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Hanging On by a Thread

What can you teach your kids if you’re drowning in a melting pot of assimilation?

I know, this isn’t the first time I’m writing about the subject, but nothing seems to have changed for the better since our last installment — so here we are, presenting the sad facts once again.

I’m talking about approximately a million Jews, Israelis who have left their homeland in search of the opportunities beckoning to them in the United States. Once settled in America, these Jews often find more opportunity than they bargained for, and the painful result is that these families, innocently seeking what they thought would be a better life, are on the verge of disappearing into the melting pot of assimilation. But this is not what they wanted, not what they had in mind when they came to America, unlike other groups of Jewish émigrés who had few regrets about casting off their ties to Judaism once they tasted the freedom of American life, or who even came intentionally with that purpose in mind.

The average Israeli yored living in America may go around with his or her head uncovered, but these people are not necessarily chilonim. They aren’t interested in alternative Jewish movements, they observe Jewish tradition to a greater or lesser extent — and they can certainly be brought closer, if only we would reach out to them.

The vast majority of Israeli-Americans lived a traditional Jewish life in Israel. They weren’t very learned and didn’t keep Taryag Mitzvos, but they cooked for Shabbos on Friday, made Kiddush, perhaps went to the beis knesses Shabbos morning (even if some of them would go to a soccer game later in the day). They kept a basic level of kashrus, observed the basics of family purity, avoided chometz on Pesach, crowded around the neighborhood shul for Ne’ilah, still fasting, and had respect for rabbanim. They most certainly don’t want to leave the Jewish People, and they hope and pray that their children will marry Jewish and give them Jewish grandchildren. In short, they came to America hoping to find “the good life,” and innocently expected to continue the Jewish life they had in Israel.

But where does a family like this send their children to school in America? Living in San Antonio, Minneapolis, or Las Vegas, do they find meat and wine with some sort of hechsher in every supermarket? Do the public schools have Tanach on the curriculum? Even if they live in a city with a strong Jewish community, these immigrant families often find the tuition costs daunting. And even if they can scrape it together, not every frum school will accept children from families on that level of observance. And then one day the parents wake up and realize that they’re not in Israel anymore. But it may already be too late, and they have no idea what to do about it.

Their children are in public school, mixing socially with children of all ethnic and religious backgrounds. They’re immersed in American culture, with nothing but their parents’ weakly-anchored traditions, now set adrift, to protect them. One daughter of such parents expressed complete bafflement after she brought home a Hispanic boyfriend, and her mother threw the hapless young man out. “What does Ima want from me?” she complained to anyone who would listen. “He promised to eat crackers on Pesach and drink wine on Friday night. He told me he likes wine, and it’s no problem. That’s all I ever learned from her about Jewish life, and he’s willing to go along with it, so why is she being so mean?”

And there’s the son of Israelis from a town in the Negev, who married a non-Jewish American girl (yordim who date non-Jewish girls call them by the whitewashed term mekomiot — “locals”). The bridegroom insisted adamantly on breaking a glass at the wedding ceremony. That was all he knew about Jewish marriage, but he clung to it. Something in his soul still wanted it.

Such is the plight of these families, and especially their children, whose Jewish identity is so threadbare, yet they still want to preserve the remaining shreds of it.

A number of yordim whom I’ve met over the years have told me of the fear and anxiety that grip them when they see the quicksand of American culture all around them. They desperately want their children to keep their Jewish faith, but they feel helpless against that deadly pull.

Here and there in America, private initiatives have arisen to save these Jews. In Miami Beach, for example, there is even a school that was founded specifically to cater to the religious needs of Israeli children and help them adjust to American life while maintaining their Jewish identity. This institution is saving many Jewish children from public school and greatly reducing the chance of their marrying out. It can serve as a model for what can be done for this population — weak in practice but strong in its desire to remain Jewish. And it’s a population open to receiving help in their sinking struggle against assimilation. Can we be the ones to toss them a life preserver?

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 793)

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