LITTLE ISRAEL: The organization that helps Israelis living in Chicago keep connected — to each other and to the Jewish state

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

When Etty and Giora Dolgin moved to Chicago from their native Israel in June 1970, they never severed their links to home.

But in the far-less connected world of Richard Nixon’s first term, the young couple had fewer easy and inexpensive ways to communicate with their roots, and connect with fellow Israeli emigres, while Giora Dolgin majored in structural design at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

A teacher of Hebrew grammar and literature in Israel, Etty Dolgin did her best to remain connected to Jewish education. She was a youth director in the Hebrew department at Temple Sholom and was director of Hebrew learning at Olin Sang Ruby Institute Reform summer camp in Oconomowoc, Wisc.

Still, there was a need to connect to fellow Israelis. And only two decades after their nation’s strife-torn founding, Jews who moved to the United States for education and/or employment were looked down upon by those Israelis who stayed, as if they were abandoning a ship that still needed all hands aboard.

“When we came here, we were looked upon as traitors,” Dolgin said.

Nearly half a century would pass before Israeli emigres could join a bigger community via a new local chapter of the national Israeli American Council. Yet through most of the Dolgin family’s residency in Chicago, they made do as best they could.

“For me, Israel remained my home,” said Dolgin, now director of education for Moadon Kol Chadash, an Israeli school supported by IAC-Chicago, for second and third generation Israelis, and which houses IAC’s offices. “Israel remained a place that I needed to stay in touch with. I needed my family, eventually my children and grandchildren, to feel that Israel is home.”

Early on, Israeli student organizations were the only way to connect. “In the 1970s, the organizations were very, very strong,” Dolgin said. “Even though I was out of school, I was president of (one) organization. Even though it said ‘students,’ it really served the community.

“I feel they died out because it was fewer students in the same school. When I started out, most Israeli students attended the Circle (UIC) Campus. Later on, when more colleges admitted Israel students and people moved all over, (organizations) weren’t as strong.”

While making annual trips escorting family, bar/bat mitzvah and professional groups to Israel, Dolgin still yearned for an organized group that would continue to link Israelis together here and back home. Finally, about 2012, she became involved in Chicago Israeli Community, charged with organizing various smaller Israeli groups in learning from each other. One activity was an Israeli book fair, hosting Israeli authors, “one way for us to connect with each other without feeling our differences,” Dolgin said.

With her decades-long work in Jewish education and experience in Israeli organizations, Dolgin ended up almost as the midwife of Israeli-American Council’s entry into the Chicago market. The 10-year-old organization, founded in Los Angeles to serve the more than 500,000 Israelis in America, was steadily expanding, but somehow had missed Chicago in its initial growth.

“The IAC became involved in my school,” Dolgin said. “They knew about the school and me. And when I went to several of their conventions and saw there were chapters growing everywhere, I turned to the leadership of IAC and said, ‘Why aren’t you in Chicago?’

“The Israelis in Chicago were skeptical about starting something new. Israelis here, unlike New York and Los Angeles and Miami, come here for a purpose. School, work, family. You don’t just land in Chicago.”

Or as Lital Hasak, the regional director of IAC-Chicago, said: “They have to have a reason for moving here. I moved here for work at the (Israel) consulate. They’re more focused here.”

If given a choice between Florida or California cities and Chicago, obviously most Israelis – hailing from a warm, arid climate – would choose the former. The winter-clothes budget, driving in snowstorms and the legs-first proper technique of shoveling snow would be an obvious discouragement.

Dolgin’s patience and perseverance won out. She is now co-chair with graphics designer Tali ZerZion of IAC’s year-old Chicago chapter, part of the five-city expansion that also included San Francisco, San Diego, Houston and Denver that brought IAC’s U.S. total to 14.

Already set up in Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., New Jersey, Florida, Arizona, Boston and Seattle, the IAC’s growth into the largest Israeli-American organization in the country is mirrored in its annual conference attendance. About 750 showed up in 2014 at the first gathering, when IAC had just six regional offices. Now some 3,000 are projected to attend Nov. 3 to 6 in Washington, D.C. Scheduled speakers include Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; Ron Proser, former Israel ambassador to the United Nations, and Miri Ben-Ari, Grammy Award-winning violinist and humanitarian.

The potential of Chicago and other new chapters will no doubt be a focal point. Dolgin and Hasak are busy with dual tasks: developing ongoing programming and fund-raising. IAC national has given the Chicago chapter a three year commitment for a start-up budget, but the locals will need to complement such funding with other sources of revenue.

The IAC’s presence both nationally and in the 15,000-strong Chicago Israeli community aims to bring not only expatriates, but also American Jews together. A stated organizational goal is to build a “united community of Israeli-Americans, Israelis, and American Jews in order to strengthen the Israeli and Jewish identity of the next generation and create a bond between people in the United States and the state of Israel.”

Even more specific IAC goals mention not only linking Israelis to one another in the U.S., but also to American Jews: “Build bridges between the Israeli-American and Jewish American communities.”

