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Friday, February 09, 2007

Jerusalem 2 Jersey

...New Jersey’s Israeli immigrant experience

[excerpt]

The Jewish connection

Hebrew school can affect more than just the children, though. Parents want to see their children become part of American life, said Hyman, but after a few years, they realize it is not just the children who are forgetting their Israeli and Jewish heritage.

"That’s when they join the shuls, send [the children] to Hebrew schools to learn traditions, and then after a while, [the parents] feel they miss Jewish life," Hyman said. "In Israel, it’s part of daily life. Here, you have to be a member."

Because of synagogues’ emphasis on membership, Hyman said, many Israelis are drawn to Chabad, which offers an open-door policy and no membership fees. "They welcome everyone," Hyman said. "You can come in your jeans, drive your car."

While Americans typically wear suits and ties to shul, Israelis will show up in jeans, said Rabbi Mordechai Shain, director of Lubavitch on the Palisades in Tenafly. "We don’t look at that," he said, explaining the attraction of Israelis to Chabad. "They get the same royal treatment, making them feel they’re still part of us."

A lot of Israelis, he said, are looking for Judaism when they come to America because they want to connect to something that’s still Jewish. "In Israel, they’re living in a Jewish country. Here, they’re not living in a holy, sanctified land and environment. They look for more Yiddishkeit, so they tend to come to [Jewish] programs much more than they would in Israel," he said.

On average, Friday night is the big draw for Israelis, Shain said. While some 120 out 170 people who come to Chabad on Saturday are American, about 50 out of 70 people on Friday nights are Israeli. Of the approximately 700 people who attended High Holy Day services this year, about half were Israeli, he said. Shain credits Chabad’s services, in part, for this influx of Israelis, describing them as like typical services in Israel.

"They feel like they’re in a shul in Israel," he said. "They don’t feel like they’re in some Americanized setting. They feel at home."

Although the service is Orthodox, Shain said the vast majority of Israelis who attend are not. In fact, many Israelis tell him that they are Israeli first and Jewish second, a perception that Shain tries to reverse. Secular Israelis, though, put their Israeli identities first, Sarna said.

"It’s so important to give a Jewish education to the children because in Israel you don’t have to be traditional; you know you’re Jewish," she said. "But here, if you’re not observant, then you really don’t have anything. Parents feel they are almost losing the kids."

The welcoming atmosphere at Chabad definitely helps counter that, Sarna added. "There are no preconditions. It’s open to all and [Israelis] feel very fortunate they have this home," she said.

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