‘Not Exactly Israeli, Not Exactly American’

At planning meeting for a new umbrella group, Sabras transplanted to New York struggle to define their identities.

03/19/13
Special To The Jewish Week
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Call it the New Israeli-American Identity.

Maybe.

Last Sunday, 150 leaders of the tri-state Israeli community gathered at the 92nd Street Y to launch Moatza Mekomit NY (“local council” in Hebrew), the first umbrella organization for the region’s Israeli community. Besides bringing Israelis here together in a new way, Moatza also provides the basis for a new Israeli identity, one not dependent on being in or returning to Israel.

The estimated 150,000 Israelis in the tri-state region — the largest expatriate Israeli community by far — are scattered in disparate cultural and geographical communities. The different organizations and initiatives that developed over the years to serve them have been uncoordinated, often unaware of one another’s existence. Moatza will coordinate and streamline these groups, connecting them through a single, central platform.

The concept first emerged in 2012, when the Jewish Agency, making a virtue out of a necessity, amended its charter to include “supporting Israeli communities abroad” in its mission statement.

This represented a major shift in approach. For decades, Israelis living abroad had been viewed as displaced citizens, who for the sake of Israel, must be nudged back home. But as the expat community grew in wealth, influence and numbers, exceeding one million Israelis worldwide, perceptions changed.

“It was the natural instinct of every representative from Israel to ask: ‘So when are you coming back home?’” said Shlomi Kaufman, Israel’s deputy consul general in New York, in his opening speech. “But today we see things differently. ... The Israeli community in New York makes a crucial contribution as Israel’s local emissaries, as its bridge to the Jewish-American community. The crystallization of this group is something that we’re very interested in.”

“It’s incredibly moving to me to hear Israel’s representative stand up and say to a group of Israelis who’ve settled in New York — Israel embraces you,” said Oren Heiman, Moatza’s chairman. “It means that the fact that I’m living outside of Israel doesn’t prevent me from being a real Israeli.”

Marcia Riklis, from the UJA-Federation of New York, is a living testimony to this.

“As you can hear from my accent, I’m not from Israel,” she said in her remarks Sunday. “I’m not exactly an Israeli and not exactly an American. As such, I represent your children.”

Riklis, born to Israeli parents and raised in America, bridges between the two worlds; she encouraged Moatza to fill the same function.

“We have a lot to learn from each other, Jewish Americans and Israelis,” she said, adding that Americans could use some of Israelis’ passion and forwardness, while Israelis could also take a few pointers from Americans. “When he was teaching me how to drive, my father told me, ‘OK, Marcia, take a left here at the no-left-turn sign, and park here by this no-parking sign,’” she recalled.

Much of the meeting, which was hosted by the Y’s Israeliness program, was devoted to identifying the Israeli community’s needs, and how a central organization could help serve them. Participants divided into six focus groups exploring Moatza’s intended fields of action in business, education, welfare, culture, relations with Israel and relations with other communities here. 

This was in fact the community’s first stab at self-definition. If Israelis are not necessarily people who live or will live in Israel, who are they?

While discussing whether Moatza should incorporate Jewish-identity programs, it was mentioned that not all Israelis in New York are Jewish. “One of my clients is an Israeli Druze,” said Ravit Bar Av, a Jewish nonprofit consultant. “His family is in Israel, he has a son serving in the IDF, but he can’t participate in programs because he’s not Jewish.” Another participant said, “When she came back from the Jewish Hebrew school, my daughter asked me why am I not covered,” referring to why the participant’s mother was not adopting the modest dress code favored by religious Jews. “I want her to learn Israeli values, not religious ones.”

Roey Schiff, Moatza’s media director, agreed that the question of who is an Israeli was a contested one. “Some board members defined Israeli as whoever speaks Hebrew. Others said whoever was born in Israel, or had Israeli roots, or just lived there for a while. ... Finally, we agreed that for now anyone who considers himself an Israeli can be included.”

Other questions touched upon politics. When it came to whether Moatza should speak for New York’s Israeli community on political issues, the divisions were sharp.

Yael Cohen, an independent fashion consultant, said that as an Israeli, her heart is with Israel no matter what. Other participants, though, bristled at the thought of being misrepresented. “I left Israel because I felt its actions no longer speak for me,” said one participant. “What will I do if the same thing happens in the Israeli community in New York?”

The questions became ever more complex as the meeting progressed. Should Moatza always align itself with Israel? Should it be involved in promoting aliyah? What’s its commitment towards the larger Jewish-American community? And can it truly represent all of its members?

The focus groups’ input was carefully gathered, and in the following days will be summarized, analyzed and published on Moatza’s new website, moatza.org.  Moatza’s action plan during its first, pilot year (the group will likely receive funding from UJA-Federation), will be based on the issues and needs raised Sunday.

Moatza even managed to pull off, with the help of producer Avi Fruchs, a small performance of the Israel Defense Forces orchestra. Children from the Israeli Scouts (Tzofim) and the Israeliness program, who also hold activities at the 92nd Street Y, mixed with the participants. It’s unclear if this was well-timed coincidence or a brilliant PR move, but it seemed to illustrate the point: this, the children’s rapt faces suggested, is what Moatza is all about. 

editor@jewishweek.com

Last Update:

03/24/2013 - 18:26

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Ronit: You may be a proud Israeli first, but your children or at least grandchildren are/will be proud Americans first. In many respects, the US remains a melting pot. The fact that you chose to settle in Westchester County rather than in Crown Heights, Boro Park or Williamsburg suggests that you came to the US to improve your lot in life. I expect that many secular Israelis will be moving abroad in the coming years as the Haredi gain more and more influence in Israel and secular Jews decide that they don't want to live in a theocratic state, in which they are required to bear disproportionately heavy tax and military burdens.

Kol HaKavod to Oren Heiman and his Moatza team, for their enthusiasm and bringing my wishful thinking to life. I'm a proud Israeli first, and a proud American second, that feels a tremendous amount of SHLICHUT by living in Westchester NY since 1980, and my passion is to bring the spirit of Israel to our community, to strengthen the connection and relationships between my community families and Israel. Now I'm looking forward to also participate and be a part of this wonderful new and promising Moatza, and help strengthen the connection and relationships between Israelis living in NY. Good Luck with love!!!

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