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Trading Places

Binyamin Rose

While most attention, not to mention funding, is showered on Americans who have become olim since 1948, less consideration is given to a larger number of yordim — Israelis who have made Americatheir new home during the same era. For decades, the yordim were both disparaged and neglected, and felt estranged from their new land. That has begun to change in the last couple of years, thanks to some new initiatives to keep Israelis from spiraling deep intoAmerica's assimilation trap.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

shaking handsAt first glance, the strip shopping mall I pull into alongHallandale Beach Boulevardlooks no different from dozens of other malls along the length and breadth ofMiamithat giveSouth Floridathe feel of one contiguous shopping plaza. At least at this time of the early morning, there is none of the normally rugged competition for parking spaces.

After I lock the car, Rabbi Yehuda Kornfeld, whom I was following to make sure I didn’t get lost — or stop to shop — leads me toward a stucco building with wooden beams painted a light orange that sparkle in the morning sun following a brief downpour.

That sparkle is promptly outshined by the smiles of bubbly youngsters in grades K-2 arriving in car pools at the Masoret Yehudit day school. Masoret Yehudit was founded three years ago as part of a national initiative of Torah Umesorah’s Project Seed, which has been igniting a Torah spark among unaffiliated Jews for decades.

“Our interaction with Israelis led us to the observation that if we could reach out to them just as we did with American-born Jews, we could reconnect them to their traditions,” said Rabbi Zev Dunner, who serves as national director of Project Seed and codirector of Masoret Yehudit along with Rabbi Zev Oratz.

It is Reb Yehuda, who moved to South Florida fromIsraelto accept the post as Masoret Yehudit’s director almost three years ago, who is in charge of providing that spark every school day. He greets each parent as they pull into the driveway on the perimeter of the mall where the school is located.

“Ten seconds with the parents in the morning makes all the difference in the world,” says Rabbi Kornfeld. “It’s the way I build a connection with them. I smile, ask them how they are, and tell them about some of our special classes and activities.”

A few parents escort their children onto the school grounds. Children stride into a small but well-tended playground with monkey bars and a slide, and sling off their backpacks with zest. The playground chatter is a mix of Hebrew and English. One teacher asks a child a question in Hebrew, and the child answers in English: “No, really?”

When all of the young charges are finally assembled, they gather outside to recite their morning prayers and then, l’havdil, reel off the Pledge of Allegiance, pronouncing the $50 word “indivisible” with perfect American diction.

“Why does a person like me send his kids here?” Israeli-born Dovid Mizrachi, an accountant who moved to America when he was five, repeats my question before mulling his answer, which comes in two parts: subjective and objective. The objective is his appreciation for a school that he says is providing his children with something they could not receive in public school — a bilingual curriculum offering studies in Judaism and Jewish law in line with Orthodox customs and practice, a general studies curriculum that meets state educational standards, and a passion for Eretz Yisrael. “I want my children to know where we will be returning to one day,” Mizrachi said.

The subjective contains his much more pained view of how the typical Israeli fares with life in theseUnited States. “Jewish day schools don’t relate to Israelis and Israelis don’t connect with American communities. Israelis here are living a life of constant adjustment.”

Shelly Benizri, Masoret Yehudit’s Stanford-educated director of operations, who moved to America in 1990 from a small, secular kibbutz outside Beer Sheva, describes her adjustment process in similar terms: “After I had been here for 15 years, I used to tell people that I didn’t consider myself Israeli anymore, but there is no way I could ever feel 100 percent American.”

 

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