Jay Rosen
It's time for an upgrade in style

The Two Equally Taboo Topics in Israel & Diaspora

With most Jewish communities and organizations revising their plans and priorities for the foreseeable future, maybe it’s time to revisit two of the more controversial: Immigrants By Choice and Hebrew Literacy.

For years, Israeli and Diaspora Jews alike looked down upon native-born Israelis who decided to live abroad. That has all but disappeared, with the Israeli American Council and many community initiatives aimed at engaging this demographic. In Israel, financial incentives are given to citizens who return, almost the same in value to those given to new immigrants.

And yet, the reverse phenomenon — Olim (immigrants under Israel’s Law of Return) from Western countries– is still treated as a zero-sum game of emigration: We’re talking about the only immigrant group in Israel’s history who’ve moved by choice, largely but not entirely highly educated, predominantly middle-class and white-collar in their countries of origin. Olim by Choice are an increasingly diverse population, driven as much by ideology as the opportunity to start anew in a welcoming and seemingly familiar environment.

Despite Jews having been a wandering people for 2,000 years, with multiple identities and passports; and despite the Open Skies Agreement that allow people to fly in and out of Israel with more physical and financial ease than ever before, Olim By Choice are treated like they have bought a one-way ticket on a slow-moving steamliner.

Imagine this class of highly motivated individuals, stories of success in their respective countries and communities, and capable of doing nearly anything — now unable to perform everyday tasks like grocery shopping, paying bills, and otherwise being a productive and included member of society.

Reading the op-ed articles on eJewishPhilanthropy regarding the state of Hebrew education, I was struck that amid the policy planners and educators weighing in on the issue, few have represented those who’ve chosen to learn the language as adults, much less choosing to live in an all-Modern Hebrew context.

I’m a volunteer that teaches practical Modern Hebrew with two organizations — Nefesh b’Nefesh and LGBT Olim — whose purpose is to facilitate the immigrant absorption of fellow Olim By Choice. I’m not a trained teacher, at least not yet: I come with many years of facilitation and active listening training; a brain hardwired for language acquisition; and a lot of patience and empathy for fellow immigrants. This combination is a privilege that I have been paying forward for two years, and intend to continue.

I still refer to the written-out Hebrew sentences that decorated my 3rd Grade Religious School classroom at Adas Israel Congregation, when asking a question. The textbook pages from the 8th Grade, when I was one of the first students at the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School to get transferred from introductory Ulpan to Advanced, are etched into my memory as I help fellow immigrants discover the connection between the Hebrew words for “insurance,” “security,” and “promise.”

I meet fellow Olim By Choice who are frustrated and angry and self-doubting because they cannot pick up Modern Hebrew at the rate they expected and/or are expected. Starting all over again is more of a culture shock than many give it credit, and can quickly become debilitating. If you need proof, ask a non-native Hebrew speaker in Israel how long it took until they understood their electric bill or documents to sign when opening a bank account, if at all — and wondering why, outside of my classes, no one is teaching this.

In Israel and abroad, the Hebrew being taught is rooted in prayer and decades-old realities: Context clues will fail the less-imaginative if you try to understand the word “ashrai” (“credit”) as being connected to the Biblical word “ashrei” (“praiseworthy”). What happens when a language being taught doesn’t match any real-time applicability in the students’ lives?

Hebrew is an inherently logical and algebraic language, comprised of variables (3-letter combinations) and formulas (conjugations and forms) which equate to words that can be discerned by all, even if invented on the spot by the speaker (l’fasbek = “Facebook” + pi’el verb conjugation = “to use Facebook”). Knee-jerk aversions to mathematics notwithstanding, Hebrew is a particular godsend as it is free of the endless irregularities that we have in English — there is no need to memorize an equivalent of “sink, sank, sunk” or when something is “bigger” versus “more beautiful.”

Hebrew has the capacity to unlock our collective past, present, and future; and yet, for all the communal importance placed on it, how many of our communal leaders — professionals and philanthropists alike — can hold a conversation that goes beyond the script of a textbook exercise they themselves learned in Hebrew and/or day school?

What if communal leaders engaged their fellow community members living in Israel for feedback on what educational practices worked and didn’t work in learning the language? Just as synagogues and day schools stay in touch with their college-bound congregants and alumni who move away, what if these citizens were engaged as if they were still part of the local community — as if moving to Israel was no less a commitment to community than joining a synagogue or donating to a Federation?

Speaking Hebrew, literally and pedagogically, has the capacity to break the Diaspora-Israel impasse in general, and specifically by elevating its most natural arbiters: Olim By Choice. With a little nudge of encouragement, there’s no telling what influence they will have on Israeli society and Israel-Diaspora relations — just as they have irrevocably shaped their countries and communities of origin, and just as all previous waves of immigration have done to Israeli society.

There’s much more to discuss as to what and how Olim By Choice can contribute to the betterment of Israel and Diaspora alike, but for now let’s focus on the words that come out of our mouths, especially those in Hebrew. I hope you’ll join me at one of my upcoming classes or those taught by my colleagues, no matter where you are.

About the Author
Originally from Washington, DC, Jay became a full-time Israeli in 2006 and is the founder of Ḥayyati, an international communications consultancy. Jay volunteers with several Israeli non-profit organizations and has founded several social initiatives, including The Here & There Club, a series of salon gatherings to promote civic involvement among fellow immigrants. In addition to being an amateur mixologist, he loves making fellow Israelis uncomfortable by dressing up for nearly every occasion.