A Renewed Welcome for Israelis : Judaism: Jewish groups in Los Angeles hope to ease years of misunderstanding and cultural differences with Israeli immigrants.

When David V. Karney came to Los Angeles from Israel in 1952, he was welcomed by the local Jewish community as a hero and something of a novelty.

At the time, Jewish pride over the founding of the state of Israel was overflowing, and Karney was a sabra, a native-born Israeli who had fought in his country's War of Independence.

"I had invitations everywhere," recalled Karney, a developer who lives in Bel-Air. "I had help from everyone in social life and in business. I did not need to fight my way.

"Today, I would have to say the situation is quite different."

Indeed, Los Angeles Jews and Israeli Jews say a gulf of misunderstanding has developed between them over the last 40 years, widened by cultural differences, divided loyalties and differing agendas. As a result, the Los Angeles Israeli community has developed alongside, but apart from, the larger Jewish community.

Now that larger community--specifically, the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles--wants to bring Los Angeles' Israelis back into the fold, despite widespread ambivalence among the Israelis. Complicating the issue are lingering federation concerns that its efforts will encourage Israelis to remain here and that their presence somehow violates the Zionist dream.

"Israelis have become a problem for the American Jewish community," said Nissan Pardo, who came here from Israel in 1959 and now runs a drug-testing laboratory in Tarzana.

"The Americans say, 'We sent lots of money to Israel to build a country, yet so many of them come here.' People think their money is going down the drain. They don't know how to digest that."

Until recently, the Israeli government has been hostile toward any welcoming effort by Los Angeles Jews that might imply endorsement of Israeli immigration.

Israeli officials have made it clear they considered yerida , a pejorative Hebrew term for emigration, a threat to the survival of their small nation and an act bordering on treason.

Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli minister of defense, went as far as to call expatriate Israelis the "scum of the earth." Eitan Bentzur, the former Israeli consul general in Los Angeles, once labeled them "a miserable lot."

Said Ran Ronen, the current Israeli consul general in Los Angeles, "The idea was, if no one helped them here, maybe they (would) be more likely to go home."

While the Israeli population in Los Angeles skyrocketed--from about 150 in the early 1950s to between 40,000 and 200,000 today--local Jewish organizations developed an ambivalent policy toward Israelis which has wavered between benign neglect and disdain.

In recent months, however, a welcoming hand has been extended to Israelis by the federation, the Jewish community's largest and most visible entity. Acting as the fund-raising, planning, coordinating and administrative agency for more than 500 secular and religious organizations, the federation is the nearest thing that the highly fractionalized Los Angeles Jewish community has to a unified voice.

The federation and representatives of the Israeli community have started to talk about ways to draw Israelis--and, in particular, their children--into the larger Jewish community. Efforts are also under way to add Israelis to the federation's plethora of decision-making boards and committees.

It is a change that would appear to be dictated by practical necessity as much as anything. If, say, 100,000 Israelis (a conservative figure, according to the federation and the Israeli Consulate) live in Los Angeles, that means that nearly one of every six Jews here is an Israeli or the child of an Israeli.

With numbers like that, federation officials say the Israeli community can no longer be ignored, particularly by an organization whose stated purpose is to help all Jews in material or spiritual need and to work for the preservation of Jewish communal identity.

Also hard to ignore is the economic potential of the Israeli community, a fact not lost on a federation struggling for money in the face of widespread indifference on the part of many Los Angeles Jews.

In the last decade, for example, while Los Angeles Jewry grew by more than 150,000 people, individual donations to the federation increased by about 5,000, federation spokesman Ron Rieder said. A 1989 federation report on Israelis in Los Angeles noted that the agency had "forfeited" Israeli financial support by failing to reach out wholeheartedly to them.

Despite that, federation officials downplay fund-raising concerns when discussing the Israeli situation.

"We're not interested in getting Israelis involved in the federation simply because of fund-raising concerns," said federation president George Caplan. "We have a genuine concern for their needs and those of Israel."

Some Israelis, however, tend to mistrust such statements.

"We have not been invited by the federation only for altruistic reasons," said Issac Shepher, co-owner of L.A. Hadshot, a 20,000-circulation, Hebrew-language weekly published locally.

