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08 March 2013

Raising American Jews through an Israeli Lens

By Jennie Starr, Founder and Director 
Tarbuton Israeli Cultural Center, San Diego, CA

My daughter was born, and we didn’t know what Synagogue we’d belong to, or if she’d go to Jewish Day School, but we knew we wanted her to be “Happily Jewish” and strongly connected to Israel from our home far away in San Diego, CA. We’d do Shabbat at home, celebrate the Holidays with friends and send her to Jewish Summer camp. But, she needed her own Jewish friends for it to be meaningful. Not just our friends, but hers. I was raised by an Israeli father who did not want to go to Synagogue. He’d had enough in the Israeli Orthodox orphanage camp he was raised in as an immigrant during the war and wanted no part of it; though he filled our home with Jewish tradition at holiday time, i.e. Shabbat every Friday, he read us the Megillat Esther at Purim, built a Sukkah each year among other things, and, lucky me, made Israeli food and music staples in our home.

I was recently asked why I built the Tarbuton, and it’s not an easy answer. Why did I spend the last 7 years of my life, volunteering 40-60 hrs/week building an Israeli Cultural Center for Americans and Israelis with Israeli culture, Modern Hebrew and Jewish Education at its heart? I didn’t feel I had a choice. I could not hope someone else would do it for me. I knew no one would. My youngest was turning 3, and I had a son on the way. They needed these programs and it couldn’t wait.

I had terrible Synagogue Sunday School and Jewish Day School experiences, though I’m sure there were hard working, underpaid, Jewish professionals behind these programs. The experiences were bad enough that even my American mother, an educator, agreed to pull me out when she observed the lack of substance, failures of discipline and unhappy kids. We never found a suitable program for any extended period of time, though my mother was motivated. I didn’t want my kids to be dragged by an unsatisfied parent, which I seemed also destined to be, in and out of different Jewish programs, with different kids, never quite finding a Jewish community of their own.

In addition to all those things, I wanted their Jewish life to be filled with educators and a community passionate about Israel. I could not stomach putting my children into a Jewish environment that would “undo” our work to inspire our children’s connection to Israel. Several real life experiences provide illustrations. In the first, a Synagogue Sunday school teacher asked me for introductions to an Israeli who served in the IDF and believed in conscientious objection so she could teach her elementary aged Sunday school students that people can opt not to serve in the military. I couldn’t understand why this subject was relevant in a Sunday School, let alone as part of her Israel education unit. In the second, I had heard that a local Rabbi gave a beautiful gift of a trip to Israel to a bar mitzvah boy but warned from the pulpit, that the family should use the ticket when it was “safe to go;” a public, chilling and conflicted message indeed.

I wanted my kids instilled with a love and passion for Modern Israel, a deep and lifelong connection filled with positive images and visits. I wanted my kids to understand Israel and Israelis. Much of our family lives in Israel. I couldn’t accept anything less. And Hebrew was very important too. I couldn’t speak Hebrew, but I knew I wanted my kids to. I wanted them to feel at home, because they could understand and engage in everything around them when in Israel, something I hadn’t been able to do as a child when we visited and I was left out unable to participate in family conversations in Hebrew.

Silly, I know. We weren’t planning to make Aliyah. I still don’t know if we will. But, I wanted them to be so connected to Israel that they would tell you, “I’m an American, but I am also passionate about Israel, and let me tell you how amazing Israel is.” I looked at our Synagogue and JCC options and while they were filled with dedicated Jewish professionals and multitudes of programs, the programs were filled with songs I didn’t recognize, few if any in Hebrew, there was little if any Israel or Israelis in their programs, knowledge of Modern Hebrew in their staffing, and none gave me hope they would ever want or be able to provide these things.

For the last 7 years, my children have attended the Tarbuton Israeli Cultural Center program where they have made American and Israeli friends who are passionate about Israel, they have studied Modern Hebrew in a high quality program taught by Israelis, studied Judaism with admired and respected teachers, and celebrated Jewish Holidays with a core group of many of the same friends experientially, usually outdoors, and with Israeli music. They’ve done so conveniently in classes at our Center, but also in Tarbuton classes offered after their bell at their elementary public school in what we believe may be one of if not the first District’s Enrichment program.

They sing and dance in Tarbuton performing groups at the Yom Haatzmaout Festival and at our House of Israel sharing their passion for Israel with the public. My kids are, I’m very grateful to say, so far, “Happily Jewish”. We visit Israel every summer and the kids love Israeli music, are hummus and schwarma connoisseurs, and discerning Israeli visitors to their favorite historical and modern sites, beaches, and restaurants. The kids understand Hebrew well enough to feel comfortable in “their Keitana”, the summer camp they call their own, in Israel, and to respond in Hebrew when they need to with a passably authentic Hebrew “resh.” It hasn’t been easy, and it’s not always perfect, but it has been and continues to be our privilege to enrich our children and the community’s lives on this Jewish journey through an Israeli Lens.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Times of Israel.  

Click here to visit Tarbuton's program page on the InnovationXchange

Jennie Starr is the Founder and Director of the Tarbuton Israeli Cultural Center in San Diego. She advocates for Hebrew Language Charter Schools, introduced Hebrew classes in elementary public schools and serves on her District DELAC Board, for English language support (ESL), and encouraging maintenance of Heritage language skills too. The Tarbuton was recognized this year by Slingshot as a top 50 innovative Jewish organization in North America. The Tarbuton is also proud to be part of the new Nitzan network. The Tarbuton is a recipient of the Jewish Federation of San Diego County Innovation Grants 2011, 2012 and of the Leichtag Foundation 2011, 2012. If you are interested learning more about our Center and programs, contact us at info@tarbuton.org

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