TORONTO – The World Council of Israelis Abroad held its first-ever conference in Toronto this month, under the theme “Building Bridges to World Jewry and the State of Israel.”

The three-day meeting was sponsored by the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs and the Mishelanu Organization for Israelis Abroad.

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Amir Gissin, the consul-general in Toronto, said at the opening on January 18 that there is a “consensus” at Israeli missions about “the importance of maintaining Israel as an option for the second generation of Israelis [abroad]. They didn’t choose to leave. Their parents did.

Research shows that the most successful olim “are second generation Israelis – those who were born in Israel and left at a young age or who were born abroad but grew up in a Hebrew-speaking household,” he said.

“Those who decide to return have a successful absorption and become again a part of [Israeli] society.”

Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein spoke of “Israel’s need to present itself effectively to the world, and how Israelis abroad can be partners in this.”

Gissin said Edelstein’s message was “honest and relevant” but that unfortunately in his experience, it is not necessarily the case that Israelis abroad will be involved as “active and effective supporters for hasbara [Israel advocacy].”

He added that “it is a personal choice,” and that although he has tried for years to recruit and engage Israelis “proactively” for this purpose, “the results were less effective than I thought.”

Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, also spoke at the event.

Ted Sokolsky, president and CEO of the UJA Federation of Toronto, said the conference was “a historical marker” and a metaphor for the change in attitude in “regard to understanding the unique role of Israelis abroad both to Diaspora Jewish communities and to the State of Israel.”

The conference was organized around three main pillars: building an Israeli community abroad, the relationship between the local Israeli and Jewish communities, and the relationship between the State of Israel and Israelis abroad.

“Five years ago in Toronto we [the federation] realized that we’d failed miserably in relating to Israelis who come to Toronto...

Our approach was paternalistic... We began reaching out and created an Israeli forum to find internal leadership in the Israeli community,” Sokolsky told this reporter.

One very successful outcome of this new approach, according to Sokolsky, was Kachol’v’Lavan, a supplementary after-school program which “was started in Hebrew for the children of Israelis and now includes Canadian Jews looking for quality Hebrew training. Another success is the building of a new Jewish community center in Toronto, in an area where there are a lot of Israelis among the 75,000 Jews.

“Israelis have been part of the creation of this facility, scheduled to open in 2012 and have a strong sense of ownership,” he said.

“We have all realized that expatriates can be an asset to a country,” Sokolsky said, describing the Israelis who have moved to Toronto since 2000 as “more confident,” with far less of “a sense of isolation” than in previous years.

“They don’t see themselves as yordim, but as Israelis working and living abroad... They are also very conscious that they have to make a strong effort if they want their kids to be Jewish,” he said.

Prof. Renat Cohen from York University said, “Rather than requiring complete incorporation by either Israel or the local community, Israelis in Canada, or at least in Toronto, are establishing and strengthening their own distinct community.”

If this “stream of migration slows down, the Israeli community is likely, in a generation or two, to completely integrate in the general Jewish community. Either way – the “Myth of Return” [to Israel] is still alive,” she said.

Jennie Starr, the founder and director of the Tarbuton nonprofit institution in San Diego, said the conference was an “exceptional opportunity for all organizations to focus on first, second generation Israelis and third generation Israelis abroad.”

Tarbuton provides “Israeli-themed programs and classes for the local Israeli and Jewish community... offering opportunities to learn and maintain their Hebrew language skills, share their traditions and build a deeper connection to Israel.”

Starr grew up in a home where her Israeli father and American mother did not speak Hebrew with their children, though they provided a rich Israeli environment filled with Israeli food, music and holiday celebrations.

“We did not join synagogues and I had only two years in a day school. It wasn’t matim [suitable] really for us. We visited Israel every four-five years, the most we could afford at the time,” said.

She did not begin to learn to speak Hebrew until she “married an American who lived in Israel for seven years and could speak Hebrew fluently.”

When they had a child Starr wanted to provide “linguistic continuity” and connection to Israel. She started Kishkushim, a Tarbuton program, as “a mommy and baby play group” for Hebrew-speakers, as a way of “building an enclave for the continuation of the Hebrew language,” and later added a formal after-school program with classes for reading and writing skills.

Tarbuton participants learn “Hebrew, their roots, the history of Israel, and Yahadut [Judaism] in a way that that is consistent with Israeli traditions around the hagim [festivals] which are in many cases celebrated differently than in Jewish American organizational settings.”

Starr said the conference focused on ways to build “business relationships, and collaborative projects between Israeli businesses and expatriates,” as well as “looking at how we can maintain linguistic continuity of the Hebrew language” and “maintain and build both Jewish and Israeli identity.”

Uzi Rebhun, from the Harman Institute of Contemporary Judaism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, presented data regarding “Israeli Identification and Attachment to Homeland Among Israelis Abroad.”

There are believed to be about 1 million Israelis in the Diaspora, mostly in North America, with significant numbers in Europe and Australia.

According to Rebhun, about 22 percent of Israelis living overseas stay abroad for 11 or more years, 27% stay abroad for six- 10 years, 22% stay three-five years, and 17% stay abroad for less than two years.

Over 56% of Israelis who emigrate are between the ages of 18 and 29, more than 29% are between the ages of 30 and 39, and only about 2% move overseas when they are between the ages of 50 and 59.

A very important way they stay connected to Israel is through newspapers, Rebhun reported. Only 3.7% of Israelis abroad said that they never read an Israeli newspaper, while 76.3% said they “very much” read Israeli newspapers. By comparison, only 48% said they “very much’ listened to Israeli music, and 16.4% “very much” read Israeli literature and poetry. About 35% of Israelis abroad said that they never listened to Israeli radio or watched Israeli television.

Sixty-five percent of Israelis living abroad visit Israel once a year, 13.9% visit every two years, 8.4% visit every three years, and 12.5% once every four years or less.

Rhonda Spivak is the editor of an e-paper, www.winnipegjewishreview.com

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