By Sivan Rahav-Meir
These words are being written from the sky. Soon we will land in New York, as World Mizrachi shlichim (emissaries). We have been asked so many times over the past few weeks why we are moving. Maybe now, while everyone around me is sleeping, is a good time to formulate a response.
Officially, I came to teach, to lecture throughout the United States. I believe the weekly parashah is Am Yisrael’s common shared pulse, and it can and should beat on both sides of the ocean, connecting Israelis with their Diaspora brothers and sisters. Current events and political issues are important — and of course I have something to say about them as well — but our eternal Jewish story is greater than any weekly scandal.
When we signed our shlichut contract, it was full of words like immigration, absorption, settlement, Torah, Zionism, and Hebrew. I was thrilled to find them there. After a full day of discussing Netanyahu’s immunity or Gantz’s latest embarrassing interview, I had almost forgotten our purpose in coming to the United States.
Since we made the decision to move, I have been surprised time and time again. I didn’t just come to teach; I came to learn — to learn about and really experience American Jewry for the first time.
I recently met Chief Rabbi David Lau, who had just returned to Israel from a visit to the United States. “All the [well-to-do] Jews who have summer camps and schools and youth movements … I’m not as worried about them,” he told me. “I’m worried about the Israelis [in America]. I have begged the Ministry of Education to set up state schools in America, like here in Israel. Not a religious school, but a state school for all the children of those who leave Israel. I have been trying to talk to the minister of education, but there has been no permanent minister in the job for a year. This is a time-sensitive need. It will determine the fate of the next generation over there.”
Indeed, I noticed that this was the main response I was getting about my upcoming year in the States: more and more Israelis were telling me about their beloved cousin who had no connection to his people, to his identity, about a dear sister whose children are in non-Jewish public school and do not know a word of Hebrew or what Yom Kippur is.
Today, several hundred thousand Israelis live in the United States. The exact number is unknown. Every expert I asked said that the children from of this population have the highest assimilation rates of all U.S. Jews, despite efforts to connect them.
“I tried to play HaGashash HaChiver (an Israeli comedy trio) for my kids, and buy them Osem hummus and soup nuts and Elite coffee, but that’s not enough,” an Israelis living in the States once told me when I visited Los Angeles. “Every Sunday, I played them Parpar Nechmad (an Israeli children’s TV show) tapes. Today, they are married to non-Jews, cut off from their heritage and culture.”
It is a major cause for concern. So perhaps before we give advice to native Diaspora Jews, we should ask ourselves: What is it about the Israeli identity that is so fragile, so superficial even, that it doesn’t last even a generation or two in the States? What is missing? What can be changed?
We landed. I am writing now, at 4 a.m., awake with jetlag after a day and a half in New York. Another surprise awaited me. Well before I begin any educational activity, there are technical aspects that need to be dealt with that are difficult, complex, and downright annoying. It is even quite depressing for someone like me, as I am used to completing such matters easily in my own country. I did not land in a lecture hall full of people, but into a list of assignments, each of which involves many small tasks. Have you ever tried opening an American bank account? You need to bring them your social security number, which is similar to an Israeli mispar zehut (ID number), but it’s easier to get this number once you already have a bank account. What a never-ending loop! Have you ever tried to lease a car in a country in which you’ve never driven before? And what about school buses? For the familiar yellow school bus to pick up my children, I have to call the appropriate district within New York City. I spent 20 minutes relaying our details to the hotline operator before she informed me that I would also need to physically come to her office with the apartment lease document and the first electricity bill we paid. And preferably the gas bill, too. But the bills have not yet arrived, and the school year is beginning. We don’t have a printer yet, but we need to print out so many forms to sign.
We received an email from the school today; two days before the school year begins, all students need to come in to get checked for lice. I hope we don’t embarrass the entire state of Israel.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining. G-d willing, it will all work out in a few days. I’m in awe. In awe of and full of admiration for new immigrants who did all this, under far more difficult conditions, in a completely foreign language. The immigrants who left a comfortable and familiar place and uprooted their entire lives to come and live in Eretz Yisrael.
When I finished reading another email about United States health insurance and some confusing offers for purchasing a U.S. SIM card, I quickly wrote to one mother in Israel, a new immigrant from France, whose son had been in my son’s class. I had not contacted her the whole year. I apologized and asked — yes, now, from New York — if she needed anything. Of course she did. She needed someone to translate some forms for her and explain exactly what she needs to do. How obvious for me, how challenging for her.
With every displacement, migration, relocation, and, certainly, every immigration, a smile and a little show of interest can help, ease, and, most of all, change a person’s mood and morale. The difference between a pleasant, smiling secretary and a snappy, unsympathetic clerk is the difference between heaven and earth.
Dawn has risen in New York. This morning, three new neighbors wrote to me asking if we need any help. Of course we do.
This article was originally published in Hebrew in Yediot Achronot. The writer is a shlichah of the World Mizrachi Organization and will be teaching at Yeshiva University this year.