On the last night of Hanukkah, children and teens darted around the gymnasium of the Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle in Bellevue, playing games and nibbling powdery sufganiyot. Parents mingled. Hanukkah songs blared through speakers. It was as lively as the many other Hanukkah parties going on around greater Seattle that week. The only difference was the language: not a word of English was to be heard.
At Shevet Matar events, the local branch of the Israeli “Tzofim” scout movement, kids must speak Hebrew. The programs are meant to infuse Israeli kids with the culture and language most of them miss out on in their day-to-day American lives. Shevet Matar has grown every year since it launched in 2011. This year, involvement is around 100 families — about 200 kids.
“The Israeli community here has reached this maturity point,” Hagit Galatzer says. “You really see a lot of activity.” Galatzer runs the “Seatelon” e-newsletter, which has about 800 subscribers. The young Israeli community has grown enough to attract the attention of the Israeli American Council, an organization that strengthens Israeli-American relations. “I think that IAC has a lot to offer in Seattle,” says Adam Milstein, cofounder and the chairman of the board. The IAC started in one region two years ago and has expanded already to nine U.S. regions, and it’s exploring the possibility of a regional council here.
Yet the local Jewish community and the Israeli communities seem to be separated by Lake Washington — and a lot of differences. Israelis take care of their own through cultural arts programs, Facebook groups, and Maagalim, an organization dedicated to coaching newcomers through the relocation process. Services the Jewish community is known to offer don’t translate over to the Israeli community.
“It has to do with the cultural identity,” Galatzer says. “We’re Israelis first. The Jewish part is built in.” Galatzer lives on the so-called “kibbutz” — the area in Redmond close to Microsoft, where many Israeli transplants work. She notes that her family also chose the area because the schools have good English-as-a-second-language programs for the kids, and, of course, because that’s where most of the other Israelis are.
“The Israelis like to bring Israel here,” says Ilanit Inbar, the chair of the Scouts who also owns a preschool and works in real estate. “Most of them like to just stay with the Israelis. I think it’s a mistake.” Inbar, who is also active in bringing Israeli musicians to the area, points out that closing the divide with the Jewish American community is a goal of the Scouts, but the gap is wide. “There is nothing similar except we believe in the same God,” she says. “The language, where we came from, the army — there is nothing similar.”
Adi Sapir, a principal engineer at Getty Images who has been here three years, attended his first Jewish community event this past December at the Stroum JCC’s Hanukkah Under the Stars party. “I didn’t know anyone,” he says. “I didn’t recognize any of the faces. I think my wife knew someone. I realized that this is a completely different community.”
Closing this divide is a goal of Anat Brovman, the former regional director of Friends of AKIM USA, who has a background in anthropology and immigration studies. “I try to build those cultural bridges, because this is part of who I am and part of my personal and professional issues,” she says. But in her experience, the difference in thinking goes deeper. “I also believe that there is a projection of responsibility in taking care of Israel in terms of fundraising,” she says. Supporting Israeli causes “is a way to integrate and to become one with the culture you’re getting into,” she says. “This is how the American Jewish culture has been sustaining itself for 100 years now. If people don’t share the same aspirations, it’s very hard.”
So what about the American Jewish community, which tends to have strong feelings toward Israel? The country is the subject of religious devotion and political arguments, so much so that support for the country has become, for many, a litmus test for Jewish identity. Why isn’t there a deeper connection with the Israelis right here at home?
“Most American-born Jews really know very little about Israeli culture, even if they’ve been to Israel,” says Naomi Sokoloff, a professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and Comparative Literature, Cinema and Media at the University of Washington. “I teach Hebrew, and we don’t get that many students. I wish more students felt that Hebrew should be a part of their lives.” She notes that Hebrew literature gets translated into English less than into German, Italian, and other languages. “We may think we think about Israel a lot, but there’s a lot to be learned.”
Sokoloff is planning Hebrew literature–themed events for the next year at the UW, including a symposium in May on Hebrew and the humanities. She imagines Hebrew poetry readings with discussions between native and nonnative speakers. She reflects on the Ehud Banai concert in October at the Stroum JCC, where the audience was electrified. “It made such an impression on me that there is this big Israeli community that is hungry for this Israeli culture,” she says. According to Stroum JCC cultural arts director Pamela Lavitt, the SJCC envisions broadening its Israeli programming reach.
Though many local Israelis and Americans are trying to partner more, the fact that Israelis tend to be secular and don’t land on the American Jewish radar through traditional routes (like synagogue membership) makes their numbers and needs hard to gauge. Matthew Boxer of Brandeis University, who coauthored the 2014 Greater Seattle Jewish Community Study for the Jewish Federation, admits that they probably missed a significant chunk of the population. “We didn’t say much in the study about Israelis, because we just didn’t find very many,” he says. Boxer estimates that about 5 percent of the Jewish community is Israeli — around 3,000 people. For Israeli involvement to increase, it will take a critical mass of Israelis to become interested in a local program, and then they’ll have to bring their friends, Boxer suggests. And that program probably needs to be in Redmond. “No one in Capitol Hill, for example, is likely to bring them in,” he says.
The one organization that might be connecting with the Israeli community is Chabad. Chabad’s no-pay structure cannot be underscored enough. The concept of memberships and paid High Holiday seats is unfathomable to Israelis, especially those newer to the country. Despite being largely secular, when it comes to a Jewish holiday or life-cycle event, they gravitate to Orthodoxy. “Chabad is what we know,” Galatzer says. “Plus, they’re super friendly and welcoming. Their events are open to everyone, and free.”
While Israelis often plan to return to Israel, what keeps many of them here is the American way of life. Ilanit Inbar’s story is the norm: her family came here for two years with Microsoft and never left. “I love it here,” she says. “That’s it. We are here.” So expect to see a lot of them sticking around and, invariably, matriculating into the culture. “We came initially as an adventure to see a different lifestyle,” says Shirli Israeli, 32, whose husband got a job at Amazon. “We didn’t plan, ‘do we stay, do we not stay?’ As long as we’re happy we’ll probably stay. Life is easier here, which is true. You don’t have to worry, ‘is there going to be a war next week?’” Israeli and her husband live in downtown Seattle and go to Jconnect events at the UW Hillel frequently. She marvels at how welcoming the Jewish community has been and feels for the other spouses of Amazon transplants with no infrastructure to turn to. “Not all Americans accept new people,” she says. “The immigrants need a new community to join. The Jewish community is so accepting.”
“Seattle is one of the unique places in the world,” Brovman says. “It’s amazing. I love it. Trying to integrate to the American community doesn’t mean that we abandon the Israeli identity.”