Rami Noor is picking over a plate of shawarma at Oh Mama Grill in Rockville. It’s about 1 p.m. on a Friday, an hour from when the restaurant will close for Shabbat. But between the full tables and the customers standing in line to pick up their food, the place is packed — and loud. Hebrew emanates from a few tables, and Noor, a Jerusalem native, feels right at home.
Noor, 61, has been coming here since the restaurant opened last year, saying it has the best shawarma in the area. On many Fridays, he’s joined by fellow Israeli retirees; Noor drove for a livery service in D.C. for 25 years and ultimately settled in North Potomac.
Like many other Israelis he knows, Noor has always thought he might return, and that his stint in Washington would be temporary. And like a number of his friends, it wasn’t. Save for vacations, he’s stayed right in Washington. And since his father died a decade ago, even those trips to Israel have been few and far between.
“Quite frankly, it is a surprise how this turned out,” he says, almost 30 years from when he first moved to the United States. “And I think my wife is even more surprised than me.”
It’s a wide phenomenon, according to Israelis in the Washington area. For many immigrants from the Jewish state, what is originally thought of as a temporary stay often becomes indefinite. It was also a focus of a recent conference about the Israeli diaspora at the American University Center for Israel Studies, where last month scholars presented research on maintaining Israeli identity in the United States.
There’s a range of estimates on the number of Israelis living in the United States, but a 2013 Pew study found that 300,000 Jews in America were either born in Israel or had an Israeli parent. A Brandeis University demographic study released earlier this year found that about 4 percent of Jewish adults in the Washington region (9,900 adults) are Israeli citizens. (The study was done in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and funded by The Morningstar Foundation established by Susie and Michael Gelman. The Gelmans are members of the ownership group of Mid-Atlantic Media, which publishes Washington Jewish Week.)
“When you first leave, it’s ‘OK, two or three years, let’s try it out. Five years, let’s try it out.’ Next thing you know, you’re here for 16 years and getting naturalized.” says Karin Goitman, 25, whose family moved to the United States from Ramat Gan, outside of Tel Aviv, when she was 9. “We always have our bags packed, ready to go.”
Tzachi Levy, the community shlichah, or Israeli emissary, for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, breaks Israelis in Washington into three categories: those who’ve been here for up to two or three years, in their first U.S. job or school; those who’ve been here for closer to six or seven, who may be having kids but still think they’ll return to Israel; and the lifers who have acquiesced that their home is the United States.
According to Levy, the Israeli community can be an insular one, detached from the broader Jewish community. Additionally, most Israelis don’t go to synagogue regularly, he says. Instead, they’re more likely to take part in Israel-centric cultural offerings like those organized by Israeli House, an arm of the Israeli embassy tasked with maintaining the links between the Jewish state and Israelis around the globe.
And if you find Israelis at religious services, it’s most likely at the area’s Chabad centers, whose Orthodox practice is both closer to what’s available in Israel and doesn’t ask for a long-term commitment the mainstream American Jewish congregations do.
“It speaks their language, it speaks to their culture, and it’s less commitment. It’s more approachable for many Israelis,” Levy says. “You go to Chabad on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, you’ll see Israelis pouring out.”
Goitman fits that mold. The second-year law student says she’s more religious than her parents and that her sense of identity, a mix of Israeli-Jewish and Russian-Jewish tradition (her parents left Ukraine for Israel during the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991), was instilled in her by her parents, who continued to speak Hebrew in their home after they moved to Cincinnati. But
religious observance was never important in the family when she was growing up.
“My father always laughs when he puts on a kippah, like ‘Look at me!’” says Goitman.
She lives in the Forest Hills neighborhood and says she doesn’t necessarily attend synagogue for spiritual reasons. It’s just that synagogues are often the centers of the Jewish community, and she wants to be a part of it. But if she goes to pray, there’s only one option for her.
“I will never go to a Reform or Conservative synagogue, I will only go to Chabad,” Goitman says. “Even if I don’t believe in God, I want Judaism the traditional way.”
Goitman says that her parents still like to think they could go back to Ramat Gan. In reality, though, everyone is settled. Goitman herself is finalizing her application for citizenship.
But she worries at times that she won’t be able to pass along an Israeli identity to her children, if she has them. And at times, she says, she can feel her own Israeli sense of self fading away. It was a topic discussed at the American University conference.
There, Lilach Lev-Ari, a sociologist from Haifa University, presented
findings from surveys and in-depth interviews she did with 22 second-generation Israelis (or those who moved to the United States at a young age) ranging in age from 15-45.
In assimilating into American culture, some Israeli-Americans tended to distance themselves from Israeli social culture, speaking “generally about the unrefined Israeli approach, underscoring such infamous cultural traits and behavior as informality, loudness and impoliteness,” Lev-Ari said.
For the most part, though, Lev-Ari said that the vast majority of her research subjects held overwhelmingly positive attitudes about their parents’ home country, felt at home there and had some desire to live there in the future, if the stars align.
Levy Ronan still has a desire to return. Now 37, he arrived in Washington in 2009 to work as a logistics coordinator for an Israeli-owned company. It was supposed to be a temporary position; he wanted a change and thought Washington sounded exciting. But the plan always was to return and start a family in his hometown of Tel Aviv.
Today, he points to an ex-girlfriend as the reason he’s not in Israel right now.
“If you don’t want to be here too long, don’t date,” he says.
In short, Ronan fell in love with a woman from California. Suddenly, the thought of an American life didn’t seem so crazy to him. And, he says, the wealth of Israeli cultural offerings in Washington made it easy to stay and feel connected.
He points to the Israeli American-Council, an 11-year-old organization with offices throughout the United States that in Washington organizes performance groups, film s
creenings and more for Israelis living in the area.
“For a time, it felt like I was in America, but I wasn’t missing out on anything going on in Israel, so there was no rush to go back,” Ronan says.
Now on his third American job, in security consulting, he still tells anyone who will listen that he plans to move back. The woman from California is no longer in the picture, and though he thinks there are plenty of ways to stay connected to his homeland here, if he’s ever going to start a family, he still wants to do it back home.
“My family has been in Israel for generations now, and to me, it’s still the center of the world,” Ronan says. “America is nice, it has everything I need. But it isn’t home.”
When asked when he’ll move back, he says he’s working on it.