Narrowing the gap between American and Israeli Jews

To ensure that American and Israeli Jews remain one people, we as Americans must strengthen our bond with Israel.

Israel US flag 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel US flag 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Two major and roughly equal- sized branches of the Jewish people live in Israel and the United States. We are separated by distance and diverging more and more by culture. In other words, we are gradually becoming (or have already become) two different people. This is a very unfortunate development, especially for a nation as small in numbers as our own – around 14 million – in a world that is big and often hostile, especially to the Jewish people.
Some attributes that make us one people, rather than just coreligionists, are common history, common ancestry, common ethnicity, common historical homeland, common language, common culture and common traditions.
To ensure that American and Israeli Jews remain one people, we as Americans must strengthen our bond with Israel.
Physical presence in Israel is the best way to do this. While a large aliyah is unlikely at the present time, American Jews should spend more time in Israel.
Unfortunately, a surprisingly large percentage of American Jews have never even visited Israel, and some don’t care about Israel at all. As for those who do, an occasional lecture, editorial or contribution is not enough.
So what are some specific suggestions to narrow the gap between American and Israeli Jews? To start the conversation, here are some ideas for: (1) national and international Jewish organizations; and (2) individual congregations and the Jewish community.
Suggestions for large Jewish organizations
• Encourage American retirees to spend winters in Israel instead of Florida. If they like it there, their children and grandchildren will follow.
• Organize reasonably priced vacation camps in Israel for adults, families and children. The programs should focus on Israeli history and culture, and the Hebrew language. As an alternative, organize similar Hebrew family camps in the United States.
• Promote children’s summer camps that foster Jewish pride, knowledge of Jewish and Israeli history and camper exchange programs that bring Israeli campers to the United States and American campers to Israel.
• Continue to support Birthright trips and encourage young people to attend.
• Make inexpensive blocks of apartments or small cottages available on kibbutzim or moshavim for rent or purchase.
• Make timeshares available on the Mediterranean coast.
• Encourage Israelis residing in the United States to volunteer at least one hour a week to reach out in their communities and organize groups of people to speak Hebrew and discuss Israeli news.
• Promote Israeli news on, Shalom TV and the Jewish press.
• Encourage Jewish newspapers to maintain a running column called “How to Narrow the Gap,” and thus provide a forum for readers to share ideas, information and experiences about improving our connections with Israel.
Suggestions for individual congregations and the Jewish community
• Organize the study of Hebrew, preferably through a community-wide ulpan.
• Organize a Hebrew conversational group conducted by Israeli members of the community.
• Organize a group to discuss Israeli news.
• Have presentations on Israeli and Jewish history.
• Widely disseminate information from Jewish Federations and local temples regarding events related to Israel.
• Foster relationships and cooperation between Israel committees of different synagogues.
• Encourage American kids to communicate with Israeli kids.
• Become a sister synagogue with a synagogue in Israel.
• Make arrangements to rent, on a permanent basis, a few units in a guest house on a moshav or kibbutz so that community members can take turns renting the units, and for a short time, living as Israelis in a Hebrew environment.
• Organize screenings of Israeli movies followed by discussions.
• Encourage all members of the community to participate in this effort and share their ideas.
MOST OF these ideas directly or indirectly lead to Americans visiting Israel for extended periods. When Americans do visit Israel, they should have access to programs that teach Israeli history, culture, Hebrew, and generally provide exposure to Israelis. Such programs will benefit American Jewry, and will encourage close connections between American and Israeli Jews, which may not develop on shorter and more expensive tourist visits.
Indeed, the cost of visiting and staying in Israel is a common deterrent to American visitors.
Israelis will benefit from these pro- grams too. They will learn about American culture (including our tradition of politeness) and the religious pluralism of American Jewry, improve their knowledge of English, and receive invaluable moral, and perhaps financial, support.
Moreover, spending a vacation, or part of it, in Israel will not prevent Americans from visiting other places.
To give just one example, flying to Israel on Air France makes it possible to stop in Paris for some time before continuing to Israel.
Some of the ideas above might not be practical, but hopefully others are.
As a Jewish people, we must continue this conversation, so that when we say “next year in Jerusalem,” we do not really mean “next year in Florida.”
The writer is a mechanical engineer who emigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union in 1979. He has visited Israel once, and often twice, during every year since then.