Look What Happened When We Welcomed Israelis into Our Congregation

Inside Leadership

Look What Happened When We Welcomed Israelis into Our Congregation

Mother and two children at Chofshi B'Manhattan event at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, NY

During a recent bar mitzvah service, I looked out at my congregation and saw about 40 iPhones staring back at me, documenting my every move. It was an atypical Shabbat morning to say the least. Without hesitation, the congregation – comprising many Israelis -- filmed, took pictures with flash, and got up close and personal to the action on the bimah, right in the midst of the Torah service. I hesitated for a moment, not accustomed to this intersection of Torah and technology, but I quickly regrouped. “I love Israelis,” I thought to myself with a smile.

It was a moment of cultural exchange, in which my congregation, part of the American Reform Jewish establishment, intersected with an Israeli family living abroad. We were all there to observe Shabbat and celebrate a bar mitzvah – we just arrived at this moment from different corners of the Jewish world.          

I am fortunate to live in New York City, where there are a lot of Israeli families. Some of them want nothing to do with me. I am a rabbi, which, it seems to me, is sort of like saying I carry a contagious disease. The disease is religion and many Israelis seem to be afraid I might contaminate them at any minute. And in a sense, they are right. I am eager to draw them into the religious world.

This is no small task. To many of the Israelis I encounter, their first impression is that religion is Orthodox, male, proscriptive, and eager to deprive them of personal freedoms. 

Nonetheless, my colleagues and I persist, and we persist aggressively. We know that Israelis living in the United States are at risk of assimilation, possibly more so than American-born Jews. They are faced with many of the same challenges as any immigrant group: loss of language, separation from family, and a shift in cultures. More than that, they sometimes encounter a national expression of religion rather than an individual, religious one.

If we don’t draw Israelis into the American Jewish establishment, we risk losing them altogether. This is the driving force behind Chofshi B’Manhattan, an Israeli outreach initiative we’ve created at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue during the past four years. It offers Hebrew classes, family celebrations, networking events, film screenings, mom groups, and more to Israelis in New York City.

We’ve found that families are shocked and relieved by what we offer. We accept Israelis as they are. We respect that they carry a complicated hybrid of identities with them. We know that they yearn for a feeling of authentic Israeli-ness abroad – and that they want the same thing as most families in New York: thoughtfully curated, meaningful experiences for themselves and their children. 

In turn, Israelis offer our synagogue a tremendous amount as well. Having an Israeli teenager in our congregation can profoundly impact other teenagers. Hearing Hebrew chanted by a native Hebrew speaker can inspire other worshippers. Learning from an Israeli about Hebrew poetry can enrich the educational experience for all. My hope is that there will be such a volume of cultural exchange that there will cease to be any feeling of “us” and “them” at all. 

That Shabbat morning, as I led the Torah service with iPhones trailing close behind, I felt immense pride and delight. Pride that we had welcomed an Israeli family through our doors and delight in the pride they felt for the bar mitzvah boy. We were culturally different but religiously similar. It was k’lal Yisrael (the community of Israel) in action. Singing “Ma Yafeh Hayom” (“How Beautiful This Day Is”) took on special significance that morning – what a beautiful day indeed in which we could nourish feelings of profound, shared connection and love of Torah for all.

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Rabbi Diana Fersko is an associate rabbi at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, NY, where she works closely with the synagogue’s Chofshi B’Manhattan Israeli outreach initiative.

Rabbi Diana Fersko
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