June 24, 2009
L.A.’s Israelis organize like never before.
“On behalf of the citizens of Israel, I wanted to say thank you,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote in a letter addressed to guests at the Israeli Leadership Council’s (ILC ) first annual gala, held at the Beverly Hilton hotel on May 13. “For standing shoulder to shoulder with Israel, for working to ensure that the deep feeling of solidarity you have toward Israel will be passed onto the next generation and for strengthening unity among our people, which is more important than ever.”
Times sure have changed for Israeli expatriates.
In 1976, in a nationally televised interview on the state of the nation, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin called Israelis who had left the homeland “nefolet shel nemushot” — essentially, fallen weaklings. To leave Israel, the official stance had always been, is a yeridah, a step down, an abandonment of the Holy Land and a cowardly move.
The sentiment stems from the Zionist belief that all Jews belong in Israel, considered their ancient and rightful homeland, and from the Israeli conviction that all Israelis should bear arms in its defense and also contribute to the nation’s growth — economically, socially and politically from within its borders.
Despite the stigma of emigration, there have always been many who proudly identify as Israeli and whose ties to their homeland remain strong, but who nevertheless emigrate and lay down new roots around the world. Los Angeles, in particular, has been a huge Israeli outpost, given its familiar Mediterranean climate and its lure of secure jobs and a comfortable life.
Israelis in the Diaspora, however, still recall the bite of Rabin’s words, and so, as they gathered at the ILC gala for a new kind of unity celebration — outside of the Jewish state — they paid particular attention to Netanyahu’s words.
The current head of state’s unprecedented praise of a community of Israeli expatriates for their contributions to Israel, along with the dazzling display of influence and initiative apparent at the ILC gala, clearly indicate a coming of age for Los Angeles’ Israeli community. After a turbulent childhood and a confusing, awkward adolescence, the community appears to have come into its own. With 700 people in attendance at the Beverly Hilton International Ballroom last month, the Israeli community of Los Angeles walked — indeed strutted — with heads held high, crossing the threshold into maturity.
The recent explosion of activity — which includes political activism, social gatherings and cultural programming — has been fueled by a widespread and growing desire in the community to support Israel from afar, as well as to connect with one another in social settings and, most fervently, to perpetuate their Israeli Jewish identity via their children, whom many Israelis living here fear are being lost to assimilation.
At the heart of this communal blossoming is an organization teeming with business savvy that has managed in less than two years to make its name known to every established Jewish — Israeli and American — organization in town. The ILC went from formation to its first event in the span of mere months, and its lightning-fast implementation, now a hallmark of the organization, has led to a host of other projects, making the ILC an unofficial Israeli Federation of sorts in Los Angeles.
The idea for it was first articulated by Ehud Danoch, the former consul general of Israel, in the summer of 2006, when he approached a couple of successful and well-connected Israeli businessmen with the notion of forming an organization to empower and unite the untold thousands of Israelis who call Los Angeles home. By February 2008, the ILC had produced Live for Sderot, a benefit concert for the Israeli city being targeted by rockets from Gaza, starring the popular Israeli singer, Ninet Tayeb, and featuring video messages of support from three U.S. presidential candidates.
Since then, the ILC has revitalized the all-but-withered Tzofim, or Israeli scouts; partnered with the Israeli Consulate to raise the first Israeli flag over its Wilshire Boulevard headquarters; pioneered an online Hebrew education school; drew an unprecedented thousands of Israelis to demonstrations supporting the Jewish state during the recent war in Gaza; and hosted its glamorous gala with first-class entertainment, A-list Israeli celebrities and a pulsating dance floor that had Israelis — in Israel! — raising their eyebrows in admiration.
The ILC may be the popular new kid on the block, as one veteran of the community dubbed it, but it is certainly not the only crew energizing the neighborhood. There are the musicians of Moadon Israelim; the mothers of the MATI Israeli Cultural Center; the Israeli Division of The Federation’s Valley Alliance; the intellectuals of Katedra; and even the diplomats at the Israeli Consulate have displayed a new fervor and enthusiasm for community activism (with Consul General Jacob Dayan leading the way), along with a smattering of other initiatives that have sprouted for the suddenly ravenous-for-involvement local Israeli population.
