Moving to any new country involves the daunting hurdle of starting from scratch — new language, new culture, new job — with no connections, reputation, or familiar point of reference to pave the way
The RBS Experiment
It’s been called a bubble, a mini America where you can commute on a plane to work, speak English with the shopkeepers, and never have to worry much about Israel just beyond your borders. But the soft landing awaiting those Anglo adults who make aliyah to Ramat Beit Shemesh might be a dangerous crutch to their kids, who grow up more American than Israeli. Or is that a bad thing after all?
It was far and away one of the most thrilling moments of my life. As the Nefesh b’Nefesh charter plane swept the Ben-Gurion runway and came to a stop amid cheers and sobs and ecstatic applause, I looked out the window, tears streaming down my face, and was overwhelmed with the knowledge that I was now doing what generations of Jews could only dream of: coming home to Eretz Yisrael. It had taken months of arduous work, both physical and emotional, but there was no doubt in my mind, not then and not now, that it was worth it.
Whether we’ve gotten here by camel, boat, or airplane, making aliyah has always required a good dose of sweat, sacrifice, and siyata d’Shmaya. Moving to any new country involves the daunting hurdle of starting from scratch — new language, new culture, new job — with no connections, reputation, or familiar point of reference to pave the way. And modern-day Israel, as a country built by immigrants, has seen the acculturation saga played out again and again by the various immigrant groups that have arrived to build a new life in this ancient land of ours.
But a new phenomenon has emerged over the past decade and a half — a plot twist in this age-old narrative of the immigrant’s experience. It is a community where greenhorns can be successful without mastering Hebrew, where the values and mores of the “Old World” are not judged obsolete, where the younger generation respects, rather than rejects, the foreign culture of their parents. It’s been derided as a bubble, but it’s better described as a social experiment, one with far-reaching implications.
It’s happening in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
The Making of a Community
The modern city of Beit Shemesh was established in 1950, and for decades was primarily a development town comprised of immigrants from Middle Eastern and North African countries. In the 1990s Anglos began moving to the newer Givat Sharet neighborhood of Beit Shemesh, and in 1997, the suburb of Ramat Beit Shemesh was established. The planners couldn’t have predicted its eventual popularity among chareidi Anglo immigrants; in fact, it was originally planned as a secular neighborhood. But young religious families, including Americans living in pricey Jerusalem, were looking for a community with affordable housing — and what followed was a veritable explosion.
A vast and varied community, RBS is home to many olim who have, on the whole, made the full leap into Israel society, be it the chareidi or dati-leumi worlds. But the community also includes a notable sector that is forging its own uniquely Anglo path. Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef today is 40 percent Anglo, yet stroll the neighborhood and the Anglo presence feels more pronounced. The sound of English is everywhere — on street corners, in shuls and stores. And, with RBSA by far the most popular destination for chareidi Anglo families making aliyah, the numbers keep swelling.
Ramat Beit Shemesh is certainly not the first hub of Anglo olim in Israel; the Jerusalem neighborhood Har Nof and the Gush community Efrat, to name just two examples, both came well before it. But it is the first community to include within its educational system some institutions with an intentionally American flavor, to establish a plethora of Anglo-style kehillos, to offer medical and governmental services in English, and to provide for an oleh’s full range of social needs in his mother tongue so that, as the joke goes, he can make aliyah without leaving America. Most tellingly, it is the first community of Anglo olim where the children in the playgrounds oftentimes prefer to speak English.
And there, some say, lies the problem. The neighborhood has been so good at proving a “soft landing” for Anglo immigrants that allows the next generation, like their parents, to remain outside of the cultural mainstream. There’s nothing wrong with fluency in English, but when it means a lack of fluency in Hebrew — in a country where Hebrew is the official language — it could be a sign that RBSA has become a victim of its own success. And if so, it is those children who fail to mainstream who will suffer.
