Israeli Expats Strengthen Jewish Identity in Diaspora

Israeli Expats Strengthen Jewish Identity in Diaspora

Israelis and their children at the the Chabad Israeli Center in Atlanta, GA.

by Dvora Lakein - Atlanta, GA

March 14, 2008

As the Israeli government launches a dynamic campaign to lure expatriates back, many are conflicted as to which country they wish to call home. With a goal of 10,000 returnees by Israel's 60th anniversary this May, and double that each year hence, Israel is tempting its wayward citizens with tax breaks, loans, and job offers.

“I would never say no,” concedes Naftali Yair, “but I really don’t know.” Yair is originally from Jerusalem, but has had an Atlanta address for 21 years. His decision to return would be based heavily on economic considerations. And his wife’s willingness: she is American.

But even though their geographic allegiance may be conflicted, many of the 450,000 currently in the States have found a different kind of home. Secular Israelis often discover religion, oddly enough, only after leaving the country.

“In Israel,” says Dr. Sorin Vainer, “religion and politics are intertwined.” Vainer, who has been practicing medicine in Atlanta for almost two decades, opened up to religious life only on these shores. “Here they [rabbis] are more approachable,” he says, “Chabad makes you feel welcome.”

Yair considers another factor for Jewish expats: “In Israel, we all felt Jewish doing nothing. Here you need to do something to feel Jewish, whether it’s synagogue, community, or JCC.”


Both Yair and Vainer are regulars at the newly-minted Chabad Israeli Center of Atlanta. Rabbi Menachem Gurary, an Israeli himself, says the center has connected with 800 Israelis since it opened eight months ago. There are 7,000 Israelis in Atlanta.

Chabad Houses catering solely to Israelis have surfaced in all major metropolises. While many Israelis come disliking religious Jews who criticize their secularism and their politics, they are surprised to find censure on the opposite side of the aisle, as well. Liberal American Jews condemn the country for being “an apartheid state” and for being too religious.

 At Chabad, though, Israelis find acceptance. “My connection to Judaism is greater here with Chabad, absolutely, than it was in Israel,” says Yair.

Depending on location and clientele, Chabad Rabbis know how to tweak their approach while maintaining high fealty to Jewish law and tradition. Although they speak Hebrew at home, Israeli parents ask Rabbi Gurary to teach their children the nuances of the language. Events need to be Israeli style and serve Israeli food. At a recent Chanukah concert featuring Israeli superstar Yehoram Gaon, 500 Israelis packed into the hall. Although he enjoyed the evening, Yair admits he would not have gone to the same performance in Israel. “I came here just to feel the connection.”

Rabbi Uriel Vigler tries to give the thousands of Israelis who live on New York’s Upper East Side that connection to their homeland. Among his crowd, he says, “every single one has the dream to return. Some make it some don’t.”

Tali Levy came to America a year ago and has been attending the rabbi’s Torah classes for seven months. She says that the Chabad House strengthens her Israeli identity.

“Rabbi Uriel is very involved with Israel; Chabad is a place where I can discuss my feelings and opinions [about Israel] with people like me.” Despite the fact that she doesn’t know if she will return to Israel, (“I like it so much here”), she says that “being Israeli is everything. You can’t ever detach—everything that happens there affects me.”


Even the secular Israelis, says Rabbi Menachem Slavaticki who runs the Chabad Israeli Center of Greater Chicago, don’t need to be taught the basics of Jewish holidays or how to hold a siddur and read Hebrew. What they do appreciate “is gaining a deeper understanding.” He tries to make his home, “warm: Israeli style.” There are 15,000 Israelis living in the greater Chicago area. Most, explain the Rabbi, did not plan on staying as long as they have. “Many come for a few years to make some money, and end up staying forever.”

Until recently, that was the case for Danny Halpert. He “did not plan to stay long when he accepted a job offer in Chicago 17 years ago. This summer, Halpert will be bringing his family “home.” He elaborates, “It’s where we belong.” Halpert describes life in America as more comfortable than Israel. But, “long-term I want my kids to stay in Israel.” As his oldest nears the age of 12, he realized “I had to make the decision before he made it for me.”

Chance are, his child may well have chosen to return to Israel. A recent study showed that children of Israeli expats are returning in growing numbers, to Israel, to serve in the IDF, with 70 percent choosing to remain in Israel after their discharge, and 30 percent of their parents following their children back to Israel.

When Halpert left the land 20 years ago he was not religious. Involvement with Chabad in Chicago has helped cement his spirituality: a spirituality he plans on taking back to the Holy Land. His children will go to religious schools come September.

From his Atlanta home, Yair says he “came to America by accident.” His army base was on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. There he met many Americans, whom he followed back for a visit. He is comfortable with his Judaism now, more comfortable than he ever was. And he still maintains pride in his land of origin. “It’s very tough to lose your connection with Israel,” he says, a connection he strengthens via Israeli TV, newspapers, and websites.

The Israeli Ministry is clearly challenged as it tries to make Israel as appealing as life in the major cities of America. Wherever its citizens choose to ultimately settle, though, and despite some reports to the contrary, it seems many take serious steps to discover a meaningful Jewish identity in the diaspora.

The medieval poet Yehuda Halevi, author of The Kuzari said it in words that reflect the feelings of Levy and many of her friends: “My heart is in the east and I am at the edge of the west.”

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