92nd Street Y gives expat kids better sense of Israeliness

NYC program provides "as authentic an Israeli cultural experience as you can have outside Israel."

israeli expats new york (photo credit: Courtesy of Tzameret Fuerst)
israeli expats new york
(photo credit: Courtesy of Tzameret Fuerst)
What sort of Hebrew school makes sense for a child who already knows Hebrew? For decades, that has been a question facing Israelis living in the US - parents who want to instill not just a Jewish identity, but a specifically Israeli sensibility in children growing up outside of Israel. This fall, the 92nd Street Y is giving those parents an answer: "Israeliness," a twice-monthly program conducted in Hebrew and focusing on Israeli culture and enrichment. Kicking off in mid-September, the sessions will run roughly from the High Holidays through Lag Ba'omer in late spring and involve storytelling, music and other activities designed to strengthen a child's connection to Israel. "We've developed a program that is really meant to provide as authentic an Israeli cultural experience for young children and families as you can have outside Israel," says Marty Maskowitz, the director of Jewish life at the 92nd Street Y. First offered during a 10-session pilot run in the winter of 2007, "Israeliness" came together after a convergence of efforts by the 92nd Street Y and a group of young Israeli parents living in the New York area who were concerned with passing on their heritage but not satisfied with traditional Hebrew schools and other local Jewish programming. "'Israeliness' was really created in a sense to bridge the gap between Israeli culture and American Jewish life," says Tzameret Fuerst, the program's founder and the mother of two past participants. "What that really means is that we've created a community for parents who are Israelis and want to maintain their Israeliness, [who] want to celebrate that with their children as part of a community." Since they first began arriving in the US - for work, study and other reasons - Israeli parents have found themselves a minority within a minority, strongly connected to their Jewish background but not always in sync with their American Jewish counterparts, and vice versa. Fuerst, who was born in Israel, has experienced the disconnect twice: first, during 11 years of her childhood that she spent in California, and again as a parent who returned to the US after completing military service and higher education back in Israel. A former chairwoman of Dor Chadash, an organization fostering ties between American and Israeli Jews with an affinity for Israel, Fuerst says the idea for "Israeliness" took shape because of dissatisfaction with her son's Jewish education, which lacked the Israeli cultural components she hoped he would absorb. At roughly the same time, the 92nd Street Y also began to examine the possibility of a program for New York's Israeli expat community, following a successful experiment aimed at Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. "There was an understanding and realization that this has been an under-serviced community," says Maskowitz, "that the Israeli community has traditionally not been reached out to for a lot of different reasons." Some of those reasons, he explained, were seen as purely practical - Israelis were only in the US for a limited time, the thinking went, and consequently were not as worthy of investment as other groups. But in many cases, Fuerst noted, the decision was also ideological: "You do not engage Israelis, because Israelis need to live in Israel, and they need to go back and do the army," she says. "For decades, no organization managed to bring masses of Israelis to be a part of the playing field in the Jewish community." That mentality, she continued, "still exists in some shapes and forms, but I think we've made great strides in the past five years." The 92nd Street Y, for its part, sees New York's Israeli residents partly as a neglected resource for American Jews. "The fact that Israelis are here is wonderful," Maskowitz says. "They have a lot to bring to the community - their Hebrew language is a wonderful gift and would be great for us to capture, as is the Jewish knowledge base they bring." That perspective comes through in what Fuerst describes as the program's "secular Israeli" orientation, which means something different from "secular" among Jewish Americans, she said. "Judaism is basically built in with the Israelis, but it has a different manifestation… [Religion gets] taken for granted when you're living in Israel under a Jewish calendar," and that framework and way of life are missing in the US. For Israeli expats who don't want to rely on synagogues and Jewish schools for their children's sense of identity, "Israeliness" offers programming that celebrates Israel's culture, customs and use of Hebrew in all areas of daily life - not just the Torah study the language is often restricted to here. Previously limited to children six and under, "Israeliness" is expanding this year to include activities for seven- and eight-year-olds. Unlike their younger peers, the older "Israeliness" participants will interact not with their parents, but with the Tzofim, the Israeli equivalent of the Boy and Girl Scouts. While the program is largely comprised of families with two Israeli parents, Fuerst and Maskowitz both note that "mixed couples" - those with a non-Israeli parent - and Americans who are simply passionate about Israel have also been involved. Although activities are conducted in Hebrew, e-mails and other announcements are distributed in English, Maskowitz says. Eventually, Fuerst notes, the hope is for "Israeliness" to offer programming all the way through high school, after which participants become eligible for the Birthright Israel program. The continuing growth of Dor Chadash, targeted at 25- to 40-year-olds, means that Israel-centric programming will be offered from early childhood into middle age. For Fuerst's own children, those later programs won't be necessary, as her family is moving back to Israel, she told The Jerusalem Post. She expressed satisfaction, however, with the expansion of "Israeliness," saying a stronger community structure for Israelis in the US would be good both for them and for their American Jewish counterparts. "Putting American and Israeli Jews together is one of the most important things to maintaining Jewish life in the Diaspora," she says. "That cross-pollination is what will end up sustaining continuity." As for her family's decision to leave "Israeliness" for Israel itself, Fuerst said she saw the move as a purely private matter. "No matter where you live," she says, "it is important that you keep Israel in your heart and that you sustain your children's connection to Israel and [Am Israel]. Where you do that and how you do that is a personal choice."