Learning What Makes American Jews Tick
Wed, 01/15/2014
Israel Correspondent
Gur Alroey
Gur Alroey

Haifa, Israel — While living in New Jersey and teaching at New York University during his sabbatical from the University of Haifa, professor Gur Alroey, chair of Haifa University’s School of History, realized most of the Israeli expats he met rarely interacted at length with home-grown, middle-of-the-road Jewish Americans.

“The main reason was that most of the local Americans Jews, who were similar to the Israelis in lifestyle, attended Conservative or Reform synagogues,” Alroey explained. “But the Israelis,” who grew up believing that Orthodox Judaism is the “proper” Judaism, even if they didn’t practice it themselves, “went to Chabad.”

Other than praying and celebrating holidays together, these secular Israelis and Chabadniks had little in common, he noted. 

Given such limited interactions, the professor surmised, it wasn’t surprising that Israelis living in the U.S. know relatively little about the culture, values and other underpinnings of American Jewish life.

“Israelis living in Israel know even less,” said Alroey, who has since moved back to Israel.

Following his sabbatical, Alroey wanted to do something to bridge the gaps between typical Israelis and typical American Jews. He contacted Knesset member Ronit Tirosh, who had recently launched the Israel-U.S. Caucus in the Knesset, which grew out of a Knesset fact-finding mission to the U.S. organized by the Ruderman Family Foundation (RFF).

Tirosh introduced Alroey to Jay Ruderman, RFF’s president, and after a series of discussions the latter two decided to create a program at the University of Haifa.

Launched in September 2013, the five-year Ruderman Scholars Program in American Jewry and the State of Israel is a master’s degree program that explores topics related to American Jewry, American society and its “important and longtime relationship with the State of Israel and Israeli society, past and present,” according to the program’s literature.  

It is the only full-fledged American Jewish Studies program in Israel. 

Every week the 25 students in the new program — several of them employed in the tourism industry or at organizations with a connection to American Jewry – spend an entire day studying at the Haifa U. campus.

The highlight of the program will be a 10-day study tour at New York University (NYU), during which the students, most of them in their 20s and 30s, will meet with representatives of prominent American Jewish organizations, visit a Jewish day school, a JCC, attend a synagogue, visit the Tenement Museum, Ellis Island and the American Jewish Historical Society.

The Ruderman Foundation provided a $1 million grant with matching funds from the university. Each student receives a $5,000 RFF scholarship.

Jay Ruderman said the foundation “jumped at the opportunity” to create the program because even though the American Jewish community “plays a vital role in ensuring that the United States remains Israel’s greatest friend, our experience has shown us that many of Israel’s leaders lack a sophisticated understanding of the diversity, changing nature and connection of American Jews to Israel.”

The goal of the American Studies program “is to create a cadre of Israeli scholars who, in time, will help change the discussion and develop a more sensitive and nuanced relationship between Israel and her greatest ally, the American Jewish community,” Ruderman said.

Alroey said the program aims, among other things, to dispel Israelis’ stereotypes of American Jews.

“Israelis think the Americans they encounter in Israel — the birthright participants and tourists – are unrealistic and naïve about Israel. They feel American Jews should support Israel financially but should leave the decision-making to Israelis because ‘It’s Israelis who suffer in wars, not Americans.’ They think American Jews have it easy.”

Alroey also wants students to understand the diversity of American Jewry by exposing them to American pluralism. “They need to realize that American Jews are Jewish Americans,” he said. “To understand American Jews, you must understand American society.” 

During a recent class related to the various Jewish religious streams, Professor Matthew Silver tackled such thorny issues as whether American Jews have the right to dictate policy to Israel when they give Israel so much money; Who is a Jew?; and Women of the Wall, a group that promotes egalitarian prayer at the Kotel.

Addressing the students in Hebrew with a strong American accent, Silver also dispelled the stereotype of American Reform Jews as uniformly left wing, and American Orthodox Jews as uniformly right wing when it comes to Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians.

The students, some of whom previously spent a year or two in the U.S. as emissaries for the Jewish Agency and other organizations, noted that the pervasive Jewish culture — from Jewish national holidays to Hebrew — that characterizes even secular Israeli life is absent in the U.S., prompting many secular Israelis who would never step foot in a synagogue in Israel to seek out synagogues and Jewish day schools while living abroad.

One of the students, Inbal Kohali Barkan, who recently served as an emissary for the Jewish Agency and Hillel International at Binghamton University in upstate New York, said the time she spent in the U.S. “gave me not only the knowledge but the tools to explore this beautiful community. Unfortunately, Israelis don’t know much about American Jews because not much is taught here. I’d like to change that.”

Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist who specializes in the American Jewish community, expressed hope that the program will help Israelis grasp what makes American Jewry tick.

The effort is especially important now, Cohen, director of NYU’s Jewish Policy Archive, told The Jewish Week, “because the evidence points to increasing American Jewish disaffection” with Israel’s policies, including the way it determines who is a Jew, and its treatment of the Palestinians.

“For years Israelis have largely seen American Jewry in instrumental terms — as a source of political and financial support. A scholarly program in American Jewish Studies at a leading Israeli university can help broaden and deepen the appreciation and understanding of American Jewry in all its complexity,” Cohen said.