two children with their mother and father smiling
Keren Smith and her family at Mount Diablo, May 2017

An Israeli American gives thanks for the USA

When I moved to the United States from Israel as a teenage girl more than 25 years ago, I was heartbroken, and not only because I left behind everything I knew to come to a new county with a language I was embarrassed to speak and a culture that seemed to me (at that time) nothing short of absurd.

I also was devastated because, as a high school student, I already knew exactly what I wanted to do in the army, and was working toward it.

I did not want to leave my country. And so I promised my beloved Israel, and myself, that I would soon return; that the move to New Jersey was a temporary one.

As time went by, English was no longer a barrier and I was so accustomed to the American culture that going back and visiting Israel made me view Israeli culture in a whole new light — and not always a very flattering one.

Yet, in my heart, I still felt guilty to be happy here, comfortable in my new home. I couldn’t even think about one day raising Jewish kids outside of Israel, and still had every intention of returning home.

I knew I had assimilated to life here when my friends were not just Israeli, Hebrew speakers or Jewish; when, during visits to Israel, I would yearn to come back to the big roads and the air-conditioned houses; and when I enjoyed people smiling and greeting each other with “have a good one” in the grocery store, no longer feeling that is was superficial but rather pleasant and polite.

It was then that I met my very American husband, and was finally ready to put the fantasy of my eventual return to rest.

This new intention of staying in the United States permanently transformed my thinking. I accepted that I had made the reverse commute, going against the “accepted” direction of diaspora Jew making aliyah.

And yet, I wasn’t less Jewish.

In the years I have lived here, I have shifted away from being a completely secular Israeli Jew to being much more observant. Moving away from Israel may have distanced me from the land, but has brought new meaning into my heart about being Jewish. I was finally able to admit that I was happy, and I had made a real Jewish home even outside Israel.

Unlike my younger self, growing up in Israel surrounded by other Jews, my children are very aware they are a minority. Often they are the only Jewish kids in their class. But that has not prevented them from developing a Jewish identity that is just as strong as mine.

They feel proud of their heritage and are connected to the Jewish community here and in Israel. They may not breathe the air of Israel, or be surrounded by our ancestors’ language, but they don’t lag behind their Israeli counterparts in feeling Jewish or in having a sense of belonging to their community.

It is not just my own children who grow up here with the experience of being a minority — it is our collective children, the next generation of American Jews.

It has become an important part of my life to create a space for our kids to feel that same connection, that same feeling of belonging that I felt growing up — a feeling of deep care and a sense of a family and home within our community.

Today I am the director of education at Congregation B’nai Tikvah, a beautiful and inviting Reform congregation in the hills of Walnut Creek. My passion has found an outlet in creating that warm and inclusive place for kids to explore their heritage, connect to their culture and be sparked with a lifelong love for Judaism.

Like me, many other congregational schools leaders are unified in their devotion to create strong and innovative programs designed to ground each kid in Judaism, develop a healthy and proud Jewish identity, and most importantly a strong sense of community that will hopefully last a lifetime.

Although our different congregational schools vary in approach, philosophy and program design, we all strive towards a common goal — to bring Judaism closer to the hearts of our next generation of American Jews.

As I celebrate the all-American holiday of Thanksgiving this year with a turkey dinner — not a turkey shwarma from the streets of Tel Aviv, but a whole roast turkey accompanied by the bright orange colors of pumpkins — I am thankful for living in this country as a Jewish Israeli American.

I am thankful that in this beautiful county diversity and pluralism are celebrated, and our kids have a space to be who they are, to explore and develop their own identity and meaning within our long-held traditions.

Keren Smith
Keren Smith

Keren Smith is the director of education at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek. She was born in Jerusalem and raised in the Tel Aviv suburb of Savyon.