By Cindy Mindell
WESTPORT – Nitzy Cohen calls herself the “epitome” of a diaspora Israeli. “I came to the U.S. because somebody broke my heart, and thought I would stay for just for a couple of years,” she says. “I remember telling my father, ‘I’m coming back,’ and then I got married and had a kid and I told him, ‘We’re coming back.’ But I had another kid and another kid and we moved around and I got two college degrees and started businesses and finally realized that I was still here and I had left my family an ocean away.”
Cohen left Israel 28 years ago and now lives in Westport. She hears her story again and again in newer Israeli arrivals. “I recently met a young Israeli woman who was pregnant and told me that she’s here for three years and is going back,” Cohen says. “I told her that, for the next 20 years, she is going to be questioning her decision every day and won’t be able to live in the present.”
Diaspora Israelis have a special Hebrew word for that insoluble pull between two countries they love – ha-srita, “the scratch.”
“People come from all over the world to America and they don’t have the same experience as Israelis; they just say goodbye to their country and never go back,” Cohen says. “I hear this again and again: so many Israelis come here for two years and end up staying here. America is an addictive lifestyle.”
Israelis have been leaving their homeland ever since the state began to take shape, and the Hebrew language nipped at their heels, accusing them of committing yerida – “descent,” just one step away from desertion. Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin went further in 1976, dubbing émigrés nefolet shel nemushot, roughly translated as “the fallen among weaklings.”
“It’s unheard of in the rest of the world that, when you leave a country, you are considered a deserter,” Cohen says. “But now there is no family in Israel that doesn’t have somebody living outside Israel, so Israelis don’t bash diaspora Israelis.”
The North American Israeli diaspora is thought to number between 500,000 to one million, with between 125,000 and 150,000 living within a one-hour radius of New York City. Last March, a group of 40 New York-based Israeli leaders, representing more than 30 Israeli-related organizations, announced the formation of Moatza Mekomit New York, the first umbrella organization of the Israeli community in the region. Funded by UJA-Federation of New York, Moatza Mekomit – “local council” in Hebrew – was conceived in 2012 when the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) amended its mission to include “strengthening Israeli communities abroad.”
On the 80-member Moatza board, Cohen represents Israelis-in-CT, a six-year-old affinity group founded and moderated by Westport resident Relly Coleman.
The Moatza works to identify needs and responses in seven main areas: education, culture, business and employment, social action, collaboration with other community organizations, Israel advocacy, and strengthening Israeli and Jewish identity. This last objective, Cohen says, is not only important for the Israeli newcomer, but for the second and third generations, who are quickly assimilating. “We are losing them in leaps and bounds,” she says.
Over the last few months, the Moatza has sponsored a sold-out job fair of Israeli companies, a concert in memory of recently deceased Israeli singer Arik Einstein, and a panel discussion on Israeli and American identity featuring a psychologist who works with Israeli clients on acculturation issues.
“We want to enhance and strengthen the connection to Israel, especially with the second generation, who sees itself as American,” Cohen says. “In addition, we want to represent the Israeli diaspora to the Israeli government and advance the interests of the state of Israel, being like ambassadors in any way we can help.”
Also important to the Moatza’s mission is strengthening the connection between the Israeli community and its American Jewish counterpart, which don’t naturally share a symbiotic relationship. Cohen heads up the Moatza’s “Argaz Chinuch” (“education box”), a Hebrew-learning task force that is working with education professionals around the world to identify and consolidate on a single web portal all the highest-rated Hebrew-instruction programs in the world. The effort is inspired by the Jewish Agency’s recently-announced $300 million “Prime Minister’s Initiative” to transform Israel- and Hebrew-related programming in the diaspora.
Cohen is also involved in creating a group-purchasing organization to negotiate prices on flights to Israel. “It’s very important that Israelis go to Israel and take their kids as many times as possible, but it costs so much,” she says. And, she is working on projects that will make more Israeli products available in the marketplace. She is producing and hosting “Made in Israel,” a new program on the Jewish television cable channel, Shalom TV, featuring Israeli products that viewers can purchase at a discount through the Shalom TV website. The first show features Israeli wines.
The Moatza’s purpose is not to convince Israelis to stay or leave, Cohen says, but rather to make their time in the New York area less confusing and more engaged. “If we’re helping somebody find a job, what does that mean? That we’re taking care of our own,” Cohen says.
For more information: moatza.org.
