With a foot in the tech world and another in Jewish culture, the JCC in Palo Alto has transformed itself into a hub for local Israeli expatriates. Located on a sprawling 8.5-acre campus, the place known formally as the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center has done what many mainstream American Jewish institutions are still attempting: attracting American Israelis, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, to programs at a legacy organization.
Called the Israeli Cultural Connection, or ICC, the suite of Israeli programs at the JCC draws more than 20,000 people annually to its classes, seminars and concerts. They and their children celebrate holidays, keep up their Hebrew and Israeli identity, and inch closer to the institutions and norms that have long organized the American Jewish community.
Secular Israelis who grew up without synagogue are unlikely to start attending services here, according to surveys, while Israelis are also not conditioned to paying high tuition fees for Jewish day school and camp.
The ICC gets around the Israeli-Jewish divide by offering traditional Jewish programs with an Israeli twist. Its Hebrew school is geared to kids who speak the language at home. A leadership training program originated at the ICC, called Gvanim. Gvanim, Hebrew for “shades,” focuses on how to maintain an Israeli identity in the United States through studying and discussing classic Jewish texts like the Talmud. It also offers guidance programs for Israeli immigrants, from job application workshops to a counseling center with 150 volunteers.
The center’s religious programming is also tailored to secular Israeli sensibilities. The Yom Kippur eve service, which drew 500 people, included works by modern Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and rock singer Berry Sakharof in addition to traditional prayers like Kol Nidre.
Likewise, its Torah study program on the first night of the Shavuot holiday — a mainstay of traditional synagogues — featured secular Israeli lecturers like Dov Elbaum, a public intellectual who used to be observant, and Yochi Brandes, who grew up haredi Orthodox and is now an author and commentator on religious issues.
Creating a subdivision specifically for Israelis fits into the larger framework of the Palo Alto JCC, which acts less as the headquarters of a single organization than as a neighborhood of several groups targeting different sets of Jews. A cafe without kosher certification sits not far from an Orthodox girls’ school. There’s an old-age home, a theater, a gym, a ga-ga (Israeli dodgeball) court, a kids’ rec room and multiple outdoor pieces of art.
The JCC also likes to think of itself as part of the tech world that draws so many Israelis to Silicon Valley. An incubator for new Jewish nonprofits and an organization advancing Israelis in tech both have offices on the campus. And JCC executives repeat the industry’s buzzwords — they “move fast and break things,” JCC CEO Zack Bodner said — though one of the main ways the center participates in tech is by encouraging entrepreneurs to “unplug” on Shabbat and spend time with family.
Read more at JTA.