Have Phone, Will Travel
Everything has its mazel, and in a certain respect, the success of RBS is a product of the unique societal circumstances of our time. Unlike even one generation ago, the global economic realities of today allow a person to move himself and his family halfway across the world, and still retain his cushy American job and salary. Whether by physically commuting, as many RBS medical professionals do each month, or by telecommuting, a marked percentage of the oleh population is employed in jobs requiring no knowledge of Hebrew or Israeli cultural norms. This has enabled thousands of people who may never have considered it feasible in the past to make aliyah. But it has also enabled them to live in Israel without the pressure of a painful integration process. Take away the financial need, and you take away the strongest motive to acculturate.
Yet it is more than just circumstance that has made RBS blossom. According to Penina,* one of the first residents in the community, who has been involved over the years in helping to build several of its institutions, the neighborhood was built on a carefully thought-out vision.
“Ramat Beit Shemesh started out as an experiment with a definite religious-hashkafic plan. People came here knowing that they wanted a place where they and their kids would grow as yirei Shamayim with a clear identity of who they are and maintaining respect for their Anglo culture. The number one ingredient they needed to accomplish this was rabbanim who would lead the community — rabbanim who believed that being a balabos did not make you a second-class citizen — and that is what we got.”
Beis Tefillah Yonah Avraham and Kehillas HaGra (“the Gra Shul”) were the first shuls established upon the American model in which the rav is someone to turn to for life guidance and the shul members form a supportive social community. Over the years, many other shuls have followed suit. While this model may seem par for the course for readers in chutz l’Aretz, it is highly unique in Israel, where extended family typically comprises one’s support system and a beit knesset is viewed as a place to daven.
Rav Yaacov Haber, rav of Kehillas Shivtei Yeshurun, relates an unexpected haskamah he received for the wisdom of the RBS approach, from none other than Rav Chaim Kanievsky.
“I was sitting at a sheva brachos, and on my right was the Ponevezher Rosh Yeshivah, and on my left was Rav Chaim,” he relates. (He adds, as an aside, “Why was I sitting between them? I was making the sheva brachos!”) Rav Kahaneman said to Rav Haber, “Ramat Beit Shemesh is such a beautiful community, with all the olim wanting to come there… Why do you think Beit Shemesh has that zechus?”
Rav Haber then turned to Rav Chaim, to see if he had an answer to the Rosh Yeshivah’s question. Rav Chaim replied, “It’s in the zechus of the kehillos there.”
“The people who move here are highly idealistic, committed balabatim,” says Rav Chaim Zev Malinowitz, longtime rav of Beis Tefillah. “They come because they’re looking to move up in their spiritual lives, and they know it will happen in Eretz Yisrael. They came to grow in Torah learning, in dikduk b’mitzvos — and we answered those needs. That’s what went right here.”
But there are other ingredients that have gone into the mix as well, and a primary one lies in the realm of education.
“One of the reasons we were told to not make aliyah was the lack of schooling options here,” says Shaul,* a professional educator who has been living in RBS for ten years. “They said, ‘You’ll have to choose between two systems, chareidi or dati-leumi, neither of which are anything like what you’re used to from America.’ But I thought to myself, this is a reason not to make aliyah? We’re talking about a country with millions of children and they’ve somehow been educating them all!”
Nevertheless, every culture brings its own expectations of what an education should look like. For most immigrants, part of the acculturation process means swallowing what you may be uncomfortable with. And in fact, many of Anglo olim to RBS accepted the existing school system as an inevitable part of aliyah, making the necessary changes in their lifestyles and priorities so their children would integrate smoothly into Israeli schools. But another demographic responded differently. This latter group of olim instead created schools that, to varying degrees, more closely reflect American educational values. (But there remain many who are opposed to this model of education, considering it too much of a departure from the mainstream chareidi school system.)