Clustered mostly in the San Fernando Valley, they also enjoy an unprecedented abundance of restaurants catering to them, which serve as informal social centers, as well — Aroma Bakery and Café, Hummus Bar and Grill, Super Sal Market, Itzik Hagadol, the Pita Kitchen and other Israeli establishments that offer a Tel Aviv air to Ventura Boulevard, which not so long ago boasted only one well-known Israeli hot spot: Tempo.
Coalitions of Israelis in Los Angeles have not been entirely dormant during the past six decades. There were previous efforts and important milestones along the way, but despite its populousness, the community never really came together to the extent that it has now.
No one can say for certain just how many Israelis live in Los Angeles. The most recent Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey was released by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles in 1997 and counted approximately 14,000 Israeli-born adults here, as well as another roughly 48,000 who identified themselves as Israeli — most likely the children of Israelis. The Israeli Consulate today estimates that between 150,000 and 250,000 of its citizens live here, based on the 50,000 Israeli families it has on file.
The ILC has its own notion of the numbers. Taking into account second-generation self-identifying Israelis, the organization believes the population numbers more than 200,000 — a figure it hopes to confirm through a new population study it intends to sponsor in the near future.
Until then, there will be doubters: “Communities that congregate around themselves tend to overestimate their numbers,” said Carol Koransky, executive director of The Jewish Federation Valley Alliance, who supervised the 1997 study. “There has certainly been a huge growth since 1997, but it’s difficult to say how much. Besides, what does it matter? There are many Israelis who are here, and they have needs and desires, and that’s what matters.”
So why have Los Angeles’ sabras taken so long to engage in activism, unite, organize and connect to the greater American Jewish community? Why has the population been so slow to cozy up to the term “Israeli American,” when every other ethnicity or nationality has been happy, even eager, to adopt a dual identity?
Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Yediot Ahronot, recently profiled the ILC in an article that touched upon one of the community’s major historical roadblocks, addressing it head-on with the headline, “Yordim L’Hatkafa,” which translates to “descenders to the attack” but plays on the derogatory term for Israelis who leave Israel. In the article, several ILC board members spoke of the long-standing stigma of “yordim,” a uniquely Jewish-Hebrew term that assigns shame and betrayal to the act of emigrating from Israel. An Argentine who leaves Argentina isn’t considered a traitor to his country, they pointed out.
“Until recently, we were caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Eli Tene, a 23-year resident of Los Angeles and ILC co-chair with Danny Alpert. “Israelis in Israel were disappointed in us, and the Jews here looked down on us…. It wasn’t a coincidence either. The Israeli government wanted it to be so. It asked Jewish organizations to refrain from helping Israelis who had left Israel so that they would be encouraged to go back.”
(See related story “Early Expatriates Got the Cold Shoulder” for a more in-depth history of Israelis in Los Angeles.)
It would take the Israeli community another decade or so from the founding of the first Israeli organizations in the ’90s to overcome most of their guilt over “abandoning” their country, get off their suitcases and admit that they planned on staying in the United States indefinitely, learn that philanthropy is an integral part of the Jewish community and realize that in order to perpetuate their Israeliness, they needed to be proactive about it.
“You can do things for them, but it’ll be limited,” said Koransky, referring to The Federation’s efforts a decade ago to help Israelis establish programs and organize themselves. “For a community to grow, they have to take ownership of it. The desire to come together has to come from within.”
Ultimately what pulled the Israelis into this current state of cohesion is something every Jew can relate to: children. Every Israeli interviewed for this article cited the next generation as their inspiration to become involved, to seek out other Israelis and to foster a bond with the greater Jewish community.
Much of that involvement has come in the form of Jewish education. Searching for a way to immerse their children in Jewish culture and tradition, many Israelis have turned to the most obvious resources: Jewish day schools. But paying for a costly Jewish education — something that was free and ubiquitous in Israel — is a luxury only the upper echelon of the Israeli population can afford.
