From things I’ve read over the years, it seems that more than a negligible percentage of Jews who attend outreach shuls and centers are expatriate Israelis. Could it be that they are open to exploring and experiencing Judaism specifically because living in such a predominantly non-Jewish environment intensifies their sense of alienation or stirs the muted embers of the Jewish neshamah? An interesting recent essay in the online magazine Tablet seems to offer some confirmation of such a dynamic.

Writer Tanya Mozias Slavin observes that when she lived in Israel, she “could afford to be pretty relaxed about Jewish traditions” because the opportunities to observe them were ubiquitous and always available. Hence, “You can participate or just watch, or ignore it all if you like. But it’ll still be there, and it makes you feel like you belong.”

Ironically, however, it was specifically because “feeling Jewish in Israel is so automatic and mundane” that one December evening 15 years ago in Jerusalem, she and a group of friends “didn’t think twice before going to a nearby church to listen to the X-mas service and enjoy the holiday spirit… It all felt very cozy and wintry and thrillingly foreign. My husband played the piano, we warmed our hands on mugs of hot tea, listened to the Mass, and sang along to X-mas carols.”

She contrasts that with her experience a year and a half later, when, after moving to England to attend school there, she and her husband dropped in on the service at a Protestant church they had come upon.
But within minutes it became clear that we were outsiders there, completely out of place. The church wasn’t filled with cool, progressive-thinking and bored students looking to break away from the mainstream, but with regular people of Christian faith. It felt hypocritical, even disrespectful (toward ourselves and those people) for us to be there. We left before the service was over and never went back. We were in a foreign country now, we thought, so we should start behaving like Jews.

Since then, she writes, “the realization firmly took hold on us that we’re not ‘Jewish enough’ outside Israel without actively asserting our Jewishness in some way…. And after we had kids, it became all the more important to us to teach them to differentiate between what’s ours and what isn’t.”

As a result, during her years living abroad, she has honed her “X-mas-avoiding skills to perfection,” ordering groceries and gifts online, rather than encountering the crowds, the music, the décor, the festive spirit that is pervasive during the holiday season, even taking a long detour to circumvent the December glitter in the center of town and changing her travel route to avoid holiday-related activities along the way. Instead, she hibernates at home, waiting for the passage of what she calls “this break between November and January that makes me feel like I’m swallowed by the mainstream while at the same time intensifying my feeling like an outsider.”

Then, last year, she traveled to Israel for vacation, the first time in 15 years she’d be there during the winter. Arriving in Ben-Gurion airport, she felt relieved at the absence of X-mas decorations.

But she was met at arrivals by her sister, who enthusiastically announced that after dropping off their luggage at their parents’ home, the whole family would be heading to an X-mas fair in the local YMCA. Ms. Slavin writes: .

I was about to open my mouth to protest but suddenly felt that I had no excuse not to go. In a matter of five hours and 3,000 miles, X-mas became cool and exotic again. An event that only the most open-minded and liberal-thinking outliers would dare to go to. I got to do all the things I successfully avoided doing in England: admire the decorated X-mas tree, walk along aisles laden with X-mas goodies, listen to X-mas carols…. .

The writer admits to feeling as if she was “in the midst of a strange anthropological experiment — only I wasn’t sure if I was its leader or one of its subjects.” Her story hasn’t (yet) had a happy Jewish ending, but the following one with a similar theme, told to me by Rabbi Avrohom Neuberger, did:

Many years ago, when Rabbi Yaakov Haber, now of Ramat Beit Shemesh, was a rav in Melbourne, Australia, Rebbetzin Haber hired a young Israeli woman who was on the de rigueur post-army trek through Asia and then Down Under, for help with housekeeping. When Rosh Hashanah arrived, the Habers asked her if she wanted to join them in shul for the tefillos, but she declined, saying, “Zeh lo haminhag shelanu.”

After Rosh Hashanah, when the Habers asked her how Rosh Hashanah had been for her, she replied, “Terrible. In Eretz Yisrael, you know it’s Rosh Hashanah even if you don’t attend services, but here in Australia, kloom.” So when, with the approach of Yom Kippur, the Habers again offered the opportunity to come to shul, she accepted — and ended up being chozer b’teshuvah.

I do wonder, however, whether there’s a distinction between staunchly secular Israelis whose parents and even grandparents rejected religion for a secular Zionist ideal, and more traditional ones, regarding the effect on Jewish identity of living in Israel or outside of it. For an Israeli in the first category, who has less of a natural affinity for Judaism and familiarity with religious Jews, living in Israel — with its commonplace conflicts between the religious and secular sectors and biased media portrayals of frum Jews — might discourage him from any identification with the religious community. Once abroad, however, it is his very alienation from things Jewish — yet also feeling, perhaps to his surprise, ill at ease in the non-Jewish milieu — that might spur him to question what really makes him Jewish and to come in contact with the dormant longings of the neshamah.

Those who’ve grown up with more traditional connections, by contrast, are already at home with Jewish motifs and likely have contact with religious Jews first-hand — their own relatives included, and perhaps even identify with them as a minority community under assault by the secular Ashkenazi elites. For them, it’s specifically living in Israel in an atmosphere saturated with Jewishness that will provide even more opportunities to draw close to Torah. And because of this stronger Jewish identity, perhaps it’s also less likely that living in an alien culture elsewhere will provoke the existential identity crisis that his third-generation secular expat counterpart might experience.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 693. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at