Thursday, December 1, 2011

Raising Israeli Children in Exile

Above is an Israeli television ad that suggests that Israelis that move to America subject their kids to the possibility that they may lose their Israeli identity.  When asked by the Israeli grandparents what holiday it is today, they are horrified to hear their American grandaughter joyously answer, "Christmas!"  The voice then says, "They will always be Israeli, their kids will not.  help them return to Israel."

To a Jewish blogger this is blog candy!!!  What an amazing ad as a springboard for discussion!!!  As I type I am salavating!  Where to begin???

Here goes:

Frist: are the makers of this ad suggesting that location is the only way to instill identity?  Are we to understand that it is impossible to teach kids about Chanuka in America? 

Maybe they would argue that the chances are better in Israel.  Really?  In my experience in shuls from New Jersey to Los Angeles to Omaha, Nebraska I can say that the reality is exactly the opposite.  Many times I have met Israelis who would never step foot in a synagogue in Israel.  It was only when they came to america that they started to identify. 
Some of the Israelis grew up in areas of Israel that were anti religious and they were completely unaware of some of the major Jewish holidays. 
The Reform Rabbi in Omaha is a typical example that I think many people can identify with.  He grew up in Israel and describes himself as having been secular.  It was only when he came to America that he developed his deep passion for Judaism and actually went on to become a Rabbi.  He would tell you that would never have happened had he stayed in Isarel.
One Israeli woman told me that in Israel she had literally NEVER BEEN IN A SYNAGOGUE IN HER ENTIRE LIFE!  She spent a year here in the states, was attracted to the Jewish community, and started coming frequently to shul.  She made an interesting comment.  She said that Americans have spent hundred of millions on Taglit Birthright sending college students to Israel in the hopes of inspiring them.  She suggested that they have reverse Birthright to send Isarelis to the states to inspire them.

The couple in this commercial is the perfect example.  The girl in that ad clearly does not go to a Jewish day school and probably doesn't even go to a synagogue.  If she did, she would definately know it was Chanuka.  That "Christmas" remark would hopefully serve as a wake up call to those parents and maybe they will choose to affiliate with their local Jewish community, synagogue, and maybe even send their daughter to day school.  Somebody should pay to have that ad aired in cities like LA, Phoenix, and Miami where there are tens of thousands of Isarelis - but change the end to advertize the local jewish day school.

Second: Can you imagine being an Israeli Arab in Israel and watching that ad?  How offensive!!!  If I don't celebrate Chanuka am I somehow less of an Israeli?   And one does not have to be an Arab to be offended.  What if I am an Israeli Christian?  Or an atheist?  Or one of the millions of supposed secular Israelis who spend Yom Kippur by the beach or write cookbooks entirely of pork recipes?  They may not be intersted in teaching their kids about Chanuka - a holiday which, by the way, commemorates the victory of religious Jews over those who chose to assimilate.  Is the government implying that we are somehow less "Israeli?"

Which brings me to my third point:  I didn't catch this on the first time around, only when I watched the video a second time.  The voice at the end of the video says, "They [the parents] will always be Israeli, their kids will not."  It does NOT say, "they will always be Jewish."  It says, "Israeli." 

Lighting a menorah is not an "Israeli" custom.  It's a Jewish custom.  Yes, you can't be an Israeli if you are born and live in America.  That is true.  An American Jew is forever different than an Israeli Jew in that respect unless either one of them decides to move.
American and Israeli Jews are culturly different.  Americans tend to be more polite and Israelis prefer soccer to American football.  Americans go to college after highschool and Israelis go to the army.  There are many differences, but the thing that we share is Judaism.  Judaism is what unites us as a nation.  Judaism existed for 2,000 years before there was a modern state of Israel.  It was Judaism in the diaspora that made the modern state of Israel possible in the first place. 

Judaism is not defined by a location! 

Thousands of years ago the jewish sages wrote that God specifically chose to give the Torah to the Jewish people in the desert - NOT IN THE LAND OF ISRAEL - to emphasize that there are no bounderies when it comes to the Torah, not even the bounderies of the Holy Land!

This very week's Torah portion is about Yaakov when he was forced to flee from Israel because his brother Esav was threatening to kill him.  On his way out he had a dream of angels ascending and deseninding a ladder.  Rashi interprets the dream to mean that God was telling him that even when you leave the land of Israel my presence is with you.  In fact God himself specifically appears in that very dream and says, "I will guard you WHERE EVER YOU GO."

Many of us have heard an Israeli say, "I am not a Jew, I am an Israeli."  I have always been saddened to hear that.  It was the Jewish connection that compelled us to protest for Soviet Jews.  It was the Jewish connection that made the rescue of Ethiopian Jews a priority.  And it is the Jewish connection that inspires Jews around the world to advocate and support Israel.  When Israelis eshew that connection I find it sad.
But this ad, I find offensive.  If they want to create their own "Israeli" culture, that is there perogative, but they have no right to co-opt the symbols of Judaism and claim them as their own.  Let them be Israeli if they want, but let them make up their own symbols. 

If the parents in the ad want their daughter to be Israeli then they have to move back to Israel.  But If they want their kids to be Jewish, even going back to Israel will not do it.  They have to teach their children Torah and raise them in a Jewish household. 

It is surely a mitzvah to live in the land of Israel.  But the Jewish identity is defined by more than just geography.


  1. Thanks for this, Jon; I had a feeling that you would have a lot of very thoughtful ideas to share on this topic and you've summed up my own thoughs far more eloquently than I did when I wrote about it on my blog!

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