Hence the profusion of new programs Israelis are pioneering and getting involved in to engage the younger generation. Recently revitalized is the Tarzana branch of Bnei Akiva, an 80-year-old religious Zionist youth movement that, according to its Western region shaliach, Shalom Ashkenazi, didn’t put Israelis on its agenda until the past few years. That branch, which was shut down 15 years ago due to inactivity, was reopened last year to serve the large Israeli population in the area and was the most vibrant of the city’s four chapters; 90 percent of its youngsters are Israeli.
“There are some people who say that Israelis don’t want to be bothered with involvement,” said Ashkenazi, who is responsible for changing the policy of ignoring Israelis and their children in favor of shaping them into local leaders and pro-Israel advocates. “They say Israelis don’t care to be educated about Israel or religion. It’s absolutely not true. They want to be first Jewish, then Israeli, then maybe American. But most of all, they don’t want their kids to lose their identities.”
Orna Eilon, CEO of the new MATI Israeli Cultural Center within the West Hills JCC, cites Israeli mothers’ concerns over their children’s identities as the impetus for the center. For the six female founders of MATI, surrounding themselves with Israeli friends and annual summer trips to visit family in Israel have been enough to keep them feeling rooted in their identity. But for their children, some of whom refused to speak Hebrew, they realized they had to do much more.
“We mistakenly assume that our children will naturally inherit our culture and language and love of Israel,” said Eilon, a mother of three. “But they won’t. We have to be more proactive about passing down our heritage. Israelis are having a hard time coming to that realization.”
MATI, which received a $15,000 grant from The Federation to get off the ground in January and the support of Galit Dayan, wife of Consul Jacob Dayan, offers Israelis extracurricular activities in Hebrew — folk dancing, krav maga, adult ballroom dancing, a book club and a mountain biking club — all to keep Israelis and their American-born children connected to their heritage and language.
The AMI School at Temple Ner Maarav in Encino offers an after-school Israel-centric curriculum twice a week in Hebrew for kindergarten through seventh-grade students, which includes classes on Torah, holidays, prayer, reading and writing. The Israeli scouts program, or Tzofim, offers extracurricular activities for Hebrew-speaking teens and also has a strong Israel focus. According to Shoham Nicolet, executive director of the ILC, enrollment in the Los Angeles chapter was down to 50 youngsters a year ago, but since ILC member Eli Fitlovitz stepped in, the group has experienced a resurgence and its membership has grown to 200.
The latest burst of enthusiasm in the community is not all geared toward youth. Old schoolers, Israelis who have been here for 15, 20, 30 years, are also becoming more engaged. Founded a year ago, Moadon Israelim, an Israeli social club offering musical performances, comedy and lectures, attracted about 60 people to its first event. A sold-out audience of 600 came to the Agoura Hills Canyon Club in March to celebrate the club’s first anniversary. At this rate, the giddy organizers told the crowd, the next event will have to be at the Staples Center.
Longtime Angelenos Ronen Pollack and Pini Sosnik, the Moadon Israelim founders, use music and raucous, nostalgic, Israeli-style fun as a means of uniting religious, secular, Sephardic, Ashkenazic, young and old Israelis.
“We want to shine so that people are attracted to Israeli culture,” said Sosnik in a phone interview from Israel. One of his greatest concerns is the high rate of interfaith marriage among Israelis in Los Angeles.
“What makes a young man leave Israel is frustration and dissatisfaction,” he said. “They want to disassociate themselves from Israeli culture for whatever reasons, and the challenge is to re-attract them by showing them the beauty of our heritage. With love and goodness, something that makes them want to belong to our community — that’s how you get them back.”
Other activities that have sprouted for Israeli adults include Katedra, a monthly lecture series organized by Shula Klein at Temple Ner Maarav; Shira B’Tzibur, a classic Israeli tradition of community sing-alongs; and various adult activities at the MATI center, such as creative writing in Hebrew and a book club.
The community’s strong emphasis on preserving Israeli culture may sound like a separatist movement, but many of these activists — who often work together, rather than in competition with one another — expressed the desire to use their platform to become integrated into the broader L.A. Jewish community.
