Nurturing elements of Israeli and Jewish identity among second generation Israelis in the Diaspora, using community education frameworks, in Hebrew, and based on a secular and pluralistic approach

By Nir Geva

As a result of globalization processes over the recent decades, many places around the world have become home to large numbers of Israelis who chose to live outside Israel. These include high-tech professionals and business people, employees at Israeli and multinational companies, scientists and artists, as well as those who established families with a non-Israeli partner.

While most of these Israelis try to integrate in society, in the labor market and in the business environment of the countries where they now reside, they have remained loyal to the State of Israel, and they strive to preserve their Jewish-Israeli identity and to impart that to their children.

Nevertheless, the emerging communities of Israelis in the Diaspora have generally failed to integrate into the local Jewish communities. This failure is primarily attributed to cultural and language gaps between the Israeli immigrants and the locally born Jews. Certain deviations from this trend have been indicated over the past few years, along with the spreading conceptual shift that Israelis in the Diaspora comprise a political, economic, social and cultural asset. Furthermore, some Jewish communities have already recognized that the immigrants from Israel can also contribute to their strength. However, the majority of Israelis in the Diaspora, and particularly those with a secular lifestyle, still consider the affiliation with a Jewish community as irrelevant to them[i]. The life of the Jewish community, which is conducted in the local language rather than in Hebrew, is perceived by many Israeli immigrants as related to synagogue services and religious rituals, and because most of them are secular, such practices appear far away from their cultural preferences. In these circumstances, the vast majority of secular Israelis in the Diaspora do not participate in the activities of the Jewish communities, and their children do not benefit from the education services that those communities provide.

In light of the growing need which thereby remained unsatisfied, several informal education frameworks in the Hebrew language – such as Israeli Scouts and Sunday schools – have been created in quite a few Israeli communities worldwide. Regrettably though, in the absence of adequate deployment of such education frameworks, and without financial and institutional support for the development of additional programs that are tailored to the unique needs of second generation Israelis in the Diaspora, many parents struggle to instill in their children elements of Israeli and Jewish identity, unfortunately – without success. Consequently, many of the children of Israelis in the Diaspora are not familiar with their roots and are detached from the cultural world of their parents. At a later stage of their lives, a significant part of these children is likely to abandon the Israeli and Jewish identity entirely.

The scale of the phenomenon outlined above is disturbing and challenging those who see the importance of ensuring the future of the Jewish people outside Israel.

The Kehila Sunday school in Amsterdam: A model for a community-based education framework, in Hebrew, tailored to the complex identity of second generation Israelis in the Diaspora

Kehila 3In early 2012 a few Israelis living in the Netherlands joined forces to establish a community-based education framework that would be socially and culturally suitable for their children, and that is hence of a secular-Israeli-Jewish nature and with a pluralistic approach. Based on this initiative, they founded an organization called Kehila, and that organization opened a Sunday school in Amsterdam.

It was particularly essential for the founders of Kehila to ensure that the atmosphere at the Sunday school, along with the content and values imparted, merge well with the world of children whose elements of Jewish and Israeli identity comprise only part of a complex identity mosaic in which other components are in some cases of equal or greater magnitude.

In a letter sent out ahead of opening registration for the first term of the Sunday school, the founders of Kehila wrote as follows:

We believe that our children (like any child) have the right to live with dignity and pride, at any place or framework where they grow up, and this includes benefiting to the fullest extent possible from the wealth of their language and cultural roots. We further believe that creating a unique identity for our children in a manner which nurtures the Jewish-Israeli elements alongside other facets of their identity, may enable them to express all levels of their personality, and thereby to become adults who are able to form a richer social and cultural life, to define themselves as part of the Jewish people in the Diaspora, and to also have a sense of connection with Israel and Israeli culture.

