Israelis in the Diaspora: Seeking a Jewish Identity

by Rivka Chaya Berman - TORONTO, CANADA

April 26, 2006

Just eighteen months ago, Mira Zomer hugged her family and friends in Ranana goodbye, a pretty suburb in Israel, and boarded a plane for Toronto. Transitioning from “shalom” to “hello” didn’t jar Zomer, a capable English speaker, as much as the pinch of being a stranger in a strange land. The pain eased, somewhat, when she found her new job at Beth Chabad Israeli Community Centre of Toronto.

Everyone speaks rapid-fire Hebrew at the Centre. Voicemail announcements are in Hebrew. Program flyers ditto. “It makes the whole process so much easier, coming to a new country and adjusting,” said Zomer.

Explosive growth of Chabad-Lubavitch centers, allow a growing number of them to specialize not just in outreach, but in niche-reach. Toronto, Los Angeles, Staten Island, Philadelphia, and Rockville, MD, are just a few of the Chabad centers catering to Hebrew speakers.

The arterial gush of Israelis backpacking or moving far from home has driven the creation of Chabad activities where Hebrew is the lingua franca in Argentina, Republic of Congo, New Zealand and beyond. An Israeli travel website lists pages of Chabad contact numbers in India. Chabad in Moscow hosted a Hebrew-only Passover Seder attended by hundreds of Israelis. Mothers hunting for wandering sons post messages on Chabad of Thailand’s Hebrew web board.

Israel’s boom-bust economy, constant threat of terror, and the post-army service rite of passage--country hopping --lure Israelis to distant shores. They pack up for business opportunities, diplomatic duties, educational pursuits and a duffel bag full of other motives, but few anticipate the impact of what it means to leave Israel behind. “Even if they were secular people, they were Jewish, as was everyone else. Until they were out of the country, they didn’t realize how much it meant to them and how much they would miss it,” said Fayge Yemini, who founded Chabad Israel Center of Los Angeles with her husband Rabbi Amitai Yemini 25 years ago.

Chabad Israeli centers provide a taste of home--with Gashash Hahiver comedy trio skits on DVD and cumin spiked chicken bits sizzling on the barbecue--with a dash of reality. Secular Israelis may have hosted Sukkah parties, lit Chanukah candles, and celebrated bar mitzvahs, “but don’t know of the deeper significance. We show them a different dimension,” said Yemini. Israelis, who would never step foot in a synagogue because of the bitter rupture between religious and secular in Israel, seek familiarity at Chabad centers and find the “animosity born of that society diminishes,” she said.

Yemini’s words ring true to Revital and Mordechay Ganon of Staten Island, NY. Revital grew up in Israel as a "secular-chiloni" Jew and had never seen the inside of a religious "dati" home until she met Rabbi Nachman and Chaya Segal of Chabad Israeli Center. “When you come to a place where the dati respect me as a chiloni, it is hamon kavod,” said Ganon using the Hebrew term for a distinguished honor. Already on the path toward a more observant lifestyle, Ganon and her family turn to the Segals for answers to the whys behind practices they had seen but never understood.

On Friday nights, when the weather is warm, snatches of Hebrew conversation drift up through the Segals’ open windows. The Heartland Village neighborhood of Staten Island is so dense with Israelis that Rabbi Segal often first meets community members on his Friday afternoon tefillin sessions at the local Israeli market. Attracting Israelis busy sculpting a new life in America, demands savvy and instinctive understanding of Israeli culture. The Segal’s latest project, "Sichat Ha-Shavua"--a weekly all-Hebrew mailer of Chasidic insights to the weekly Torah portion is drawing positive feedback from many of the 350 families who receive it. Otherwise “How much Hebrew mail do they get?” said Chaya Segal.

The Segal’s standout mailing points to the reality faced by Chabad Israeli centers. First generation émigrés are gratified to see Hebrew letters in the mailbox. But their kids follow the pattern of America’s melting pot. They speak Hebrew rolling their ‘r’s like natives, but marry Californians. They enjoy a good shwarma sandwich but love sushi. The Yeminis opened a preschool-- enrolled to capacity with 70 children--to keep young families involved; their camp bursts with 250 children and teens each summer. The Segals are renovating a spacious house for a new center on a business thoroughfare a bit away from areas already served by existing centers of Israeli life. “It’s an opportunity for us to reach Israelis who haven’t clustered around what’s currently offered,” said Segal.

As the Israeli expatriate community grows and changes, Yemini lives by the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s instructive words. The Hebrew name for Chabad’s Israeli centers literally translates as “Chabad for Hebrew Speakers,” not Israelis. The Rebbe taught, said Yemini, “Israelis don’t exist as Israelis. They exist as Jews.”

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