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Israeli Kids Living in the U.S. Find a Classroom of Their Own

Synagogue religious schools aren’t always the right fit, and day schools are too expensive. But programs teaching Hebrew language and Israeli culture offer a third option for parents who want to maintain a connection to their families’ roots.

Paula Jacobs
September 26, 2018
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Zohar Mamet, courtesy Israeli School of Lexington
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Zohar Mamet, courtesy Israeli School of Lexington
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Zohar Mamet, courtesy Israeli School of Lexington
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine; original photo: Zohar Mamet, courtesy Israeli School of Lexington

Yona Rosenman moved in 1971 from Israel to Boston, where her American husband was starting his post-doctoral studies. Raising their two children in the United States, Rosenman took them to holiday services and activities at the synagogue where she taught. And, as a Jewish educator, Israeli, and daughter of Holocaust survivors, Rosenman was determined to give her American-born children, whose mother tongue was Hebrew, a strong Jewish education reflective of both their Jewish and Israeli heritage.

“I wanted my children to have both a Jewish and Israeli identity,” said Rosenman. “My kids are American but I also wanted them to be able to communicate with my family in Israel.”

“The temple environment was very important for us,” she explained. But the synagogue’s religious school was not the right fit for her children, who spoke Hebrew at home. Day school, on the other hand, was too expensive.

Through the local Israeli network, she heard about the Israeli School of Brookline, an after-school program for Hebrew-speaking students from age 3 to bar/bat mitzvah age. The school uses an Israeli curriculum, and teaches Hebrew language, history, geography, Bible, and Jewish holidays from a secular Israeli perspective. It rents space in a synagogue in Brookline, Massachusetts, a community adjacent to Boston and home to a large Israeli population.

Few (if any) such schools existed nationwide in 1969 when it was founded by parents who wanted to educate their children in a Hebrew-speaking Israeli atmosphere. Now, though, similar initiatives and programs have cropped up across the U.S. to meet the needs of Israelis seeking an alternative to synagogue religious schools or Jewish day schools. (The students attend regular public schools, but then get a supplemental education at these Israeli schools after hours; the programs differ from Hebrew-language immersion charter schools where students learn Hebrew, because they are targeted exclusively at native Hebrew-speaking children and go beyond language to focus on Israeli and Jewish culture.) This trend speaks volumes about the Israeli-American community in America—especially the push to foster Israeli identity and preserve Hebrew-language skills among the second and third generations.

“The central issue is how a generation that has established itself in America maintains its language and cultural competency,” said Leonard Saxe, director of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute and Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University. “They are very connected to Israel and concerned that their children and grandchildren will be connected to Israel. The schools are just one example.”

The number of Israelis in the U.S. remains a subject of intense debate. Ira Sheskin, editor of the American Jewish Yearbook and director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami, estimates that between 300,000 and 500,000 Israelis currently reside in the U.S. The Israeli-American Council claims over a half-million Israelis, while others put the number as high as a million.

In any case, Israeli identity is a very complex issue, reflecting the transnationalism of today’s global society. Israelis often maintain dual citizenship and a shared national identity, go back and forth to Israel, and want their children to speak Hebrew, points out Steven Gold, a sociologist at Michigan State University and an expert on the Israeli diaspora.

This phenomenon is clearly evident in Greater Boston—the fourth-largest Jewish community in the U.S., with an estimated Jewish population of 248,000. About 8 percent of Jewish adults (15,900) are Israeli, including those who were born or raised in Israel, are citizens of Israel, or consider themselves Israeli for other reasons, according to the 2015 Greater Boston Jewish Community Study. They have a very close attachment to Israel (83 percent of Hebrew-speaking Israelis). Among Israeli households with children grades K-12 who participate in formal education, 39 percent participate in part-time programs while 14 percent attend Jewish day schools.

The Israeli School of Brookline speaks to this connection to Israel. “Israeli culture and the Hebrew language are very important for Israelis. They want their children to know the same stories and play the same games they did as children,” explained school director Iris Dorfan. “The Israeli population here travels to Israel often and wants their children to be able to communicate with their families.”

Sixty percent of the students come from Israeli families who are here for a few years, either for studies at local universities or short-term professional assignments—and want their children to be able to readjust academically when they return home. The other 40 percent are Hebrew-speaking children (many American-born) of Israelis who have settled permanently in the Boston area.

When school president Gabriela Kroszynski came with her family for a two-year relocation period in 2004, she planned to return to Israel and hoped that the school would help her preschooler develop strong Hebrew language skills. Now that the family has settled in the Boston area, the objective is for all three children to develop a strong Israeli-American identity.