Magen Avos, established 18 years ago by American oleh Rav Doniel Simon, was the first chareidi elementary school to call itself “American-style.” With its focus on interpersonal relationships and secular education — while still retaining its strong emphasis on the kodesh — it struck a deep chord among Anglo olim. Since then, other schools have opened as well, including Darchei Noam and Toras Moshe for boys, Bnos Malka for girls, and, on the high school level, Mesivta Beit Shemesh, a chareidi yeshivah high school where, unlike the Israeli yeshivah ketanah system, the boys study secular subjects. (There are several other such institutions in the country, some of which, like HaYishuv HaChadash and Maarava Machon Rubin, have been around for decades.)
Rivky Tyberg, who, together with her husband, Zev, founded the Mesivta seven years ago, recalls the skepticism they faced at first. “Many people agreed that there was definitely a tremendous need for this type of educational model in Israel — especially for the Ramat Beit Shemesh community. However, it seemed that everyone had a story to tell about someone who’d tried to open a mossad that didn’t conform to the mainstream approach and had been forced to close down after they were threatened or pressured.”
It took time and lots of PR to convince local Israelis that this chutz l’Aretz model could also work. “When the yeshivah was first opened,” Rivky says, “there was definitely a lot of skepticism and a certain preconceived notion that an institution with general studies couldn’t really have serious, high-level limudei kodesh. We did our best to counter that misconception, by bringing in local rabbanim to test the boys in Gemara. Word soon got around that the Mesivta boys were actually doing very well in their learning.”
In middos as well, Rivky feels that the American touch benefits the Mesivta’s students. “We once took the boys to a hotel for a Shabbaton. After we left, I got a call from the proprietress. She said she’d never seen such polite boys before, and told me she wanted to send me a letter to forward to the parents and give them some nachas.”
Miriam Naiman, post-aliyah advisor for Nefesh b’Nefesh and longtime RBS resident, says that all of these efforts mean olim have many excellent schools available that are sensitive to their varying wishes and challenges. “The schools are a big reason for Ramat Beit Shemesh’s popularity — they’re a real feather in our cap. Fifteen years ago, it was all on the parents to advocate for their oleh child’s needs. Now, schools are aware of the issues and will tell parents what support their child will need.”
A Model Community
A place like Ramat Beit Shemesh, some maintain, gives Anglo immigrants an opportunity to leave their mark on Israeli society — by creating a model community where they can demonstrate what it is to live out their values.
And a big American value is tolerance and open-mindedness, especially regarding our children.
“Imagine what it feels like for a child who made aliyah,” says Rav Haber. “For a teenage boy here, standard chareidi society offers him limited options. For a boy who may not be cut out for learning, it’s almost like being trapped.”
One of the things RBS has been able to do, he says, is to eliminate that trapped feeling, by offering him other options, and making those options societally acceptable.
That tolerance doesn’t only extend to the school system. Adi Kahn, director of therapy programs at Hakshiva, a local organization that provides support for the youth in the community, including preventative services as well as supporting youth at risk, enthuses about the greatness of the community. “I’ve been working with the at-risk population in Ramat Beit Shemesh for 11 years now — and despite that, I’m absolutely crazy about this community. There’s no better place to live.”
Every community has its struggles, she says, but the greatness of RBS is its willingness to confront them. “When we see kids starting to go off the path, rather than reject them, we as a community show them love and acceptance. And as a result, so many of them end up coming back.”
She says she goes to countless weddings of kids who used to be part of the park hang-out scene. “They’ve found themselves, they’re building their lives; the girl who used to have multiple nose rings is now covering her hair. And the unbelievable part is that most of them choose to live in Ramat Beit Shemesh! These are kids who could have easily felt rejected by their community and instead they’re choosing to raise their own children here. This is a real tribute to us.”
She relates that she’s had nonreligious workers tell her, “If I lived here, I would be religious. You guys are so warm and easy to talk to.” The fact that the Anglos have created a community where people can feel accepted for who they are is a real kiddush Hashem.
