Joanne Palmer
Published: 02 January 2015

There are a lot of Israelis in New Jersey.

Although there are no definitive numbers, estimates range from 30,000 to 50,000. Even if there are exactly 30,000, not a person more — still, that’s a lot of ex-pat Israelis.

Until now, that community has not had a center; it’s been more a set of small free-floating clusters than anything more cohesive or formal.

Now, the Israeli-American Council has opened a branch in New Jersey, headquartered in an office in Paramus. Its goal is to form a nucleus around which the community can attach itself and grow.

The IAC is a national organization, founded in Los Angeles seven years ago. “It was very local until about seven or eight months ago, when a few big donors came into play, and the budget — and its mission — took a big jump,” Shai Nemesh said.

Mr. Nemesh is well positioned to know. He is the new director of the New Jersey regional office. “When the mission changed, it has been expanding into communities that request its involvement,” he said. “We identify a community that has a large contingent of Israelis, and we approach them to see if they’re interested.

“The interest has to come from a local community, on the grassroots level.”

Once the initial contact is made, “the community forms a group of council members, who are willing to donate both money and time to set up a regional council in the area,” he said. “That’s how it worked in Miami, Boston, Las Vegas, New York, and now here in New Jersey.”

The IAC’s goals are straightforward. American Israelis “come from a similar background; they want to keep it, to keep their cultural identity, to speak Hebrew with their children, or to teach Hebrew to their children who are in public schools.

“They want to maintain their connections to each other.

“Another goal is to engage the Israeli American community and the American Jewish community in joint activities, and to get them to be more united. We do have a similar Jewish background. The idea is to get as much programming and joint activities as possible.

“And a third goal is to enhance the connection to Israel.”

The organization is as apolitical as possible, Mr. Nemesh added, and that is a position that comes easily to him, through his nearly career-long background in summer camping programs for Jewish kids.

Mr. Nemesh was born in Kiryat Tivon, in northern Israel, and his wife is from Jerusalem; the family, which now includes two children, lives in Paramus. He started his career as a camp counselor at Camp Coleman, the Union for Reform Judaism’s summer camp in Georgia. Next, he worked at the Jewish Agency’s summer camp program, and then for a private company that specialized in cultural exchanges for campers. For the last five years, he worked for Camp Young Judaea Sprout Lake.

His heart is “with the educational aspect of programming; of being involved with culture and art, and with a high level of engagement. I leave the politics aside,” he said.

“You can’t ignore the fact that Israel needs help. We are not here to say if Israel is doing right or wrong, but that it needs help. We are saying that it has to be here,” that Israel has to exist.

“It is for the Israelis in Israel to decide how to run the country. We love them either way.”

Here in New Jersey, “we are going to look to bring Israeli artists into the area. I hope we are going to engage in a program that brings tikkun olam into play,” to gather up the Israelis’ energy and focus it into social justice programs.

“The IAC is not affiliated with any other specific organization,” Mr. Nemesh said. “Our goal is to work with everybody to achieve a bigger outreach to the community.”

The new IAC chapter will cover all New Jersey, although most of its board members are from Bergen County.

Ofer Levy is a charter member of the IAC board and chair of New Jersey IAC’s finance committee. He lived in Teaneck for many years and now lives in East Brunswick; his two daughters go to the Hebrew Academy charter school there.

“I am a total Israeli,” he said. “In Israel on Saturday, we are driving by the shul. Here it is different. You have so many wings of Judaism that I don’t even know how to name all of them, but if we all work together, we can get much farther.”

He knew about the IAC before he joined its board. “It’s a great organization,” he said. “And the people who started in 10 years ago in LA came over to Tenafly, and said ‘Listen, guys, we are going to do something here. It works very well there. We want the same thing here. What do you think?’ And we are all ‘Yes. Absolutely yes. Very nice. We want to we want to we want to.’ And they said, ‘Okay. Each one of you give $5,000.’ And we said ‘Wait!’ And that’s how it started.

“I see the need for coming together and getting stronger. There is a value in continuing our tradition.”

The IAC plans to work with other groups with similar goals. As few weeks ago, he said, board members met with Israel’s tourism minister, Uzi Landau, in Manhattan, and plan to share some programs with New York groups. “They are thinking of putting together a camp for Israeli families who are visiting Israel and want to send their kids to camp there for a few days while they are there,” he said.

He takes some inspiration from Chabad. “They have a beautiful model,” he said. “They are all over the world, and they are pretty much welcoming everybody. We want to have the same model, to welcome every segment of the Jewish people in America — Jewish people, Israeli people — wherever they are.”

Part of Chabad’s model is the way its various branches share successful programming with each other, seeing each other as allies rather than competitors. “Take, for example, the summer camp,” Mr. Levy said. “They do a program, bring in a magician or entertainer. He will do the same in every camp. We want to connect all the communities like that, share programming and best practices, even if they are independent.

“Teaming up and working together not only saves money, it also totally makes sense,” he said.

Eyal Yechezkell of Tenafly came to the United States when he was 11 and he thinks of himself as very much bi-national. He is also a founding member of New Jersey IAC.

“I really like its mission,” he said. “What we are looking to accomplish is to strengthen the Israeli American community and the relationship between Israeli Americans and the Jewish community.”

“I think that it is a great goal. We are not connected with any one institution or organization. I like that. And I like that it has no political affiliation. That helped me decided to join the local council.”

The IAC in New Jersey is still brand new, and its board is open to ideas. “We just hired Shai to run the whole thing, and we just had our first Chanukah party, where we announced the launch,” Mr. Levy said. “The plan is to create programs for different age groups — for the little ones, the middle ones, and teenagers, and even for adults. We are looking at everything right now trying to analyze the need. We are listening to the community, trying to find out the best place to start.”

He is doing his own bit in New Brunswick, Mr. Levy said. “Almost every Friday night, I invite lots of people to dinner,” and so do other board members. “We are always gathering people and spreading the word. We are ambassadors for who we are and what we believe in.

“And that’s it. If everyone will do a little bit, we’ll be much bigger and stronger.”