Blazing new path, Religious Affairs Ministry looks to connect with expats in US

Minister Kahana says project will aim to keep hundreds of thousands of Israelis linked to former home, after years of being ignored by government outreach to Jewish communities

Pro-Israel demonstrators gather outside the Federal Building during a rally in support of Israel in Los Angeles, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP/Jae C. Hong)
Pro-Israel demonstrators gather outside the Federal Building during a rally in support of Israel in Los Angeles, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. (AP/Jae C. Hong)

Israel is set to launch a new initiative aimed at reaching out to expats living in the United States, seeking to strengthen Jewish and Israeli identity among a growing community that has traditionally had little formal contact with the government in Jerusalem, The Times of Israel has learned.

The campaign, which is set to be announced formally in coming weeks, will be run by the Religious Affairs Ministry, rather than the Diaspora Ministry, which traditionally handles outreach to Jewish communities abroad. Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana specifically requested the project be allocated to his ministry, despite the fact that it usually operates within the confines of Israel’s borders.

The budget for the project is not yet clear, and it’s fate will be tied to government efforts to pass a state budget for 2021-2022, set to come to a vote next month.

Kahana, a member of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, described the initiative as a chance to connect with a community that he said has traditionally received little attention from Jerusalem on non-consular matters.

“Until now, we’ve worked to ensure relations with the Jews born and raised in countries around the world, but the Israelis who left usually receive less attention,” he said.

Between 500,000 and 800,000 Israeli expatriates live across the US, according to the Israeli-American Council, and the number is thought to be growing. The 2010 US census listed about 140,000 Israeli citizens living in the US, though some claimed that number to be too low.

The largest communities are in New York and Los Angeles, with significant numbers in the Bay Area in California, Boston, Miami, Chicago and Dallas as well, among other large cities.

Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana speaks in the Knesset on June 28, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

While some communities of former Israelis have organized social and religious activities, and many have connections with local Jewish communities, a large number of Israeli expats remain unaffiliated with Jewish organizations in the US, a trend Kahana is hoping to reverse.

Among other activities, Kahana is looking to dispatch Israeli emissaries to the US to liaise with these communities, mimicking other types of emissaries sent from Israel that generally engage with the wider Jewish community.

The project will also seek to bolster branches of Israeli youth groups in the US, such as the Tzofim, or Scouts. The effort will be aimed at keeping Israelis in the US and their children connected to Jewish or Israeli causes.

A customer checks out Israeli goods at the Holyland Market in the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan on August 11, 2020. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

The Diaspora Ministry, which for years was controlled by Bennett, has traditionally managed outreach to Jews outside of Israel, usually lumping Israeli expats in with wider Jewish communities.

In 2011, a campaign by the Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Ministry drew wide complaints for what critics saw as a heavy-handed effort to connect Israeli expats with Israel and Judaism. Ads portrayed the children of expats as ignorant about the existence of Hanukkah and other Jewish touchstones, which many saw as redolent of Israeli cultural disdain for Jews who make “yerida,” a pejorative term meaning descend used for those who leave the Jewish state.

“The connection with communities of Israelis in the Diaspora is important to the State of Israel,” Kahana told ToI. “They are our brothers and sisters and we want them and their children to feel that they are part of the people of Israel.”

In August, Bennett’s cabinet voted to double the budget for the Diaspora Affairs Ministry and earmark NIS 40 million ($12.3 million) for outreach to progressive Jewish denominations in the US.

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