More than 40% of Israeli-Americans said they do not plan to return to Israel, according to a new survey of Israelis living in the US by the Israeli American Council (IAC).
“Most Israeli Americans plan to return to Israel at a certain point, but there are many who have decided to stay in the US,” IAC CEO Shoham Nicolet told The Jerusalem Post. “This has a huge impact in the essence of community building, since if these Israelis have decided to stay in the US, it means that they have to look at their children's future and plan accordingly.”
“This has a huge impact in the essence of community building, since if these Israelis have decided to stay in the US, it means that they have to look at their children's future and plan accordingly.”Shoham Nicolet
“If an Israeli family moves to the US for, say, two years, their mindset is of temporary visitors and they won’t invest as much energy in connecting to the local community and culture. Yet from the second these families decide to stay in the US, they understand they have a need to connect with their Jewish identity, learn the language and invest in a connection of their children to Judaism and to Israel. This is a significant change in the discourse of our community.”
What is life like for Israelis in the US?
The IAC was established 15 years ago, as a local service for Israeli expats in the Los Angeles area. Nowadays it is one of the fastest-growing Jewish organizations in North America. “IAC has changed a lot and the community, as well as the reality, have changed,” Nicolet said.
What he feels still hasn’t changed is the way that Israelis, who live in Israel, view Israeli Americans when they visit the US.
“What surprises me that has not changed, is that we still receive visits from Israeli opinion leaders and policymakers who arrive in our communities, and emphasize that there is a gap in mutual understanding and knowledge of these worlds. It's like we're the same people, we're Jews, we all live in Western countries and societies. We eat the same food, watch the same Netflix, but see that there's a gap in language and in understanding the culture,” he said of Israelis in the US and in Israel.
“It’s hard for Israelis to understand what It's like to live as a minority. It's hard to understand the worldview of getting up in the morning and not being anxious about security issues; about your existence,” Nicolet shared.
“It’s hard for Israelis to understand what It's like to live as a minority. It's hard to understand the worldview of getting up in the morning and not being anxious about security issues; about your existence.”Shoham Nicolet
He said that he sees the IAC as a significant player in this relationship, as well as for the relationship between Israel and the US Jewish community. “Our unique position enables discourse and bridges knowledge. We have the ability to speak both languages and cultures.”
Nicolet shared that he thinks that there isn’t one “American Jewish community,” but rather many smaller communities.
“There is no American Jewish community, but American Jewish communities, and they are very different from each other. It is impossible to generalize. For instance, there is a huge range between Reform Jews with regards to Israel and Judaism. Each community is very different from the other.” He added that the IAC contribution to these Jewish communities is more than 1,000 graduates of the Gvanim program, a leadership program that teaches Jewish and theories.
“In the perspective of 15 years, our graduates have become volunteers and involved in American Jewish communities as lay leaders and professionals. Some American Israelis, who are Gvanim graduates are currently on boards of Jewish Federations or American Jewish organizations. This is a huge effect.”
Nicolet is proud of what he sees as an achievement: “During the 2022 IAC annual conference, about 25% of the participants were American Jews, as opposed to Israeli-Americans,” he said. He gave an example of a young American Jew who decided to join an IAC youth program and said that she identifies as an “Israeli American,” since the IAC is what helped her get closer to Judaism.
“The IAC has suddenly become something that not only Israelis connect with,” Nicolet said, as if he surprised himself with the phenomenon.”
After the major COVID-19 pandemic waves calmed down, Nicolet went on what he calls a “listening tour,” across Israeli American communities in the US. “I asked anyone who I met for three months, ‘why IAC?’ I spoke to hundreds of people and wanted to know why they joined the IAC communities. The answer was overwhelming: Israeliness. The feeling of this connection to Israel is beyond anything. The feeling of Israeli energy or a special Israeli Jewish experience.”
Nicolet explained that the streams of Judaism in the US don’t usually apply to Israeli Americans: “One of the beautiful things about Israelis is that they don't ask you who you identify with. In the US, you have to define if you are an Orthodox or Reform Jew, a Democrat or a Republican. We [Israeli Americans] don't ask you these questions.”
He mentioned the recent visit of President Isaac Herzog to the US and said that “the fact that they invited the IAC to the meeting with the President as an important voice in American Jewry, is special. In the past, we were not in such meetings. As far as the State of Israel is concerned, it took years to get to know us as American Israelis.”
Nicolet is very passionate about what he sees and the positive sides of Israeli immigrants living in the US. “From day one we said to the Israeli government: Look at our phenomenon as a strategic asset,” he said.
As opposed to calls of small Israeli groups to leave the country since the current government is very right-wing and religious, Nicolet said that “most American Israelis have not left the State of Israel as a statement. The Israeli-American story is mostly of Israelis who came to the US for a limited period of time. Most of the Israelis, as I did, came to the US for a year or two in order to achieve something.”
He added that the motto of the IAC is “Israel is in my heart,” and that “If you don't like Israel, you won't feel comfortable with us. Unconditional love is also part of our motto.”
Asked what his answer would be to an American Jew that criticizes the current Israeli government, Nicolet answered that “the defense of Israel has nothing to do with today's or tomorrow's politics.” In his view, he doesn't think that the dialogue should take place via the mass media: “I think that the channel of communication isn’t Twitter or through a press release. There should be discussions and the scale of them should be increased.”
Nicolet speaks of more than 800,000 Israelis and their families living in the US currently. The largest Israeli communities are similar to the largest Jewish populations in the US: Los Angeles, New York and Florida, while the fourth most popular location for Israelis in the US is Northern California. “We know that every community has its advantages. In a place like Boston, there is more biotech and academics. New York has many Israelis in finance and there are many startups in Silicon Valley.” Nicolet said that the Israeli groups that live around the big universities are called kibbutzim.
Nicolet wouldn’t share the religious makeup of the Israeli expats living in the US, but said that in this year’s conference, “there will be a lot more options for participants that keep Shabbat. I was told that it is not strict enough for those who keep Shabbat halachically.” Therefore, on Shabbat, many of the panels won’t have any microphones and some will use microphones that were turned on before Shabbat.
Nicolet spoke of the collaboration with Momentum, the organization dubbed as the Birthright for moms. “I never imagined such a phenomenon that we would send Israeli-American women to Israel in order to discover their Jewish identity.”
Nicolet emphasized that he thinks immersion in Jewish learning and texts are important, since “it will be difficult to preserve generations of Israelis without Judaism. In Israel, you wake up in the morning and feel Judaism in the air. In the US, if you don't make an effort to be Jewish, your child won’t grow up Jewish.” Nicolet also said that “many Israelis discovered their Judaism in the US, rather than in Israel.”
This year’s IAC national conference will take place on January 19 for three days in Austin, Texas, after years of existing in Washington and South Florida.
“The big highlight is the launch of the Israeli-American Business Playground, which will be three days of a business conference like no other in the US,” Nicolet said. “Secondly, the issue of antisemitism and the war on BDS, especially in US schools, will be very strong.”
In addition, he shared that there will be an emphasis on the younger generations of Israeli-Americans and therefore the main musical performance will star Israeli pop sensation Noa Kirel. “Noa communicates a language that I personally don't communicate; a connection to the younger generation. Also Israeli astronaut Eytan Stibbe will speak with youth about the connection of teenagers to space.”
Nicolet shared that “Austin is the capital of Texas and an innovative city,” and that “it's a statement on our behalf that we are convening in a city where there is a growing Israeli American community.”