For more than 60 years, the Jewish Diaspora and the government of Israel have enjoyed a largely monogamous “Jewish identity relationship.” The emergence of an Israeli Diaspora, with an estimated 500,000 Israelis building a communal life abroad, is shaking the Jewish boat. Most of these Israelis make little effort to engage with the local Jewish community and see little value in investing in organized Jewish life. This changing Jewish world requires strong leadership within the institutionalized Jewish community and from the organized Israeli community.
Last June, the authors of this article — both of us from the Reut Institute — conducted a study visit in Toronto as part of a process to formulate a conceptual and operational framework on the role of the Israeli diaspora within the context of the changing relationship between Israel and the Jewish world. This project, funded by the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, was designed to assist Jewish communal organizations, the Israeli government and Israeli leaders abroad to assume an active role in building thriving and sustainable Israeli-Jewish community.
Like other national immigrant communities in Toronto, many Israelis, particularly in the first phase after arrival, search for the familiar. This search gave birth to a “Little Israel” in which Israelis can socialize in Hebrew, watch Israeli television and drink iced coffee at the Aroma Espresso Bar. For Israelis, Diaspora Jewish communal life represents something that is both entirely foreign and suspicious as well as strangely comfortable. Similarly, while “Little Israel” is smack in the heart of the Jewish community, Israelis are under represented in organized Jewish life.
The presence and growing strength of Israeli communities abroad presents a significant ideological and organizational challenge as well as opportunity for local Jewish communities and the State of Israel. And while each of these players has begun to recognize the presence and value of Israeli communities outside Israel, efforts to engage these communities have been ad hoc, at best.
Just as Israeli emigrants were often viewed as “deserters” back in Israel, so too did the North American Jewish community close its doors to them. However, the attitudes of Jewish communal leaders and organizations toward Israeli immigrants are shifting with vigor. In Toronto, the local Federation has become the leading Jewish communal organization in North America in prioritizing and investing resources in the “Israeli community” issue. Apart from a desire to broaden potential sources of funding, the Jewish community there has much to gain from a strong connection to its Israelis, particularly a strengthened connection between the local Jewish community and Israel – including Israeli culture, the Hebrew language and entrepreneurial spirit.
In conjunction with these developments, a growing number of Israelis have come to recognize the limitations of the Israeli identity container abroad. The leaders of this group, which we call North America Jewish Sabras (NAJS), are driven to ensure a hybrid identity that can be transmitted to the next generation and is composed of a strong connection to the local Jewish community and a Jewish education (be it day school or supplementary).
However, while the doors to the Federation have been opened and Israelis are beginning to value a Jewish identity for their children, few Israelis have responded to the invitation. Israelis are still unlikely to volunteer their time, energy or money toward organized Jewish life.
It is not necessarily “the lack of Israeli leadership,” a recurring argument that we heard from Jewish professionals and lay leaders, that prevents this engagement, but rather resentment, suspicion and a thorough lack of understanding of the model of Jewish communal organization.
This entrenched resentment is unlikely to change overnight. It requires local Jewish leaders and the Israeli government to work together with the local Israeli leaders to cultivate strong Israeli communities characterized by their hybridism and with the long-term vision of becoming part of the local Jewish community. While, the burden of the responsibility for doing that lies with the local Israeli leadership, Jewish communal organizations can support and incentivize the creation of an Israeli social space in which their uniqueness within local Jewish life can find expression.
Such “hybrid” programs already exist is Toronto and elsewhere. In these programs Jewish and Hebrew education are offered, strong connection to the local Jewish community is emphasized, and a vibrant connection to the state of Israel and Israeli culture is celebrated. Yet, the scope of these programs remains modest, and there is still a long way to go before the Israeli diaspora will be an integral part of the organized Jewish community.
Eran Shayshon and Alissa Breiman are from the Reut Institute. Reut and the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto will host a workshop on this issue at the General Assembly (GA) of the JFNA in mid-November, with leaders of both the Jewish and Israeli communities of North America.