaningfully contribute.
Regaining Jewish meaning to fit this new reality is their search, and community organizations should address their needs. There needs to be a serious dialogue between the leaders of Jewish communities and the local Israeli leadership in each diaspora community to address these challenges.
Shirin Ezekiel-Hayat is the associate executive director for Hillel of Greater Toronto, responsible for Israel engagement. This essay originally appeared at eJewishPhilanthropy.com.