And they further wrote:

The main objective of our Sunday school is to enhance the children’s bond with the Hebrew language and with their Jewish roots, and to thereby enable them to be exposed to our unique cultural treasure, and to make it an integral part of their world. Because the Hebrew language is not just a communication skill – it is our home, it’s the place where we belong, and it’s our identity and our culture. And therefore it is so important for us to preserve the Hebrew language, to enrich it, to have common experiences in Hebrew, to sing Hebrew songs, and to build true friendships in Hebrew. We are confident that our children will benefit from this.

The educational program of the Kehila Sunday school has been based ever since on the following principles:

  • Experiential and enjoyable learning in Hebrew, in order to strengthen the children’s self-confidence and to encourage them to speak Hebrew, taking into account that for a majority of them it is a second language, and that they speak and understand Hebrew in various levels;
  • Increasing the importance of Hebrew culture through exposure to literature, songs and customs;
  • Deepening the connection with Jewish tradition and fostering the children’s bond with Israel;
  • Teaching Hebrew literacy in a manner that enables each of the pupils to progress at his or her own pace.

Four years after it was established, over 100 children, aged 2-12, are presently enrolled in the Kehila Sunday school, which has become one of the largest informal Jewish education frameworks in the Netherlands. And apparently, this school is the only complementary Jewish education framework that is suitable for many of its pupils, because its activities take place in Hebrew and it does not have a religious curriculum.

Kehila 5Accordingly, and although its founders did not originally intend this to happen, the Kehila Sunday school in Amsterdam has become a successful model of an independent education framework that is suitable, in terms of its spirit and values, to second generation Israelis in the Diaspora, including children who only have one Jewish parent.

The Kehilot Institute – creating education frameworks in communities of Israelis in the Diaspora

With a view to diffusing the successful model of Amsterdam’s Kehila, we have recently founded the Kehilot Institute that supports the establishment of community education frameworks in other places throughout the Israeli Diaspora.

Financed by the Pincus Fund for Jewish Education in the Diaspora, the Kehilot Institute aims to identify and train local leaders in cities and towns where there is a demand for an informal education framework in Hebrew.

The institute’s projects are carried out by a multidisciplinary team of consultants with experience and expertise in the relevant fields – education and teaching, management and budgeting, entrepreneurship and leadership – and our consultants offer their assistance to the local leaders throughout the process of establishing the education framework, from the concept stage through to the end of the first year of activity, and in a manner which allows the local teams to subsequently continue the work on their own.

The Kehilot Institute also engages in the creation, compilation and sharing of content, curricula, learning material and other practical knowledge. These comprise a “multipurpose toolbox” that is designed to enable those who wish to establish and manage education frameworks in their communities.

Food for thought

In this article we sought to describe, in a nutshell, the challenges we face and the work we do in the context of preserving the Israeli and Jewish identity of second generation Israelis in the Diaspora.

The following issues, which were only briefly noted here, certainly require further thought and in-depth discussion:

  • The attitude of Israelis in the Diaspora towards the societies in which they live;
  • The reasons why Israelis in the Diaspora are not integrated into the established Jewish communities;
  • The complex identity of second generation Israelis in the Diaspora;
  • The idea of forming a new Jewish identity in the Diaspora, based on the Hebrew language, the Israeli culture, and secular and pluralistic values;
  • The creation of communities of Israelis in the Diaspora, centered around a joint education framework, in contrast with the Jewish communities which are centered around the synagogue and religious services;
  • The manner in which informal education frameworks can be developed and administered in communities of Israelis in the Diaspora, without significant financial and institutional support;
  • The need to develop learning programs and aids designed for second generation Israelis in the Diaspora.

[i] The Israeli Diaspora as a Catalyst for Jewish Peoplehood (Tel Aviv: Reut Institute, 2012)

Nir Geva is a co-founder and co-leader of Kehila – a community of Israelis in the Netherlands, and of Machon Kehilot, whose team encourages and trains groups of Israelis in the Diaspora to establish communities based on educational frameworks.