The Challenges of Attracting Israelis to Our Day Schools

Paul Shaviv

TanenbaumCHAT (Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto) has been working on this issue for some time. The Vaughan region, north of Toronto, is the site of our northern campus and a very fast-growing Jewish area. We estimate that perhaps 30% of the Jewish population consists of former Israelis. Our Grade 9 intake survey shows that around 12-13% of our students have one or two Israeli parents. But many of these are children of one Canadian-born and one Israeli-born parent, with the Canadian-born parent (themselves often Day School graduates) bringing the child into the Jewish educational system. We have far greater difficulty in recruiting from the local “Israeli-Israeli” community. There are serious barriers.

Some of the targeted recruitment[2] initiatives we have made to Israeli parents include:

  • extensive advertising and features in the local Ivrit newspaper (results: negligible);
  • printing and circulating of material about the school in Ivrit (results: negligible);
  • extensive advertising in Ivrit on the local Israeli cable TV channel (results: negligible);
  • attempts to “reach out” to local Israeli cultural and community organizations (results: negligible and often resulting in antagonistic and tense exchanges);
  • and, this year, recruiting some Israeli “Parent Ambassadors”—like the majority of those Israelis who do indeed send their children, satisfied parents—who were asked to personally “reach out” to potential parents and invite them to the school (results: disappointing, although there may be some more work to be done).
  • For the last year we have employed a part-time Ivrit- (and Russian-) speaking “Recruitment Coordinator” to direct these efforts.

Why is this experience so difficult?

Originally, I saw this as a conceptual-cultural issue. After dozens of meetings, interviews and conversations with Israeli parents and potential parents, I identified a set of cultural-emotional-Jewish barriers that had to be overcome before attracting these parents and students into TanenbaumCHAT. They include, but are not limited to:

  1. The majority-minority issue: Israelis are used to living as a Jewish majority. They have no concept of what it is to live as a minority, or the effort or “investment” needed to preserve identity and culture. (“We don’t need Jewish schools; we speak Ivrit at home, and that’s enough.”)
  2. Israeli vs. Jewish: They see their identity as national, and not in any way religious. Diaspora Jewish education is almost entirely designed to relate to Jewishness as fundamentally—although not exclusively—religious. In multicultural Toronto, some Israeli parents are far more comfortable seeing their children as the “Israel contingent” in the public schools—relating to other ethnic / national minorities—than as relating to the Jewish community.
  3. “Jewish” means “ultra-Orthodox”: Aggravating this, many Israelis bring with them acrimonious baggage from the dati-chiloni (religious–secular) conflict in Israel. They see the word “Jewish” (as in “Jewish School”) as meaning “religious,” and “religious” as meaning charedi (“ultra-Orthodox”). They have no concept of the broader, more tolerant Jewish options of the Diaspora.[3] Israeli parents ask me questions like “Do you teach secular studies in your school?” A major issue is the convention of boys wearing kippot in Jewish schools. “My son will never be forced to wear a kippah.” Even though I explain that in our school it is as much a sign of ethnic identification as it is a religious act, it is a major barrier for many.
  4. Private education; and “Israelis don’t have to pay”: Private education is almost nonexistent in Israel. Israelis do not understand that Jewish schools are private, and have to charge tuition fees. “We’re Israelis—we don’t have to pay” is a frequently heard declaration. The request for fees (however great the offered reduction) also runs counter to their perception that Diaspora Jews are very rich: “If the local Jews want us to send our children to Jewish schools, they should pay for us!” They also are puzzled that in Israel many institutions are free gifts to local Israelis by Diaspora communities, but here they have to pay for them. Unless the family has an unusually longer-term perspective, for “new arrivals” focusing on jobs-housing-education, the choice between free public schooling and the more complicated, fee-paying Jewish school option seems a “no brainer.”
  5. Jewish identity as a stigma: They often believe that attending a Jewish school will stigmatize their children. “Will my child be accepted at university if s/he has gone to a Jewish school?” Unfamiliar with North American religious and ethnic pluralism, they see Jewishness as a barrier to becoming Canadians (or Americans).
  6. Guilt: The conflicted feelings among some Israeli émigrés about leaving Israel generates complex, irrational and often highly defensive emotions in their relationships to all things Jewish in the Diaspora.

And so on. A recurring scenario is the family that decides not to send their child to TanenbaumCHAT in Grade 9 (“We speak Ivrit at home”) but reappears three years later when their son/daughter has forgotten their Ivrit, has no interest in going back to visit Israel, and no longer wants to socialize with Jewish or Israeli friends.

What is the root cause of these feelings? Are they the outcome of sophisticated differences between Israeli and Diaspora conceptions of Jewishness and Jewish identity? Is this an echo of the historic battle of Shlilat ha-galut (negation of the Diaspora) in classic Zionist ideology? Is this an Ahad Ha’am-type conundrum, over which we should agonize, philosophize and hold conferences and seminars?

During a recent visit to Israel, I concluded that there is a far simpler explanation—namely, the image, or non-image, of Diaspora Jewish life portrayed in the Israeli media (and the Israeli school system).

