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The RBS Experiment

Gila Arnold

It’s been called a bubble, a mini America. Soft landing awaits Anglo adults who make aliyah to Ramat Beit Shemesh, but is this a dangerous crutch to their kids?

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

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IS THIS ISRAEL? American logos, styles, and language on an Israeli backdrop: RBS provides a “soft landing” for immigrant parents, but does that Anglo cushion prevent their children from fully integrating into their host society? (Photos: Menachem Weinreb)

I t was far and away one of the most thrilling moments of my life. As the Nefesh b’Nefesh charter plane swept the Ben-Gurion runway and came to a stop amid cheers and sobs and ecstatic applause, I looked out the window, tears streaming down my face, and was overwhelmed with the knowledge that I was now doing what generations of Jews could only dream of: coming home to Eretz Yisrael. It had taken months of arduous work, both physical and emotional, but there was no doubt in my mind, not then and not now, that it was worth it.

Whether we’ve gotten here by camel, boat, or airplane, making aliyah has always required a good dose of sweat, sacrifice, and siyata d’Shmaya. Moving to any new country involves the daunting hurdle of starting from scratch — new language, new culture, new job — with no connections, reputation, or familiar point of reference to pave the way. And modern-day Israel, as a country built by immigrants, has seen the acculturation saga played out again and again by the various immigrant groups that have arrived to build a new life in this ancient land of ours.

But a new phenomenon has emerged over the past decade and a half — a plot twist in this age-old narrative of the immigrant’s experience. It is a community where greenhorns can be successful without mastering Hebrew, where the values and mores of the “Old World” are not judged obsolete, where the younger generation respects, rather than rejects, the foreign culture of their parents. It’s been derided as a bubble, but it’s better described as a social experiment, one with far-reaching implications.

It’s happening in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

The Making of a Community

The modern city of Beit Shemesh was established in 1950, and for decades was primarily a development town comprised of immigrants from Middle Eastern and North African countries. In the 1990s Anglos began moving to the newer Givat Sharet neighborhood of Beit Shemesh, and in 1997, the suburb of Ramat Beit Shemesh was established. The planners couldn’t have predicted its eventual popularity among chareidi Anglo immigrants; in fact, it was originally planned as a secular neighborhood. But young religious families, including Americans living in pricey Jerusalem, were looking for a community with affordable housing — and what followed was a veritable explosion.

A vast and varied community, RBS is home to many olim who have, on the whole, made the full leap into Israel society, be it the chareidi or dati-leumi worlds. But the community also includes a notable sector that is forging its own uniquely Anglo path. Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef today is 40 percent Anglo, yet stroll the neighborhood and the Anglo presence feels more pronounced. The sound of English is everywhere — on street corners, in shuls and stores. And, with RBSA by far the most popular destination for chareidi Anglo families making aliyah, the numbers keep swelling.

“Imagine what it feels like for a child who made aliyah,” explains Rav Yaacov Haber. “For a teenage boy here, standard chareidi society offers him limited options. For a boy who may not be cut out for learning, it’s almost like being trapped”

Ramat Beit Shemesh is certainly not the first hub of Anglo olim in Israel; the Jerusalem neighborhood Har Nof and the Gush community Efrat, to name just two examples, both came well before it. But it is the first community to include within its educational system some institutions with an intentionally American flavor, to establish a plethora of Anglo-style kehillos, to offer medical and governmental services in English, and to provide for an oleh’s full range of social needs in his mother tongue so that, as the joke goes, he can make aliyah without leaving America. Most tellingly, it is the first community of Anglo olim where the children in the playgrounds oftentimes prefer to speak English.

And there, some say, lies the problem. The neighborhood has been so good at proving a “soft landing” for Anglo immigrants that allows the next generation, like their parents, to remain outside of the cultural mainstream. There’s nothing wrong with fluency in English, but when it means a lack of fluency in Hebrew — in a country where Hebrew is the official language — it could be a sign that RBSA has become a victim of its own success. And if so, it is those children who fail to mainstream who will suffer.

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