Israeli-American Council set to launch social network for Israeli expats

Contemporary American Jews are looking for that added Israel engagement in order to bolster their own identities.

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July 22, 2015 20:30
4 minute read.
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“Israelis don’t know how to live in the Diaspora,” Shawn Evenhaim says, leaning forward in his chair with an intent look.

Speaking at The Jerusalem Post editorial offices on Wednesday, the chairman of the Israeli-American Council explained that those born in the Jewish state were not raised with the same tools for dealing with life as a minority as their co-religionists born abroad, and are therefore in need of help in passing on their Jewish identity.

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“In Israel, you can watch movies in your house on Yom Kippur, but when you leave your apartment there is Yom Kippur in the air and on the streets. In the United States, if you don’t do these things there is nothing,” he explained.

While in Israel, the state and rabbinate provide everything necessary for religion and Jewish identity, achieving these in the Diaspora requires active participation, Evenhaim said.

Inculcating young American- Israeli expatriates with both strong Jewish and Israeli identities is the primary challenge, Evenhaim said.

While he doesn’t want Israelis abroad to blend into local Jewish communities and lose their distinctiveness, he sees it as important that the two connect.

He believes this is especially important because contemporary American Jews are looking for extra engagement with Israel in order to bolster their own identities.



“It’s important to not create [isolated] silos. We must do things together,” he said.

For those living abroad, “Bamba [snacks] and Israeli television don’t solve the problem” of expats remaining in touch with Israeli culture. Sometimes a split between Jewish Diaspora communities and the parallel Israeli expatriate ones, Evenhaim said.

Speaking Hebrew at home and getting involved in Jewish – if not necessarily religious – activities are important, Evenhaim believes.

Abroad, without a Jewish day school education or some sort of Jewish participation at home there is “nothing there” in terms of Jewish life, he continued.

When parents come to him with children who no longer feel connected to either Judaism or Israel and ask what they did wrong, he asks: “What did you do right?” He estimates that there may be as many as 800,000 Israelis living in the United States and that a significant proportion of them have largely been in denial about their status.

“We are one of the only groups of immigrants that sits on the fence for so long” about staying abroad, he said.

Part of the solution, to his mind, has been building a community infrastructure with cultural centers around the US, Shabbat dinner programs tailored for Israelis, and sponsorship of groups such as American chapters of the Israeli Scouts.

It is all part of a plan to offer a wide variety of activities and let people choose what fits them best, he said.

You have to offer the “whole menu” as there is “no silver bullet” nor any “one thing that works,” he explained.

With offices in Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, Miami, Boston and New Jersey and a presence in many other cities, the Israeli-American Council has expanded significantly since its establishment in 2007 and is currently planning a $10 million community center in Los Angeles.

It also runs a Hebrew language “blue and white” summer camp.

Additionally, the group plans to create its own social network for Israelis abroad in an effort to create community cohesion. It is expected to go live by the end of the year.

“Lots of resources are to be put toward this,” he said.

In addition to connecting Israelis abroad to Jewish life and strengthening Jewish life in the Diaspora through the infusion of Israeli culture, the IAC sees itself as a nonpartisan advocate and strategic resource for the Jewish state.

Evenhaim complained that there are those who have accused his organization of partisanship. He cited his role in bringing together leftwing Israeli-American philanthropist Haim Saban and his conservative counterpart, American Sheldon Adelson, in order to establish their joint initiative to combat BDS as proof that the organization does not “take sides.”

Just because he has accepted money from Adelson does not mean that he has taken a political position, Evenhaim asserted. He asked if Birthright can be considered partisan because it accepts Adelson’s funding.

“We also have Saban as well,” he said.

Despite being nonpartisan, the organization appears political aware. Questioned about the recent Iran nuclear deal, Evenhaim said he was firmly against it, calling it a “bad deal for America.”

“It’s a mess,” he said. “I respect the president as my president... but it’s the wrong decision. From our perspective it’s not taking sides. It’s political in a way but it’s not taking sides.”

Attitudes toward Israel expatriates – known by the derogative term “yordim” in Hebrew – have definitely changed in recent years. He cites Israeli politicians such as Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, who have called Israelis living abroad “ambassadors,” as proof.

Asked if he has any expectations from the government, Evenhaim said Israeli-American Council exists to support Israel and has “no requests from the government. We don’t want funding. We want collaboration and we already have that.”

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