Of course ignorant Americans will love the idea, believing these multiplying scorpions are their friends.
Last November, a group of ambitious Israeli-Americans captured the inside-the-Beltway limelight for a weekend with a large, flashy conference at the Washington Hilton. Among the highlights were billionaire businessmen and political donors Sheldon Adelson, a Republican, and Haim Saban, a Democrat — who had an animated, moderated onstage discussion — as well as appearances by former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, and Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
The conference was staged by the Israeli-American Council (IAC), which formed eight years ago in its home city of Los Angeles and has an expanding nationwide presence. Its conference served, in part, to brand and highlight the existence in the United States of an Israeli-American community that has a unique character, unique needs and unique ties to Israel.
The conference, which often felt more like a party, sent a message to its 800 guests, as well as to the scores of Jewish- and Israeli-Americans who heard about it: The IAC is a serious, driven and very, very well-funded force on the Jewish and pro-Israel stage in America.
And it’s growing at a startlingly rapid clip.
[TIMELINE: A history of the IAC]Israelis have been immigrating to the U.S. since shortly after Israel’s founding in 1948, but for decades, even as tens of thousands of them have become financially successful businessmen, lawyers, professors, doctors and more — particularly in Los Angeles, New York and Miami — there remained a nagging sense of cultural discomfort: Can they call America home when many of them long for Israel? Can they call Israel home while living in the Diaspora?
“We don’t feel [100 percent] American,” Adam Milstein, managing partner of Hager Pacific Properties, said in an interview last month at his Encino office. “I think we’re also different than the Israelis living in Israel — they don’t see us as part of them.” He and his wife, Gila, moved to the U.S. in 1980 with their two daughters.
Milstein is a real-estate entrepreneur who sits on a number of boards of Jewish and pro-Israel groups; he’s also one of the IAC’s seven co-founders, all of whom were business and community leaders in Los Angeles when they created the group in 2007.
For many reasons — one is the feeling of not being fully American — most Israelis traditionally have not been involved with mainstream Jewish communal organizations in the U.S., particularly the Jewish Federation, the embodiment of the organized, institutionalized American-Jewish community.
So in 2007, this group of Israeli businessmen created their own community, growing it in just eight years from one office in the San Fernando Valley to a national organization headquartered in Los Angeles, with six regional offices in L.A., New York, Boston, Miami, New Jersey and Las Vegas, 70 employees and an $18 million budget this year.
The IAC’s donors are as wealthy and ideologically diverse as Saban and Adelson (the latter has given well over $10 million), and the group said it reached some 150,000 people in 2014 (a number it touts on its website and supplemental materials). It also is exploring the possibility of opening offices in two more cities — Chicago and Philadelphia — and hopes to soon have influence on Capitol Hill and in multiple state capitals. It already has relationships with U.S. and Israeli government officials, among them Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and top U.S. lawmakers.
With money, vision, programming and a young, motivated staff, the IAC is redefining for Israelis in America what it means to be an Israeli living in America. In just eight years, it has become the go-to umbrella community organization Israeli-Americans have lacked for 60 years — a group that wants to help Israeli-Americans feel at home while maintaining strong ties to the Jewish state. It also helps them to feel at peace with having left Israel — some Israeli and American Jews still see that as betraying the Zionist vision — by acting here as citizen “ambassadors” for Israel.
Among the IAC’s activities is providing Israeli-American children with Hebrew-language kids’ books; running Israeli cultural and Hebrew-language programs for teens, college students, young adults, parents and senior citizens; organizing annual large-scale Celebrate Israel festivals in all of its regional centers, such as the one taking place May 17 in Los Angeles’ Rancho Park; and funding dozens of Israeli culture and Hebrew-language programs across the country.
One of the major aims of all this money and programming is to help Israelis resist the pressures of assimilation not only on themselves, but also on their children and grandchildren. For example, the IAC’s outgoing CEO, Sagi Balasha, 42, who will soon return to Israel with his wife and two children, said that in the four years he and his family have lived here, his kids are already “totally Americanized.”
“If you come to my home you’ll see a typical Israeli-American home,” Balasha said, recalling a recent evening when his son, Shahaf, posed a simple question. “Abba, how many presidents did we have?”
“For a second,” Balasha said, “I was like, ‘How many presidents did we have?’ He feels American. I would ask, ‘How many presidents did America have?’ ”
Sagi Balasha, the IAC’s outgoing CEO, plans to return to Israel this summer with his family. Photo courtesy of the IAC
The mission is to build a strong Israeli-American community, and strengthen the American-Jewish community and the State of Israel.
Of course, this mission faces challenges, as well as some internal quandaries. The group is Israeli, but it’s also American. It wants to re-create some of the best things about Israel here, but not so much so that Israeli immigrants who had planned to return decide they can actually stay Israeli in, say, Tarzana. The group wants to connect with and impact the American-Jewish community, although Israeli-Americans more often like to create their own institutions and avoid membership in ones the American-Jewish community has used for generations.
What drives the IAC?
Two distinct IAC offices occupy one floor of an office building in a cookie-cutter corporate office park in Woodland Hills, in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, where the majority of L.A.’s Israeli-Americans reside. One office houses the organization’s L.A. regional staff, the other its national staff. Both spaces display Hebrew-language magazines and pamphlets on the counters, and pictures of different Israeli cities and of Israeli soldiers on the walls.
The ambience is Israeli-casual — people are dressed in jeans or Dockers and a few of the women wear skirts. Staffers generally speak among themselves in Hebrew, and there are the ever-present sounds of ringing phones and buzzing email alerts. Five of the IAC’s seven founders still serve on its 13-member board. Three are successful real-estate developers — Milstein, Shawn Evenhaim and Naty Saidoff; Danny Alpert owns a jewelry company called Oro Alexander; and Yossi Rabinovitz is the owner of JMR Electronics.
