Source: eJewish Philanthropy
Several years ago an Israeli came to my synagogue, Bais Abraham Congregation in St. Louis, Missouri, and told me there was one thing secular Israelis desperately wanted from the Jewish community: a school to teach their children to read and write the Hebrew language. Realizing this was an opportunity to engage secular Israelis on their own terms, and perhaps eventually to engage them in the Jewish community and religious life, we opened a synagogue based religious school specifically for the children of self-identifying secular Israelis. We staffed the school with experienced Israeli language teachers and used opportunities like Jewish holidays to teach the students about Jewish life, about which, to their parents' chagrin, they know almost nothing.
Over the course of the first few years, family after family expressed that they had never expected to feel at home in a synagogue with religious people. They expected coercion, derision, and alienation. Instead, they were surprised to feel embraced and at home in a Jewish religious environment. Bais Abraham is particularly suited for them as an Orthodox congregation that has consciously removed as many barriers to entry as possible, with a diverse congregational makeup of religious from birth, Jews raised secular, converts, multi-faith families, GLBTQ Jews, and many individuals on a spiritual journey.
Two years into the school’s existence the Israeli families began to trust us and to realize the importance of some Jewish education in America to the extent that they asked for an extra hour of study each week for their children to learn about Judaism. I saw this as the school’s true raison d’etre. The “Shelanu” Hebrew School, as it is known, now acts as a foundation upon which we provide holiday parties, free High Holiday seats, Shabbat meals, classes and connection for Israeli families to the American Jewish community.
We can make a big difference in retaining these Jews and their children as part of the Jewish people and Jewish religion. It is, in many ways, much easier than engaging a secular American Jew in that Israelis all have much stronger Jewish identities and memories. If we do not wake up quickly and put resources toward this challenge, equipping synagogues across the country to engage Israelis and to understand their unique culture and needs it will soon be too late for the next generation.
Read the entire article at eJewish Philanthropy.