Today approximately 75 Hebrew-speaking children, from preschool to preteens, attend two-hour classes on Monday afternoons (until recently classes met twice a week) after the students finish their regular days at public school. This year, a new program, Shorashim (Hebrew for “roots”), will teach bar/bat mitzvah-age students about Jewish and personal identity.

In addition to formal classes, hands-on activities connect students to Israel in a fun way. On birthdays, they discuss their personal connection to Israel, e.g., special vacation spots or favorite relatives. For Israel’s 70th anniversary, students created art projects that brought Israel to life, including a Tel Aviv beach scene, an Israeli shuk, and a Dead Sea experience. The school also commemorates key Israeli calendar dates such as Yom Hazikaron and celebrates holidays Israeli style, including Shavuot when children dress in white.

Holiday parties, special family events, and volunteer opportunities play a central role in fostering community, particularly for unaffiliated secular Israelis. For Nava Eisenberg, a past co-chair of the school board, the school provided the belongingness she found missing in the American-Jewish community.

In 2002, Israelis in Lexington, a town northwest of Boston on the Route 128/I-95 technology corridor, created a similar educational and social framework for the children of Israeli families in Lexington and surrounding towns. The Israeli School of Lexington enrolls approximately 65 students a year, from preschool to a seventh-grade manhigim, or leadership program.

Upon returning to the U.S. from Israel 10 years ago, school president Danit Netzer and her Israeli husband enrolled their children in the Israeli School of Lexington, which is close to their home.

“There is a very communal feeling here. Our kids have become friends with other Israeli kids, we have met our friends through the school, and we also share information on WhatsApp,” said Netzer, the daughter of an Israeli father and American mother, who attended the Brookline school as a child.

The desire to instill an Israeli identity in their children and even grandchildren often continues decades after settling in America. When Chicago attorney Alon Stein hears his 3-year-old son, Ari, singing popular Israeli children’s songs such as “Ha-Auto Shelanu Gadol v’Yarok” (Our car is big and green) and holiday songs such as “Patish Masmare” (Hammer a nail), the American-born son of Israeli parents who came to the U.S. as college students more than 40 years ago, is transported back to his Skokie, Illinois, childhood.

Stein wanted to replicate the same Hebrew-speaking, Israeli cultural experience from his childhood. “The Israeliness is core to me. I speak only Hebrew to our kids and sing Israeli baby songs to Oren, our 4-month-old baby,” said Stein, who is married to an American Jew.

Since the age of 2, Stein’s oldest son has attended Sunday classes at the Maccabim Sunday School, where he speaks Hebrew, sings Israeli songs, and is immersed in Israeli culture with children from similar backgrounds.

Founded in 2001, Maccabim has served more than 500 children in Chicagoland, home to an estimated 20,000 Israelis. Currently 65 children, ages 2 through high school, attend the three-hour Sunday morning program, which meets in a local day school.

“The focus is to make Hebrew come alive,” said school principal Lior Kakon. The curriculum includes Hebrew language, Jewish holidays, Torah study, cultural clubs such as Israeli cooking and dancing, and Israel. Parents are also invited to celebrate holidays and birthdays.

Nir Lerman, Florida regional director of the Israeli-American Council, estimates that approximately 60,000-80,000 Israelis live in South Florida. The adult Israeli population in Broward County has tripled to 13,600 Israelis from 4,400 in 1997, reports the 2016 Broward County Jewish Community Study. In Miami, nearly 9,000 adults consider themselves Israeli and more than 18,000 persons live in Israeli households—a 35 percent increase in the past decade and a 56 percent rise since 1994, according to the Greater Miami Jewish Federation 2014 Demographic Study.

Five years ago, to address the needs of the growing Israeli community, IAC and the Israeli House jointly launched the Chalutzim program in three Florida locations.

Like other similar programs, the school teaches Hebrew language, Jewish holidays, and Israeli traditions. The goal is to strengthen Israeli-Jewish identity and forge connections among Israeli families in the area.

Today the program serves 100 children in five South Florida locations: Hollywood, Parkland, Davie, Aventura, and Boca Raton. “The community need is driving this,” said Shelley Benizri, IAC Florida programs manager. “The main goal is to foster community.”

Reflecting on her Jewish educational experience, Yona Rosenman’s now-adult daughter is grateful to her parents. “As an adult, I value growing up in a bilingual household,” said Rachel Rosenman, who identifies herself as Jewish with an Israeli mother—and whose parents, even now, speak to her and her brother only in Hebrew. (She is now Life & Legacy manager and development officer at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.) “I still recall the unique experience of reading the books of the Torah in Hebrew at Israeli school, and am now more involved in Israel than ever before.”


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Paula Jacobs is a writer in the Boston area.