Readers of the Ivrit newspapers or viewers of Israeli television will know that there is virtually no reporting of Diaspora Jewish life, with three exceptions: anti-Semitism, Jewish millionaires, and bathetic features about “The last Jew left in…”.

The portrayed image of Diaspora Jews is primitive in the extreme. The same is true of Diaspora Judaism. Non-Orthodox streams of Judaism—even Modern Orthodox streams of Judaism—have complained for years that although they constitute a majority of North American Jewry they are ignored or misrepresented in the Israeli press. (The situation in the Israeli English-language media is rather better, but no Israelis read them.) Likewise, anecdotes abound of the lack of knowledge of Judaism or Diaspora Jewish life by political or cultural leaders of Israeli society.

An Israeli coming to live in, say Toronto, expects to meet Jews cowering from the threat of anti-Semitism, unorganized, groping for Jewish identity and without civic status. This generates some or all of the following reactions:

  • Meeting the highly organized, self-confident, very active community is a shock.
  • The concept of positive Jewish identity is incomprehensible to them.
  • They continue to identify as “Israelis” (not surprisingly), but this includes a perception that although they now live in the Diaspora they are still designated recipients of UJA funding.
  • Some feel bewildered that the ideological model of Israeli “identity superiority” over the Diaspora Jewish variety is not assumed by everyone they meet. According to this model, the Israelis are immune to assimilation, while the Diaspora Jews are on the verge of disappearing. In practice, among the communities of Israeli émigrés, the reverse is often the case.

Further, Israelis who have a negative view of any Jewish ritual or belief cannot understand the established place that Judaism and Jewish culture occupy in western society. (“Why would a university recognize a credit in Jewish studies?”) Non-intellectual variants on this are puzzlement on the enthusiastic marketing of kosher food by non-Jewish supermarkets, the readiness of non-Jewish manufacturers to have their products carry kosher certification, and the provision of kosher food to Jewish employees or business associates at corporate events.

So they have no concept of what Jewish life or Jewish community means, and hence cannot understand (or justify) the existence of Jewish schools, which they sometimes characterize distastefully as “money-grabbing exercises” by the local Jewish community.

Is there an answer to this?

One answer that we are considering is establishing an “Israeli option” in our Jewish Studies program that would offer a curriculum apparently more attractive, and less threatening, to the local Israeli population. This might incorporate “Ivrit for Israelis,” Tanakh taught in a more Israeli tradition, and other nuanced courses. There are numerous practical, logistic, ideological and other problems associated with this, but it seems to me to be on balance an idea worth trying. It is not different from the solution suggested by Nachman of Bratslav to the problem of the prince who thought he was a turkey. To those who respond that this would be a “change of values,” you are correct. Where our current system is clearly not engaging with 30% of our population, out-of-the-box thinking is needed.

But if we do not find a way of connecting with this population, we will continue to see the paradoxical tragedy that the moment they move out of Israel, the products of Israeli society have the least resilient Jewish identities of any Jewish group in the free world. Were this to be so, it would bear out my long-held thesis that “Israel is at one and the same time the most[4] Jewish place on earth and the least Jewish place on earth.” ♦

[1] This article deals with born-in-Israel Israelis who have emigrated from Israel, and their children. It does not include emigrants from the FSU who may have transited through Israel, but whose Jewish and cultural identity remain Russian. They are a distinct group, whose attitude to Judaism, Jewish community and Jewish schools is just as complex, but different. Similarly, I am aware that this article considers “Israelis” as a monolithic group, which they are not. For example, Israelis who are more traditional gravitate to more traditional Jewish schools, and seem to be at ease in those environments. Other immigrants—South Africans and South Americans, for example—are much more familiar with the Jewish Day School system and hence more comfortable with it. I am grateful to a number of colleagues and friends here in Toronto, particularly Rabbi Eli Mandel, for their comments on a draft of this article.

[2] To give some background: TanenbaumCHAT is a very large, pluralist community high school. We have over 1,500 9-12 students, co-ed, on two parallel campuses. We are very well-known in the Toronto area; our northern campus is a sparkling, new, fully-equipped facility; and we have a very high level of Ivrit in the school. In recent years our annual recruitment of new students has been 400+, including 70%-80% of all Grade 8 students in the local day schools. In addition, Canada is a country that encourages immigration, and is a prime destination for Israelis.

[3] Rabbi Eli Mandel perceptively commented that the non-Orthodox character of many Jewish schools actually confuses and even alienates them, and they regard the schools as representing something inauthentic. Like the shul that they don’t go to, the school that they refuse to send their children to should be strictly Orthodox as well. In support of this comment, it should be noted that the only synagogue group that seems to have success in connecting to the Toronto Israeli population is Chabad.

[4] “The most” by land, language, calendar, popular culture, history, concentration of Jewish learning, population etc. “The least” because, as discussed above, it has few, if any, of the properties that define Jewish community life as we know it, beginning with minority status and all that stems from it.

Paul Shaviv—himself an Israeli citizen—is the Director of Education at TanenbaumCHAT in Toronto. He can be reached at
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HaYidion Israel & Zionism Education Spring 2009
Israel & Zionism Education
Spring 2009