Rude Awakening Ahead
An informal survey of olim families reveals that people settle in RBS for many of the same reasons: the warmth and chesed in the community, the tremendous spiritual opportunities and Torah learning that are available (“Even a woman can be in kollel!” marvels one, about the plethora of women’s shiurim taking place throughout the week), the wholesomeness and purity of the environment for raising children, and, above all, a soft landing where an oleh can easily feel at home among his or her peers.
A side effect of this “soft landing,” however, is that the community is so ready to adapt to the new oleh’s need for English that even the seasoned immigrant may be under the impression that everyone is willing to accommodate his or her mother tongue. As a result, some olim never make a real effort to learn Hebrew.
Paysach Freedman, CEO of Chaim V’Chessed, a not-for-profit organization founded to help English speakers navigate life in Israel, says that while there are certainly real advantages to living in RBS, he sees the difficulties that olim encounter when they end up interfacing with the Israeli system.
“Chaim V’Chessed has gotten calls from residents of Ramat Beit Shemesh who have zero connections outside their Anglo community. When it comes to any hardship that involves speaking Hebrew, they are often completely lost. Imagine a young father trying to explain to emergency room staff why his son has to be seen immediately. Or a woman who has no idea what the letter she got from a doctor even means.”
Rav Malinowitz urges his congregants to learn Hebrew and familiarize themselves with Israeli society outside the community’s cocoon. He estimates that about 75 percent of them do achieve mastery of Hebrew and Israeli cultural norms. At the same time, he feels that shul – as their locus of spiritual growth – should be an English-only, mameh loshon zone. As a result, all of the shul’s programming, shiurim, derashos ,and chesed initiatives are conducted exclusively in English.
“A shul should be a place of refuge,” he says, “a comfortable haven where people can be themselves and find others they can relate to, who are going through the same issues they are.”
Ticking Time Bomb
The integration question hangs heavily here, with the imminence of a ticking time bomb; yet its real ramifications will be felt not by the adults who immigrated, but by the next generation. For if RBS is a great social experiment… then it is the children who are the guinea pigs.
These children have absorbed the message that they can take pride in where they come from; yet at the same time some have absorbed the message of English-first as well, to the extent that, even when in a mixed Anglo-Israeli setting, English becomes their “cool language” of choice. As such, the Hebrew language acquisition process may not happen as smoothly and naturally as a parent may expect.
“Just like aliyah is a family affair, integration needs to be a family affair,” says Naiman. “Having an us-versus-them attitude can be destructive. A parent may say, ‘What can I do? I don’t speak Hebrew!’ But it’s the attitude the children are picking up on. Yes, it may be hard for you — but you should still try.”
Dassi* was six years old when her family made aliyah. After graduating from the system of Anglo-style Bais Yaakovs, she is now 20 and about to be married. Sweet, sincere, and strong in her Yiddishkeit, she can be considered an RBS success story. Yet while she says that she loved growing up in her community and is very happy that her parents chose to make aliyah (“because I don’t know if I would’ve had the guts to do it myself!”), she doesn’t necessarily identify as an Israeli.
“For most of my schooling, though the classes were taught in Hebrew, I spoke English to my friends. I couldn’t have gone to an Israeli high school, because I didn’t have enough confidence in my Hebrew skills.”
It was only when she graduated high school and went on to an Israeli seminary program that she found herself befriending Hebrew speakers. And though she’d lived in Israel nearly all her life, to them she was the American.
“There are cultural differences between us, and anything I do differently, they excuse it as being American. For example, I went out with my chassan ten times before we got engaged. In the Israeli chareidi world, that’s unheard of — they go out four times, and that’s it.”
Dassi went out with one Hebrew-speaking boy, but felt it was hard to connect with him, because Hebrew doesn’t come as naturally to her, and she kept worrying she would get stuck for words. Her chassan is an American yeshivah bochur learning in Israel, and she says that while there are cultural differences between them as well, overall she relates to him more than to a regular Israeli. “I grew up in a home with American values, just like he did.”
Indeed, it is in shidduchim that the strength of Ramat Beit Shemesh’s social system is put to the test, says Yocheved,* a veteran community shadchan.
