Judith Zemel sat in her sunny kitchen in Los Gatos and leafed through the pages of the master’s thesis in education she just completed at San Francisco State University.
A registered clinical dietitian in her native Israel, she moved into Jewish education when she arrived in the Bay Area six years ago, first spending two years as director of the preschool at Adath Israel Congregation in San Francisco and then, most recently, a year in charge of the preschool at South Peninsula Hebrew Day School.
Many of the children she taught had Israeli parents. A year or so ago, some of them came to her for advice on where to send their children after preschool.
“A big group came to me and said the day schools in the South Peninsula don’t meet our needs,” she said.
So Zemel devoted her master’s work to surveying those parents, to find out what they wanted from a Jewish day school. She posted invitations on various listservs and Facebook pages and ended up surveying 38 Israeli parents of school-age children, most of them living in Sunnyvale. The results of her research, while not startling, are sobering, for they confirm the gap still existing in many ways between the local Jewish community and the Israelis living in our midst.
“The Israeli parents who immigrated to the Bay Area have a different definition of ‘Jewish identity’ than American Jewish parents,” she told me. She talked about the by-now standard understanding of that difference — that in Israel they absorb their Jewish identity “with their mother’s milk,” speaking Hebrew in the streets, seeing kosher food around them, celebrating Jewish holidays as national holidays. “They say, my Jewish identity is that I’m Israeli,” she said. “It’s passive.”
American Jews, on the other hand, have to pursue their Jewish identity actively, most commonly by joining a synagogue and sending their children to religious school. For most of them, Jewish identity is tied to religious life. Not so for Israelis, the majority of whom are secular.
When these Israelis move to the United States, they see that their children aren’t automatically getting the same “Jewish Israeli experience” they got growing up in Israel. Parents need to create that experience for them. But when they turn to the Jewish day schools, they find them “too religious, or not Israeli enough,” Zemel said. And coming from Israel, where the religious parties control key power positions in the government, they are fearful of giving their children over to that world.
“They don’t feel welcome in these schools,” she reported. “They want to belong to a Jewish community, but it should be cultural and social, not religious.”
So what do they want for their children?
They want a Jewish day school that is secular, with an Israeli-style curriculum. They want it to be less “religious” than existing options, and not affiliated with any particular stream of Judaism. Most (87 percent) expect a dual Hebrew-English curriculum, with each taught by native speakers. And 100 percent of the parents surveyed expect the school to be strongly Zionist.
As a Modern Orthodox woman who maintains a kosher home, Zemel is very concerned that the children of Israeli parents in the Bay Area will grow up without any strong Jewish identity and will drift away from the Jewish community. But she’s not sure that answering all of their perceived needs, which are so different from those of American Jewish parents, is the solution, either. Offering these children separate Jewish schools created along the lines of her survey results would keep them in limbo, neither Jewish American nor Israeli.
But doing nothing, she said, puts those children at risk of assimilation, something their Israeli parents aren’t taking seriously enough.
The problem goes beyond day school, said Ilan Vitemberg of Jewish LearningWorks, one of the experts Zemel interviewed for her thesis.
“There’s a larger conversation to be had with Israelis about ghettoizing, opening up, learning from the American Jewish community,” he told me. “It’s being talked about in terms of the kids, but it’s a bigger issue. We need to open more doors for the two communities to meet.”
Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.