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Israelis in CT tell their story
We don’t have an official tally of Israelis living in Connecticut, but we know that they reside throughout the state, affiliated to varying degrees with the local organized Jewish community and/or with informal Israeli social circles like the Fairfield County-based Israelis-in-CT. Each Israeli has a different story to tell about leaving Israel for the U.S. and how he or she has made the decision of where to build a life and raise a family — here, there, or between the two countries. We asked three Israeli families who moved to America – two who stayed and one who went back – to share their stories.
The Markus Family
West Hartford and Israel
Etan Markus is a professor and associate department head in the University of Connecticut Department of Psychology. Anat Markus teaches art and Hebrew at the Bess and Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy of Greater Hartford in Bloomfield. They have three children.
We came to Toronto in 1985 for graduate school, then came to West Hartford in 1994, where Etan continued doing post-doctoral training. After that, we could not find a position in Israel so we accepted a job offer here. All three of our kids – Dror, Hadar, and Talya – were born here. We tried to spend family events, summers, and one-semester sabbaticals in Israel.
We made sure we lived in a Jewish community, became members of a synagogue, spent summers in Israel, sent our children to Hebrew Academy [in Bloomfield], and exposed them to Israeli TV, songs, movies and food. We wanted them to understand their roots and our culture, but we did not point them in one specific direction.
All three children made aliyah, served in the IDF as Lone Soldiers, and are going to school in Israel. At some point, we would like to move back to Israel or at least split our time between Israel and Connecticut.
Based on our own experiences, what we would tell other Israelis moving to the U.S. is that, even if they are completely secular and take their Jewish identity for granted, it is important for them to become part of the local Jewish community. Unlike Israel, where there is no need to actively invest time or energy in being Jewish, the situation is very different when you live in the U.S. You are a minority within a dominant culture. If the immigrants want their children to understand what it means to be Jewish and Israeli, they must be proactive.
However, we do not feel there is a contradiction between living in two places; they’re just two different cultures, each with positive and negative aspects.
The Siegel Family
West Hartford and Haifa
Ronny Siegel is coordinator of the Israeli Young Emissary program at the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford. Al Siegel is a retired professor and former chair of the department of social work at Southern Connecticut State University. They have three children and six grandchildren. Ronny shared the family’s story.
I came as a shlicha from the Jewish Agency to the JCC in West Hartford in 1969 and went back to Israel in 1972, after I married Al. We lived there for six years and had two children. Al wanted to get a PhD at Columbia so we came back in 1978, spent a year in New York, and then moved to West Hartford. We decided to stay here because it takes six or seven years to do the degree, and you have to make a living and support children, so life puts you where you are; it’s not necessarily a conscious decision.
When you’re in a “mixed marriage,” there are a lot of forces. We made a conscious decision at that point to live in a Jewish community because I wanted to continue to do Israel-related work. I was senior adult director of the JCC, supervised shlichim, and did Israel programming. I got my MSW from UConn and became associate director at the JCC. Later, when I was executive director of the JCC of Greater New Haven, I still did Israel programming. So, although I’m not in Israel, I am in the Jewish community and I have something to contribute in some measure, both to the community and to my kids – some more, some less, depending on the year and my professional position.
When we settled in West Hartford, my entire extended family was in Israel — and still is. I insisted on two things: my kids speaking Hebrew to me, and taking the kids to Israel every summer to my parents’ home in Haifa (I would also go by myself every winter for a few days). It’s very hard to keep speaking another language with your kids, but I knew that if you want to have some connection to Israel beyond tourist or visitor, you have to know the language. I wanted my children and my brother’s children to be able to speak to each other. Hebrew is the direct and indirect connection that my kids have to Israel, with or without me. My kids are fluent and can function in Israel without me.
Now I go every summer and winter and take my kids and my grandkids when it works out. We still have the family home in Haifa.
Most Israelis in the U.S. try to go to Israel every year or two because we are unique in our connection. Very few Israelis leave and don’t go back. Most of us are not connected to a support system here, unlike in Israel, where you have family and friends. That’s one of the biggest things you miss, so you create a support system among fellow Israelis.
The Israeli Young Emissaries bring Israel close to 1,000 students a month, and to work to make it happen gives me a sense of connection to Israel all the time. When I’m there, I feel like I belong here, and when I’m here, I feel like I belong there, and my work is how I bridge my being there and here so that I can live happily in both places. For me, it’s easier to be happy there, but I made my life here with as much Israel as I can have, and supplemented by going there.
There are Israelis who live from suitcases, not realizing that they’re missing out on their lives. You can still make a connection between living between here and there.