“We’re a great community, we have so much going for us, and I have Israeli neighbors who are so impressed with our community orientation and would love to join us… if only we could shed some of our chutznik-ness and learn to speak Hebrew. But the real question is, what is this doing to the next generation?”
Yocheved says that Anglo parents in RBSA have a very hard time accepting the Israeli shidduch system, particularly its emphasis on finances. It is common, for instance, for parents to finalize details of an apartment purchase for the young couple before the engagement. “But in RBS, even if the parents can afford it and at the end of the day would give that amount, they refuse to commit to it in advance because they’re so uncomfortable with the concept.”
Yes, she acknowledges that it can be distasteful to boil down a shidduch to an apartment purchase — but it’s a system already three generations strong, and it’s hard to imagine that any Anglo immigrant is going to break it. (She points out that the idea of paying a dowry for a girl to get married goes back to the time of the Gemara. And the system isn’t that much different in the American yeshivish community today, where it’s accepted to provide several years of support. “Their several years’ support is more or less equivalent to a down payment on an Israeli apartment!”)
Yocheved says, “What you’re basically doing when you refuse to play the system is declaring that your child will narrow her shidduch pool to other Ramat Beit Shemesh olim. Are you so confident that this is where her zivug is?”
Increasingly, however, RBS girls aren’t even finding their zivugim there, but among actual Americans, as in Dassi’s case. Yocheved has a theory to explain this phenomenon.
“Our boys, who generally go to Israeli yeshivos, by and large integrate more into Israeli society than the girls do. So when it comes time for shidduchim, the boys aren’t relating to their sisters’ friends — they’re too American.”
Where Are We Heading?
Veteran educator and RBS resident Rebbetzin Shira Smiles is concerned by precisely this situation. “I think in a certain respect RBS is a failed social experiment, particularly in regard to our girls. When you have a community that creates an environment where girls growing up in Israel go to an American seminary because they feel more American than Israeli… that’s a failure.”
She says it starts with the fact that they aren’t speaking Hebrew, and is exacerbated by too many of them spending summers in American camps. “There’s a disconnect going on here — they’re living in two different cultures. It’s not just the language; it’s the American styles, the materialism. As a parent, you’re not doing your child any favors keeping them so removed from Israeli society. We have to ask ourselves, where are we heading?”
Bracha,* a mother of seven who has been living in RBS for ten years, finds the American materialism a real strain. “The beauty of the community is that it makes it so easy for people to make aliyah — people who might have found it hard to learn a new language, or give up their standard of living, don’t have to here. But,” she adds, “that makes it hard for the rest of us.”
Because there are so many still living off American salaries, there’s a large gap between those families and the others earning standard Israeli salaries.
“One of the things that drew me to Eretz Yisrael was the simplicity of the lifestyle,” Bracha says. “But here I’ll go to an elaborate bar mitzvah kiddush, and even though I’ll try to tell myself that they’re doing it for the sake of their chutz l’Aretz relatives, and that they, too, have lowered their standard from what they might have done were they in America — at the end of the day, they’ve raised the bar, and that affects all of us.”
While Naama,* a mother of 6, feels satisfied that she’s gotten her children used to a lower standard of living than she herself grew up with, the integration issue concerns her. At the same time, she says she isn’t willing to compromise on her children’s education for the sake of integration, if she feels they’ll receive better chinuch in an Anglo school. “The way I see it, my husband and I took the first 50 steps; my kids will have to take it to the next level.”
Michal,* who grew up in a different Israeli Anglo community and moved to RBS after her marriage, doesn’t take such a sanguine view of the matter. She says she was shocked the first time she met her husband’s family and heard how much her sisters-in-law struggled with Hebrew. “They grew up here,” she says, “but they would ask for my help if they had to write an essay, or a document for work.”
While the problem of poor Hebrew skills seems more pervasive among girls, it can be found among the boys as well. Tyberg finds that 15 to 20 percent of the boys from Anglo homes who apply for admission to Mesivta have significant deficits in Hebrew.
