NEW YORK: Oren Heiman describes himself as a “200 percent” person. As managing partner of the New York office of a large Tel Aviv-based law firm, he travels to Israel for business at least once a month. But his dual identity goes much further.
Born in Cincinnati to Israeli parents, Heiman, 45, moved to Israel when he was nine and then to New York in his thirties. His lives in Israel and the U.S. are now so intertwined that he says the feeling of his mattress is sometimes the only way he knows where he is when he wakes up in the morning. And he wouldn’t trade his lifestyle for anything.
“I am an Israeli American lawyer, with an Israeli-American license, practicing Israeli-American law for American-Israeli clients” Heiman says. “I am 100 percent Israeli and 100 percent American. I get 200 percent of life, which is something I want my kids to have as well.”
But Heiman is increasingly concerned that both rapid assimilation by Israelis into secular American culture and a widespread detachment among Israelis from mainstream American Jewish life pose threats, for many, to the dual identity he so cherishes.
Heiman was elected to lead an organization called Moatza, which a group of Israeli-American community leaders in the New York area formed in partnership with The Jewish Agency and the UJA Federation of New York two years ago. The group’s purpose is to provide a structural framework for Israeli-Americans to build a strong community in the New York area and to become more deeply engaged with organized Jewish communal life.
The clock is ticking. Recent high-profile studies, such as the Pew Report, have revealed a significant downdraft in the intensity and levels of affiliation among non-Orthodox American Jews. Two cohorts — second and third-generation Israeli immigrants — are particularly vulnerable to alienation from mainstream Jewish life. In fact, another study, conducted by the UJA Federation of New York in 2009, found that the intermarriage rate in Israeli-American community is higher than that of American-born Jews.
“This population is largely alienated from local Jewish communal life,” says Monika Lev-Cohen, program director for Global Israeli Communities at The Jewish Agency for Israel. “Research indicates that the Jewish identity of the children of Israeli immigrants is constantly weakening—sometimes to the point of disappearing altogether—and their level of assimilation is higher than among the local community.”
Heiman believes the biggest challenge is apathy. He says that Israelis often believe that speaking Hebrew with their kids, eating hummus and attending Israeli film festivals is enough. According to Heiman, they simply do not understand why they should support organized community life and, in a broader sense, connect to Jewish life.
Part of the problem is cultural. In Israel, even the most secular people are immersed in Judaism and Jewish culture by default. Synagogues are subsidized by the state and do not charge congregants membership fees. For many Israelis, paying for High Holiday tickets or lifecycle events is a turn-off.
While at first, many Israeli-Americans are puzzled by the “alphabet soup” of Jewish organizations, those who have been in the U.S. for more than ten years – specifically those with children—do eventually seek the support of an organized Israeli-American community. And when they look for such structures, they realize that none exist.
“One of my favorite responses to our efforts is ‘Thank God my grandparents didn’t insist that I learn Polish,’ so why do we want to instill ‘Israeliness’ in our children?” Heiman says. “Call it patriotism, Zionism, multi-culturalism, the desire to live a dual-life, keeping our kids Jewish—everyone has their own reasons.”
Moatza began in March 2012 with eight people assembled by The Jewish Agency in a conference room. Over the next several months, the group began to hold smaller discussions on what an Israeli-American community should look like. The discussions gained traction. More people began to attend meetings in order to share their own visions for an organized community. The common thread was concern for second and third generation Israeli-Americans and how to ensure that Israeli expat parents could raise a generation of Hebrew-speaking Israeli scouts and future IDF soldiers without surrendering their American identity. In March 2013, Moatza held a conference at the 92nd Street Y with more than 150 attendees. Six months later, the group held another conference in Tenafly, NJ with some 120 delegates from more than 20 Israeli communities from around the world.
Clearly, the group’s principle aims—engaging young Israelis living in America, retaining Israeli culture, developing social support services for Israeli-Americans, developing a strong voice in Israeli politics, fostering stronger Jewish identity, becoming involved in philanthropy, public diplomacy to support Israel, and challenging a deeply-rooted stigma regarding Israelis living abroad—have gained an audience, both here and abroad. In fact, the final two priorities have become part of a broader Israeli and Jewish agenda. Heiman participated in a small delegation which traveled to Israel this past November to speak at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, a Knesset panel and at the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors meeting.
“People used to call us ‘cowards’ and ‘deserters’. Over the last decade, these epithets have been replaced by ‘ambassadors’, ‘global travelers’ and ‘Israeli Americans,’” Heiman says. “The G.A. discussion [our delegation participated in] was called ‘Untapped Asset: The Israeli Diaspora.’ Israelis are now beginning to embrace us for our impact on economic growth, philanthropy, Hasbara, higher education and future olim. It is a new trend and a very good feeling.”
Heiman also does not discount the impact Israeli-Americans can have on American Jewish life in the broader sense.
“The Pew Report says that American Jews can fight assimilation either by becoming more religious or connected to Israel,” he says. “We can do a lot on the latter.”