The Drescher family
West Hartford and
Hefer Valley, central Israel
Yosefa Drescher is an Israeli documentary photographer and fine-art photography dealer. Mike Drescher is associate chief of Hartford Hospital’s division of emergency medicine and a member of the advisory committee for the Israeli National Emergency Medical Services and the medical advisory committee of Magen David Adom in Israel. They have three children. Yosefa told us about her family’s journey from Israel to America…and back.
The very first time that I came to the U.S. for more than a visit was when [my husband] Mike was an exchange student from Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem and was sent to a semester at Boston University. That was in 1990, just after we got married. We came back to the U.S. in 1994 for his residency in emergency medicine at Hartford Hospital and stayed for six years. We went back to Israel in 2000, came back to the U.S. in 2005, and moved back to Israel in 2010.
We wanted our kids to have both identities – after all, Mike is an American who moved to Israel after college. His whole family is in the U.S. We wanted our kids to be comfortable in both cultures. We gave them this identity by being part of the greater Hartford Jewish community. They went to Solomon Schechter Day School; we belonged to Beth David Synagogue and the JCC. The Israeli identity was pretty simple: we had some Israeli friends – definitely not only; we did not choose our friends based on their countries of origin – and we always knew and told our kids that we were going to move back to Israel. We decided that we would and even though life in the U.S. was great, we knew we must go back to Israel.
I grew up in a very Zionistic home. My parents came to Israel from a free Western country, England, because they thought that Jews should live in Israel. The same was true for Mike, who moved from the U.S. after growing up in a very typical [Conservative] Jewish household. There was nothing that “forced” him out of the land of plenty to Israel. We are not what you would call “observant” or “religious,” so nothing really predicted that we would end up back in Israel besides our very strong Zionist conviction. I do think that Jews should live in Israel. It is obvious to me that not all Jews will live here and I know it is not the easiest country to live in but neither is the U.S.
I do not know where the kids will end up living. Atalya just started a six-year army service so she is here in Israel for the next six years. Yasmin is in high school and Avshalom is in middle school. I will not be surprised if they will live part of their lives in the U.S. or somewhere else. I think that it is a great experience and it is good to be an expat: it opens your mind and humbles your soul. I am very happy that my kids were able to grow up in two places; I think that they are better people because of that. I hope that, just like us, they will come back here to Israel. The truth is that my other real reason for moving back to Israel is to have a chance at having my grown-up kids near me. In the U.S., many kids move out after high school and might never be back in the same area. I wanted my kids to be close to me when they are older. If they choose to live abroad, they will be far…but if they live in Israel, they will not be able to be far away from us; the country is just too small.
New poll takes snapshot of Israelis in America
By Cindy Mindell
The year 2013 brought a lot of new insight into the changing Jewish community. From the Pew Center’s “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” to the latest edition of the American Jewish Year Book, we learned that synagogue and religious affiliation is down, but Jewish life is growing and thriving in increasingly creative ways.
A newly released study gets more specific about one significant facet of the American Jewish community, singling out Israeli-Americans to better understand the habits and needs of this growing community.
According to recent population studies, Israeli-Americans living in the U.S. number between 500,000 and one million. Last December, the Israeli American Council (IAC) got a clearer picture of this community, commissioning a poll of 1,598 people ages 16 to 65 in 40 states. The survey, “Israelis and Israeli-Americans Living in the United States: Perceptions, Attitudes and Behavior,” is the first known study of its kind.
The study divided participants into those who have lived in the U.S. for less than 10 years and those who have lived here for more than a decade. While most Israelis in the U.S. feel a sense of ownership toward Israel no matter how long they have lived here, the study found that certain attitudes change. For example, the level of interest in Israel’s politics and internal issues increases, as does the need to defend Israel when it is criticized. So, too, do attitudes toward American politics and American Jews change over time: the belief that Jews in the U.S. strengthen Israel increases, as does the effect of a political candidate’s attitude toward Israel on the will to vote for him or her.
Among second-generation Israelis in the U.S., trends reflect those of the Jewish community at large. There is more intermarriage than in their parents’ generation and a decrease in Hebrew fluency, but an increase in the number of Israeli parents who send their children to Jewish preschools or day schools.
“This is the first significant step to learn about tendencies of the community as a whole,” says Dr. Mina Tzemach, Midgam’s lead pollster. “The bottom line is that the results might not be perfect, but the survey presents for the first time a picture of this community.”
To read the full survey: israeliamerican.org/research-and-publications.