Preserving the ‘Israeliness’ of the American Jewish community

If the story of Chanukah teaches a lesson, it is certainly that out of dark times, light can emerge. So too can we appreciate the positive that has resulted from the anti-Semitic attack on our community on Oct 27. The establishment in Pittsburgh of the Israeli-American Council (IAC), which represents our rededication to a unified Jewish community, is one such bright light to grow out of dark days.

Two days after the shooting at Tree of Life, we were contacted by Shahar Edry, one of IAC’s national community directors who explained how Israelis in Columbus, Cleveland and Philadelphia wanted to show their support and help the Israeli community in Pittsburgh. His call was a powerful reminder – as was the outpouring of love, support and the arrival to our city of volunteer first responders and trauma professionals from Israel – that in times of crisis, our Israeli brothers and sisters are among the first to offer help.

With the support of IAC, and in consultation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and Community Day School, we organized a Shishi Israeli event. On November 9, more than 200 people from across the religious Jewish spectrum, both Israelis and Americans, were warmly welcomed to Temple Sinai for an Israeli-style Friday night dinner that included a sing-along, a children’s program and a vigil to commemorate the 11 victims of the attack.

The Shishi Israeli dinner was a warm, comforting and energizing experience. But even before the shooting, which served as the catalyst, we had discussed the need for more of an organized Israeli presence here. As longtime Pittsburgh residents, we’ve been missing something that other cities have already been enjoying – namely a way to come together as lovers of the Jewish national home to celebrate Israeli culture, language, music and food and to enjoy the connection forged between Israelis and all lovers of Israel who live in the Iron City.

We believe that as much as the Federation, our day schools, our synagogues, the JCC, and various other non-profits value and promote the Jewish State, there is a significant distance between the existing Jewish community and the Israelis who live here. And we were concerned that Israelis here – and especially their children – lack an outlet for their Israeli identity, which is why we turned to the IAC for help.

The IAC was established 11 years ago and has chapters across the United States. Its mission is to build an engaged and united Israeli-American community that works to strengthen the Israeli and Jewish identity of the next generation, the American Jewish community generally, and the bond between the people of the United States and the State of Israel. Events like Shishi Israeli help IAC build bridges between Israeli and Jewish American families by providing a communal experience that combines Jewish traditions and Israeli culture.

The purpose, explains IAC co-founder Adam Milstein, is “to strengthen the Israeli-American identity known as ‘Israeliness’ that loves and supports the State of Israel with no pre-conditions.”

In order to learn more, we were honored to attend the national conference of IAC in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., at the end of November. It was electrifying to gather with more than 3,000 other Israelis and Americans from across the country to hear about the special relationship between the two countries and the unique character that we bring to our local communities. We heard speeches from Vice President Mike Pence, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Fauda star Tsahi Halevi and Israeli writer Meir Shalev, among others.

Participating in the conference reinforced for us the need to expand IAC in Pittsburgh for the same reason the organization is thriving in cities like Boston, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. We want to help assert the unique character of Israeliness within the Pittsburgh Jewish community, while at the same time forging stronger ties between all Jews. Of course, this goes both ways; Israelis in America should know more about American Jewry. We can definitely learn from our fellow Jews here about pluralism and we should all be doing more to maintain our unique identity in a country where Jews are a minority. With the help of IAC we hope to act as a bridge between the Israeli and American Jewish communities, bringing them closer to each other.

Finally, we believe IAC in Pittsburgh can work against the growing perception that Israel is no longer at the center of the Jewish experience, that she has ceased to serve as the glue that connects all Jews. Instead, Israel is alleged to be the wedge that divides us. Israeli Americans are the perfect candidates for changing this perception. The way to bridge this gap is by real engagement and real dialogue between the two communities.

Milstein couldn’t agree more. As he wrote to us in an email, “As parts of the Jewish-American community push Israel out of the center of Jewish life, the IAC fills the void and provides a warm family, home and community for all pro-Israel Americans.” And coming to Pittsburgh is a priority for the national organization. “Following the tragic events at the Tree of Life Synagogue and the growing divide within the Jewish community,” Milstein explained, “the IAC’s role in strengthening and uniting our pro-Israel community has become more important than ever.”

We hope that by developing programming in Pittsburgh for both Israeli-Americans and Jewish-Americans we can serve as a welcoming home to Jews in America with Israeliness in their hearts. We believe strongly that connecting these two communities can greatly enrich the Jewish experience of both groups.

Shishi Israeli was a great success and with the continuing support from the IAC Midwest, as well as local Jewish organizations, we hope it will mark only the first of many such heartfelt community building experiences.

This column was originally published in the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.

Written by: Abby W. Schachter, a writer and editor, and Anat Talmy, a software engineer, who are both citizens of the United States and Israel.  

About the Author
Anat Talmy, a software engineer, is a citizen of the United States and Israel.
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