As they tell it, in the summer of 2006, around the time of Israel’s war with Hezbollah, then-L.A. Consul General Ehud Danoch encouraged them to create an organization that could unite the large yet uncounted number of Israelis living in Los Angeles to help support Israel, particularly in times of war.
The guiding mission of what was first called the Israeli Leadership Club (ILC) — shortly thereafter becoming the Israeli Leadership Council — quickly expanded to creating a more formally cohesive Israeli-American community that could both nurture and perpetuate a sense of Israeli identity for Israelis and their offspring in America, as well as bridge the gap between Israeli-Americans and the institutions of the Jewish-American community.
Since its founding, the IAC has had one big factor in its favor: wealthy backers, and lots of them. Its co-founders together are worth many millions of dollars. Saban (net worth $3.5 billion) was an early backer, along with Beny Alagem, the owner of the Beverly Hilton and the Waldorf Astoria in Beverly Hills. Both gave $250,000 at the IAC’s first major fundraiser, in 2008. With the 2013 addition of Adelson (net worth $30 billion), the IAC’s pockets don’t seem to have a bottom.
At its seventh annual Los Angeles gala, which took place March 8 at the Beverly Hilton, the group announced it had raised $23.4 million, including $12 million from Adelson and $1.2 million from Saban. “Sheldon is 10 times richer than me,” Saban quipped to the crowded hall of 1,100 dinner guests, “I said to Sheldon, ‘Listen, whatever you give, I’ll give one-tenth.’ ” Less than one year earlier, in May 2014, Adelson and Saban together contributed $3.5 million of $6.5 million raised at a fundraiser at Milstein’s Encino home for the creation of a Birthright program specifically for Israeli-Americans.
At the March gala, the IAC also announced the purchase of a $10 million property in Winnetka, just east of its current San Fernando Valley offices, which it plans to use as a community center for the Israeli-American community and as the new headquarters of the IAC. The group may also offer office space for other Israeli organizations.
Having their cake and eating it, too?
“There was one woman who told me, ‘The community is so amazing here that I feel less of a need to go visit Israel,’ [Because Israel is right here in America!] ” Dikla Kadosh, regional director of the IAC’s office in Los Angeles, said. Kadosh said she thought at the time, “Oh my God, no, that’s not the intention. We don’t want to re-create Israel so much, so realistically, that people stop going to Israel.”
In Los Angeles, though, Israel doesn’t always feel so distant, particularly because of the climate, the Israeli-style restaurants [what do they serve, "Israeli food?" lol!] and the concentration of Israelis in certain neighborhoods, and also because of what the IAC has built.
“Especially as our community strengthens here, there’s a lot less of that guilty feeling of, ‘What am I taking away from my children? What risk am I taking by being here? That my children will not be Jewish [most stupid thing ever said since Israel does not represent all Jews and least of all Judaism!], that my children will not speak Hebrew, that my children will not have a connection to Israel,’ ” said Kadosh, who was born in Israel, moved here at 6, and has lived in L.A. for most of her life, with many trips back. She said she feels neither fully Israeli nor American, but comfortably identifies with the Israeli-American term the IAC has helped brand.
“I have been told by people who live in the Valley, in the center of all of this, that living here is like the best of Israel, because they can replicate the life that they had there in terms of easy access to the food and the culture and the people, within all the niceties of living a Southern California lifestyle,” said Miriam Alpern, who runs the IAC’s marketing and communications.
IAC board member Adam Milstein, right, with Sen. Robert Menendez at the IAC’s national convention in Washington, D.C., in November 2014. Naty Saidoff, another board member, is pictured in the background.
No one really knows how many Israeli immigrants and first- and second-generation Israeli-Americans live in the United States or in Los Angeles. The IAC says about 250,000 Israeli-Americans live in Los Angeles and between 500,000 and 800,000 in the United States. In an email to the Journal, the Israeli Consul General’s Office in Los Angeles wrote, “There isn’t an official number, but we estimate there are 250,000 Israelis living in L.A.” [The Jewish lobbyists allow NO enumeration of Jews in the United States, never has.]
Most demographers and sociologists who have studied Israeli immigration to the U.S. believe those numbers are far too high. Ira Sheskin, a geographer and demographer at the University of Miami, is director of the Jewish Demography Project, which released in 2010 what may be the most recent and reliable study on Israeli-Americans in the United States.
Using data from the American Community Survey Public Use Microdata Sample — a sort of annual mini-census the U.S. Census Bureau conducts by contacting more than 3 million households — Sheskin estimated that in 2008 about 329,000 Israeli-Americans lived in the United States, 136,000 of whom were born in Israel.
Asked where some estimates of up to 800,000 Israeli-Americans in the United States and 250,000 in Los Angeles come from, Sheskin said, with a laugh, “Their tuchis.”
“It’s like if you ask an Orthodox Jew how many Orthodox Jews are there in the area — these are always going to be overestimates. Everybody does that. If you ask a Nicaraguan in Miami how many Nicaraguans are in Miami, you’re going to get a number that’s higher than in the U.S. Census,” Sheskin said.
At a certain point, though, the real number doesn’t matter; what matters is that Israeli-Americans comprise a significant percentage of Jews in the United States, and they’re trying to create an Israeli-American identity while working outside of traditional American-Jewish structures, while still infusing the American-Jewish community with some measure of “Israeliness,” as board member and co-founder Saidoff said.
The promise and the unknown stem from something Milstein said at the IAC’s national gala last year: “We’re different.”