Secular Israelis discover Judaism in America

By Alexandra Lapkin
Advocate staff

While, to some, Israel may seem to be the best place to be a Jew, it is in the U.S. that many Israelis discover their religion, drawn to the Reform and Conservative movements which offer an egalitarian approach to Judaism and an opportunity to meet other Jews.

The Israeli American Council (IAC) in Boston recently began an initiative called “Discover a Different Judaism in America,” to introduce Israeli Americans to the way religion is practiced in the U.S. .

Lior Kagan is one of the volunteers of this initiative. Kagan was a lawyer in Israel, who became a Jewish educator after she moved to the Boston area. “When I lived in Israel, I went to the synagogue only on Yom Kippur,” she said. When a friend brought her to Friday night services at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley in 2007, Kagan was entranced. “The moment I entered and saw these families sitting together and singing, it was a moment of enlightenment for me,” she said.

Kagan was secular in Israel, but after that first Shabbat at Beth Elohim, she became more observant. “I found a religion that was encompassing of women and men and that was letting them celebrate together,” she said. “I realized that as a woman I could be treated as an equal in my religion.” Kagan even sought out a Reform congregation in Israel, where her daughter celebrated her bat mitzvah.

As Kagan became more invested in Judaism, she also changed careers. She began teaching Hebrew at Hebrew College in Newton and became an Israeli community liaison at Temple Emeth in Chestnut Hill. Currently, she also teaches a weekly Torah class in Hebrew at IAC and a course on women in the Bible.

What especially appeals to Kagan is the familial and communal atmosphere at American synagogues. Whereas in Israel, synagogues are a house of worship, in the U.S. they are also a gathering place for families and friends. “I didn’t see the synagogue as a community place,” she said, “I saw it as a place for men only.”

But in addition to serving as a gathering place, for most Israelis, a synagogue in the U.S. is often the only place where they can meet other Jews. In Israel, being Jewish is more or less effortless, with children learning about Jewish holydays in school and activity slowing down on Shabbat, but in the U.S., living a Jewish life requires more effort. And so secular Israelis, who did not give Judaism much thought while in Israel, find themselves drawn to religious life as a way to build a community and hold on to their Jewish identity in the United States.

“In Israel, all of your community is Jewish, so a synagogue is not like a club that you need to join or a group that you need to support,” said Rabbi Eliana Jacobowitz of Temple B’nai B’rith in Somerville. “The idea of becoming a member of a synagogue just so the synagogue is there for you, just so the Jewish community remains vibrant, that’s a new idea for Israelis. Part of it is not just understanding Judaism, but a different community structure.”

Jacobowitz is putting these ideas into action through her work at IAC Gvanim, a young leadership development program.

She was in a similar mindset when, as a 25-year-old who had just arrived from Israel, she knocked on the door of a synagogue in Colorado where she was living at the time. Jacobowitz, who was raised secular, came there to meet other Jews, not so much to find religion. But when she learned that as a woman, she could go inside the main sanctuary, Jacobowitz was amazed, although it did take her another year to come back for Shabbat services.

As one of the few (and possibly the only) Israel-born rabbis in the Greater Boston area, she can establish a different kind of bond with Israeli congregants from her Americanborn colleagues. “I sometimes have secular Israelis stumble into my synagogue and they feel uncomfortable there, but when they hear that I am Israeli and did not grow up religious, we establish a connection because I can understand where they’re coming from,” Jacobowitz said. Although most Israelis are still reluctant to get involved in synagogue life, those who do, “have begun to see the value of being a member of a Jewish community,” she said, without necessarily changing their secular orientation.

Rachel Raz, who directs the Early Childhood Institute at Hebrew College, is an Israeli with a different story. She grew up in an observant Sephardic household in Tel Aviv; her father went to synagogue regularly, the family came together for Shabbat dinner, and Raz attended a modern-style Orthodox school. She likened her level of observance in Israel to American Conservative Judaism. “I really enjoyed this kind of Judaism that I grew up with,” she said. “I never felt that I had to change it in any way.”

When she moved to the U.S. 20 years ago and had children, Raz began to think about how to raise them Jewishly. Although she did not go to synagogue often in Israel, she joined Temple Emunah in Lexington, where she found the kind of Conservative, egalitarian Judaism that appealed to her.

As an IAC volunteer, she is trying to bridge the American and Israeli Jewish communities through common interests. Raz said that many secular Israelis are reluctant to join synagogues in the U.S., because they have a different understanding of what it means to be Jewish from American Jews. “For many American Jews to be Jewish means to go to synagogue and daven (pray),” she said. “For many Israelis, it’s building a large bonfire for Lag Ba’Omer and having friends and family over. It’s very different culturally.”

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