Is Integration a Value?
Assume that the next RBS generation ends up marrying other Anglos, finding telecommuting jobs like their parents, and settling in Ramat Beit Shemesh — would that be considered a success of the RBS experiment, or a failure?
In other words, is integration in and of itself a value?
As could be expected, there is a wide range of strong opinion on this issue.
Rebecca,* a baalas teshuvah who came to Israel knowing very little Hebrew, is unapologetic about her failure to integrate. “I moved to Israel to be my best Jewish self, to raise healthy Jewish kids away from American materialism — not to be Israeli. If Israelis want to judge me for my lack of Hebrew — well, let’s see them uproot their whole life and move to another country with no money!”
Shaul, on the other hand, feels that the community is making a costly mistake. “It’s arrogant to build such a cultural barrier, by refusing to learn the language or integrate. What other educated immigrant group has ever voluntarily done such a thing? It’s making a statement that we are so sure that our values and way of life are perfect, that we can’t imagine there’s anything we would want to learn from the greater Israeli society.”
Even if we do feel that we’re coming with a package of values worthwhile for Israelis to emulate, he says, “that can only happen if we reach out to them and show that we’re interested in connecting.”
Rav Malinowitz, however, shares a nuanced perspective on the value of integration. “Yes, integration is an objective value,” he says, “because we are am echad, and should all be united. But I don’t see that the pioneering generation — the ones who left behind the house, the lawn, the attic, the garage, and the backyard — should make integration their priority. For their children, yes, but for them? Let them come, let them feel comfortable coming, let their highest priority be to grow in ruchniyus, which will happen in a setting that makes them feel most at home. The main purpose of making aliyah is, after all, to draw from the spiritual gifts of Eretz Yisrael and rise to a higher spiritual plane. If we’re accomplishing that, then we’re succeeding, even if we stay in our Anglo enclave. There’s nothing wrong with viewing our olam like one of the shevatim, living separately, but united.”
He cautions his congregants, though, not to extend the view too far. An Anglo enclave is suitable for the aliyah-making generation. But it’s certainly a parent’s responsibility to ensure that his children speak Hebrew fluently and merge into Israeli society – which, in his experience, most do.
Adi Kahn is a proponent of the social experiment approach. “People put a lot of negative emphasis on the fact that we’re not integrated, that we’re messing up our children by not choosing an already existing path. But I say we’re pioneers, and are really successful ones, too! Look at us — we’ve reached the point where our children are marrying, where we have a new generation. We’re up to the longitudinal study stage. I’m not saying that we’re done, it’s too early to declare the experiment successful, but, still — just look at our success! We’ve created a safe world here where kids can relate to and respect their parents, despite the fact that we’re immigrants. Each wedding I go to in our community, I look at the young couple, who have found each other and are continuing their lives here in Israel, and I tell myself, ‘We’re doing it! It’s working out!’ ”
No matter where they stand on the issue, however, all agree on one thing — that those living in Ramat Beit Shemesh, whatever their level of integration and however attached to the Old Country they still may be, are still far better off than those back in the Old Country.
“However you slice it, we’re in Eretz Yisrael, fulfilling the mitzvah of yishuv ha’Aretz every moment of the day,” says Shaul.
“I think this model needs to be copied elsewhere in Israel because at this point in time, we’re running out of space!” says NBN counselor Miriam Naiman. “There are many people living in places like Baltimore or Miami who would love to call Israel home, but would only make aliyah to a place like Ramat Beit Shemesh.”
“The ultimate goal is to get people to come here, and stay here successfully, which means that their kids are integrated into the chareidi world,” says Penina. “I certainly don’t want my kids to be me. I expect my grandkids to go to a more Israeli school system than my children did. But what we’ve created here is an environment where there’s no need to reject what the immigrant parents hold as values — like they used to have to in other communities. In that way, we’ve wildly succeeded.”
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 639)
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