The ILC, for example, peppers its literature with “Israeli-American” and “Israeli Jewish-American.” Its board members long ago dispensed with the notion that one is either Israeli or American but cannot be both. They are also participants in the larger Jewish American establishment — one factor that has contributed to the council’s swift ascent to the role of community leadership. Well-established and powerfully connected, the handful of board members count among their involvements The Jewish Federation, StandWithUs, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Kadima Hebrew Academy, Maccabi, AJC, Israel-Christian Nexus and Bnei Brith Shalom.
“Israelis want leaders,” said Shawn Evenhaim, an ILC board member and president of Kadima Hebrew Academy — the first and only Israeli currently at the helm of a Los Angeles Jewish day school. “In the army, there’s a saying, ‘Acharai,’ after me. That’s our mission: We want to lead by example and encourage Israelis to get involved in other Jewish organizations, contribute to the community and make their voices heard in advocating for Israel.”
One example Israelis clearly understand and aspire to emulate is success. Tene, who runs a multimillion dollar real estate investment business headquartered in Woodland Hills, said the council members employ the same strategies they use in business to help the ILC succeed. The board members all contribute large amounts of money, and they draw on their connections to bring in other wealthy donors, among them Haim Saban and Beny Alagem. The lavish gala, for instance, was paid for by the board so that all proceeds could directly fund the council’s initiatives.
To join this exclusive club, hopefuls have to be recommended by at least two current ILC members, hold a leadership role in his/her profession, be active in the Israeli or Jewish community and pay an annual membership fee of $3,600, in addition to committing to annual donations of at least $5,000 to an organization of their choosing. There are 65 current members of the ILC; the council plans to cap membership at 100.
When the ILC identifies a project it wants to support — the unique business model of the ILC is that it does not create organizations but rather bolsters existing ones with funds, leadership and connections — things happen quickly. Funds are readily available, so time is not lost in fundraising or bureaucracy.
Recently, someone drew Tene’s attention to Dor Chadash, a young professionals group in New York. Producing 40 to 50 events a year aimed at a cross section of Israelis and Americans, Dor Chadash (which means “new generation”) was making significant inroads with 25- to 45-year-olds — a notoriously difficult group to engage.
Within months, Tene had succeeded in diverting the organization’s expansion plans from Boston to Los Angeles. With full funding from the ILC, Dor Chadash is set to open an L.A. chapter this summer, and Tene is predicting it will cause “a social earthquake.”
If most of the programs that the ILC has invested in until now have had a firm focus on maintaining Israeli identity, Dor Chadash would look to bridge the gap between Israelis and Americans. Its programs are presented in English but focus on Israel and Israeli culture. The events in New York pull in all kinds of Jews, making recent Israeli emigrants feel just as welcome as Americans who’ve never been to Israel, and everyone else in betwen.
“We don’t want to lose our roots,” said ILC member Adam Milstein, an avid AIPAC and StandWithUs supporter. “We want to keep our heritage alive, because we think we have a lot to offer as Israelis. But, the next generation born here will be American Jews, not Israeli Jews. The difference between those two worlds is fading.”
Israeli Consul General Dayan has learned that nationality doesn’t hold here in the United States for very long; everyone becomes American eventually. It is something that Dayan considers both a major strength of the United States and a challenge for ethnic communities trying to hold onto their distinct cultures.
One of his main goals as consul general, he said, is to keep Israelis connected to Israel, but he admits that it is no longer a central role of the consulate to entice them to go back. “I’m a strong Zionist,” Dayan said. “I personally think the place of the Jewish people is in Israel, but there is so much they can do for the state from here, if this is where they choose to make their home.”
Instead, he hopes to strengthen Israelis’ ties to the Jewish community, to stem the tide of young Israelis drifting away from Judaism.
Today’s Israelis seem to be facing the natural evolution of their community with realism. They share Dayan’s vision and welcome the idea of becoming integrated into the American Jewish community, even if that means losing their Israeli identity.
“Being Israeli is a geographical association,” said Pollack of Moadon Israelim. “Our kids are never going to be as Israeli as we are, because they weren’t born there, and they’re not growing up there. But to keep them Jewish, we have to work on that part of their identity.
“Because you’re a Jew no matter where you are in the world.”
Related story “Early Expatriates Got the Cold Shoulder”