What are yordim — who left Israel to join the great melting pot of America — seeking by calling a conference emphasizing their cohesive community and separate identity? Has their American dream been shattered so soon?

As its name suggests the Israeli American Council or IAC is an organization for Israeli expats who have settled in the US. The IAC held its annual conference in Washington recently. The organization’s very existence testifies to a huge failing of the Zionist movement.

The IAC claims to represent nearly a million yordim who have left the Jewish state to live among the gentiles. That’s a million slaps in the face to the Zionist ideal that mandates living in Israel as the supreme obligation. In fact according to various polls and statistics yordim are the group at highest risk of assimilation many of them weary of sharing the destiny of their people as they left Israel with the clear intention of disappearing into the American melting pot. It’s a bit of a twist then that dozens of Zionist leaders went streaming into a conference that symbolized Zionism’s great failure after decades of denouncing yordim as traitors and casting them as untouchables in the eyes of the Zionist establishment.

It is in fact not hard to understand why Knesset members government ministers and other Israeli leaders would take part in the IAC conference. The Israeli population in the US is growing nonstop and the official Zionist presence at the conference is a de facto admission that Israel must recognize the potential power of that sector.

But what motivates the other side the very Israeli-Americans who formed the IAC and initiated the conference is harder to understand. What are they seeking by calling this conference? Are they not happy to be living as citizens in the land of unlimited opportunity?

For this they left Israel for America — in order to form a cohesive community with its own Israeli identity? What happened? Has their American dream been shattered so soon?

It is clear that the question of Jewish identity troubles these Jews. Perhaps as they stood watching the waves of assimilation rage all around them (80 percent) something Jewish woke up in their hearts — a sharp little fragment that pricked and stung and bothered them disturbing their comfortable lives in the embrace of American culture.

No I wasn’t at the conference and did not take part in its many discussions but I know that this topic was brought up and chewed over with genuine concern for the fate of the younger generation and how the discussions went around in painful circles without touching upon the central truth. I am sure that in face of the Sisyphean challenge of preserving their children’s Jewish identity various folk remedies were proposed. One such remedy was proposed by an Israeli columnist who was present at the conference: He suggested that the children of yordim… learn Hebrew.

Twenty-five years ago I took part as a lecturer in an Arachim seminar in Los Angeles where we held a gathering of young people yordim or children of yordim who spoke good Hebrew. Some of these youths had the effrontery to show up at the gathering with their non-Jewish girlfriends. Naturally the discussions at that meeting were held in Hebrew but it soon became clear that the non-Jewish young women understood what was being said. How did they know Hebrew? It turned out that the Jewish Agency was offering Hebrew ulpan courses specifically for these young women so that they could better communicate with their Israeli boyfriends some of whom had not yet mastered English. Bottom line: Learning to speak modern Hebrew does nothing to foster a meaningful Jewish identity.

In the early days of the state the Zionist establishment indeed believed that both the language and the Land of Israel would serve as effective barriers against emigration and assimilation. I well remember those long-ago years when the bureaucrats in charge of the fledgling state’s institutions would refuse to answer anyone who spoke to them in Yiddish or even in English. “Speak Hebrew!” they would bark at the applicant. As a social endeavor the fact that the Zionists succeeded in establishing Hebrew as the national tongue is indeed impressive. But in no way does it testify to their ability to build Jewish identity. And by the way the IAC conference was held entirely in English.

There is actually a more fundamental question that those in search of Jewish identity ought to be asking themselves: Why preserve the Jewish People? Why is that a goal worth pursuing? After all building a Jewish identity in our youth in order to ensure the continuity of our people makes sense only if there is some purpose to this continuity only if one believes that the Jewish People and each member of it has a goal to achieve something worth living for. But if there is no such conviction then why make all that effort? What actually is bothering all those speakers at the IAC conference who expressed such concern about preserving the Jewish People? Why is it so vital? Just so that we can quarrel with all the anti-Semites in the world?

But like dozens of similar conferences this one too came no closer to clarity on that matter. That niggling little demon within that pokes and prods for a Jewish identity may have triggered a lot of talk but once again it went around and around the heart of the matter never touching the critical point — which is of course the Torah of Israel the one and only guarantor of Jewish identity the only thing that can stem the tide of assimilation. There is simply nothing else that will give our youth the kind of Jewish identity that can resist assimilation.

This is the tragedy of Israeli-Americans today. On the one hand they want to be fully American but on the other hand an inner voice will never stop complaining that it’s been deprived of its true identity. Yet they keep on hoping that they can quell the complaints with artificial substitutes for the real thing. But the American melting pot is stronger and they will be stirred into oblivion in its depths unless they listen to that inner voice after all. (Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 686)