Elchanan Poupko

The State of Israel Must Do More for American-Israelis

There are about 700,000 Israelis living in North American. That number is larger than the number of Israelis living in Tel Aviv. And yet, when it comes to engaging Israelis living abroad, the state of Israel seems to have little to no agenda. It’s time for that to change.

Israel has done the most amazing things for Jews from around the world. It encouraged Jews to make aliyah and moved to Israel and accepted and nourished Jewish immigrants from around the globe as they sought refuge in its embracing hands.  Israel even established as an extensive system to help strengthen the Jewish identity of diaspora Jewry. And yet, when it comes to its own citizen that have left, understandably, the government’s approach is a hesitating and even confused one. Few programs are in place engaging Israelis that have left the country, with the exception of programs encouraging Israelis to return. While every individual, family, and community need to evaluate what works best for them, clearly not all 700,000 are coming back tomorrow.

At the same time, abandoning them and their Jewish identity would be a moral and strategic mistake. Take the most recent example of American-Israeli actress Natalie Portman. Portman who was born and raised in Jerusalem, pulled out of receiving the Genesis prize causing Israel a great deal of pain and humiliation. While the Israeli government clearly laments Portman’s actions, it must ask itself: “what are we doing to engage Portman Jewishly?”

This question becomes even more powerful when it comes to Portman’s children who do not attend a Jewish Day School. The state of Israel needs to ask Itself what it has planned for the children of Israelis living abroad. Is the plan come back or disappear? Does it have a plan for second generation Israelis?

Studies continue to show that support for the state of Israel is very much dependent on ones Jewish identification. You don’t need to look beyond the Israel Day Parade in Manhattan to notice the large amount of Kippot to realize that the future of support for the state of Israel abroad depends on the strength of Jewish identity.

It is no coincidence that Israel’s chief rabbi, Rabbi David Lau, after visiting the United States penned an op-ed calling on the Israeli government to establish Jewish schools in the United States. He realized the need for this after he visited a Jewish school in Los Angeles, an area thriving with Israeli-Americans, and realized that there were hardly any Israeli-Americans in the school. Rabbi Lau noted the organic connection between Israelis living in Israel, and Israelis abroad and the need to engage them.

It seems senseless for the Israeli government to fund Shlichim going to Jewish communities around the world engaging them Jewishly, while its own diaspora population languishes in the dark. While I and The American Israeli Jewish Network are working on Jewish engagement among Israelis, we cannot do this alone.

Israel has come a long way, from PM Rabin calling those who leave Israel “a gaggle of cowards”; Israel has come to recognize its Diaspora population. It’s time to take that understanding to the next level and actively engage Israel Americans in Jewish life. It is something that is long due, let’s do it now.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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