Bonding Israeli and American Jews may not be the slam-dunk it appears. Although Americans have showered billions in contributions on Israel since before statehood in 1948, tensions have increased in recent years, over such issues as the peace process, egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall and recognizing as Jewish those wishing to immigrate to Israel who were converted by American rabbis.

In Chicago, one opinion picked up in talks with IAC activists is how the established native Jewish establishment viewed Israelis and possibly discounted them in fundraising and establishment of programs.

Undaunted by the thick politics within Judaism, Dolgin and other IAC-Chicago supporters plowed ahead in creating the structure of the local chapter.

Hasak, a veteran Israeli diplomat who served in the Israeli Defense Forces, had just the right kind of experience to run the IAC-Chicago day-to-day after five years’ service in the Israel Consulate.

“At the (Chicago) consulate, I worked with Israelis who are returning citizens,” Hasak said. “In each consulate, there is a representative who did what I did, helping them return to Israel. They are very quality people – doctors, PhD’s, people from the start-up world. Also families with young children who want them to have an Israeli childhood like the parents had.”

The flow goes both ways now in an increasingly interconnected world. A bevy of U.S. universities now attract Israeli students, who then are recruited for corporate jobs in the Chicago area. Once employed, they fan out in the Jewish diaspora within a diaspora in the 300,000-strong Chicago Jewish community. As Shlomo Danieli, an IAC-Chicago board member, observed: “We have to try to unite Israelis in such a large area, from Buffalo Grove to Flossmoor to Naperville.”

Another IAC national mission statement focuses on tapping the creative energies of Israelis in the U.S.:

“As a vital component of American society, they play a major role in social activism, academia, culture and innovation. The IAC’s effectiveness and success is the direct result of its ability to organize, activate, and engage the Israeli-American community nationwide.”

The involvement of Israelis in IAC is not considered temporary. Once an Israeli lands a good job in the Chicago area, moving back home is often not a near-term option. Thus the need to re-connect back to Israel and each other.

“There are many MBA students who come here with their wives or husbands,” Hasak said. A mother herself, she is married to Etai.

“They want to expose themselves to different opportunities,” Hasak said. “Many stay here because their children become Americans and love their life here. They move to the suburbs and have a good life. They send their children to Jewish schools. If they don’t, the IAC wanted to create programs and saw an opportunity to enrich the Israeli culture, Hebrew language and the Judaism among the young families who are staying here.”

The image of the Israeli expatriate back home also has been transformed. Instead of being classified as defectors for monetary or security reasons, “the government realizes Israelis here are an asset,” said Hasak. Not only do they acquire academic training and work experience, tremendous advantages if they return home, “but they are good for public relations. Many Israelis feel they are ambassadors for Israel.”

Added Dolgin: “The main mission of the IAC is to get the second and third (Israeli) generation to identify with Israel. And then to tie the Jewish-American community and non-Jewish American community to Israel. It’s not two different nations. It’s one and the same as far as our goals. Also, to be able to connect through a purpose rather than a particular category.”

IAC-Chicago programs in development or in the talking stages include Eitanim, in which teen-agers are given an opportunity to be creative and innovate, and learn entrepreneurial skills. Hasak believes Eitanim is a natural to build bridges between Israeli and American Jews.

Still another program, connected to Dolgin’s teaching experience, is Keshet, in which children learn Hebrew and have access to seven Hebrew books per year.

A Shishi Israel program will be aimed at Israeli and American Jewish families not presently attending a synagogue regularly.

Dolgin also wants a strong leadership program starting with young adults.

Members of the 10-person IAC-Chicago board have firm opinions on the organization’s direction.

Danieli, set up in business in Chicago since 1980, said he is the largest importer of Israeli flowers in the U.S. “The major things we’ve done are to try to show the (native) Jewish community about the presence of Israelis here,” he said. “I don’t think Jewish leadership here ever tried to involve Israelis in major events and programs. They raise money, but don’t feel the need for involvement by Israelis. One thing they miss is in gauging the strength of the American Jewish community is the presence of Israelis, who can give another dimension to that.”

Another board member is Dorit Raviv, a special education diagnostician/learning disabilities specialist working in a private practice. Raviv and her husband arrived in Chicago in 1975 to pursue advanced academic degrees.

“I joined the board of IAC-Chicago to support its missions,” Raviv said.  “They are promoting Israeli culture and the Hebrew language among our children and grandchildren; strengthening the relationship between Israelis and Jewish Americans, and supporting Israel.

“IAC-Chicago has reached out to the Israeli-American community, organized Israeli cultural and social events, and established programs to promote young leadership. I am looking forward to further implementation and actualization of IAC’s missions in the upcoming months and years.”

So just like Israel itself, growth for IAC-Chicago will come step-by-step, through hard work and Israelis’ strong sense of self.

To become involved in IAC-Chicago, contact Hasak at Chicago@IsraeliAmerican.org.

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