"We have become powerful here."

The Israeli government has recognized this new reality. In January, Ronen told federation leaders gathered at "6505," the 12-story Wilshire Boulevard structure that houses a myriad of agencies under the umbrella of the federation, that his office would no longer actively discourage official contacts between Los Angeles Jewish leaders and Israelis.

From now on, he said, the issue was "a local matter" between the federation and individual Israelis.

Ronen, a brigadier general in the Israeli air force whose resume notes his participation in more than 350 combat operations over a 20-year period, made it clear that the policy shift was only tactical.

"Anyone who is familiar with me and the big part of my life that I gave to fighting for Israel cannot even slightly suspect that I will support the very sad phenomenon of yerida ," he explained in an interview.

Rather, he said, the policy shift was an acknowledgment that expatriate Israelis, while perhaps here to stay, are still Israelis and his natural allies. Even if they do not return home, he said, perhaps their children will. At the very least, their continued loyalty to Israel must be encouraged.

What better way, Ronen continued, than to rely on existing American Jewish organizations such as the federation to give them a sense of communal Jewish identity and responsibility?

"I came to the definite conclusion that if we do not do this we will lose the children as Israelis and as Jews within one generation," he said.

For federation officials, who had urged Ronen to lobby his superiors for the change, this change of heart has helped to ease their fears about subverting the Zionist ideal.

In the last decade, increasing numbers of Israelis have immigrated to Los Angeles in particular and the United States in general to escape Israel's chronic inflation and high taxes, limited professional and business opportunities, pressure-cooker political scene and years of military obligation that for men can last more than three decades. The 2-year-old Arab uprising known as the intifada has only exacerbated the situation.

Most Israelis here are young adults or children, Israeli Consulate officials noted. An Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman said a large, but unknown, number have settled here illegally, overstaying tourist or student visas.

Largely unstructured, the Israeli community is built on the sort of familial and friendship bonds that tie any immigrant community together.

Giora Belkin, an Israeli active in federation organizing attempts, said those ties are particularly strong among former kibbutzniks, as residents of Israel's system of collective farms are known.

"As soon as they arrive, they call someone from the kibbutz already here. There are several companies in construction owned by kibbutzniks that employ other kibbutzniks," he said. "They have a very tight network."

Politically active, financially established Israelis have gravitated to the B'nai B'rith's Shalom Lodge, a Hebrew-speaking chapter of the international Jewish organization. Some lodge members are active in the federation and they are viewed by their American counterparts as being leaders of the Israeli community.

But many Israelis say no one truly speaks for their community.

On a recent Sunday, for example, federation and Israeli community representatives gathered in an art-filled Westwood home for brunch and a discussion of how Israelis might be coaxed into joining the federation. But after taking a look around the room, Rachael Choppin, an Israeli who came to Los Angeles 10 years ago, commented dryly: "This is for socialite Israelis. Most Israelis would find this too stuffy, just talk. This is an elite."

Gal Shor, a 30-year-old Israeli journalist working in Los Angeles, added: "Israelis came here to get away from Israel's problems. They are burned out, and this is their escape. They are here to make money. Period. They are disillusioned and they do not want any involvements.

"There is a tremendous gap between the leadership and the man on the street."

Said Israeli-born Nili Shalev, a Sherman Oaks clinical psychologist whose clients are mostly Israeli: "Israelis still see American society as hostile after more than 10 years. They don't develop American social contacts; they only use Americans for business. There is no affiliation, no identification whatsoever."

The reason, she said, is the nature of life in Israel.

"Israelis are raised in a society under siege. From the day you are born your psyche feels threatened by war, constantly. Half the population is Holocaust survivors. The others come from places where they were persecuted or were very small minorities.

"All of us know friends or relatives who have been killed in Israel's wars. We are an extremely traumatized society . . . raised to believe that our brother's blood cries out to us and it is our duty to survive. Then we come here and we feel very guilty, very competitive."

That guilt often keeps Israelis from fully accepting that they have left their homeland for good, Shalev said.

After nearly four decades in the United States, for example, David Karney still maintains a home in Israel.

"It's something psychological. I have to have a home there even though I know I will never move back."

American Jews and Israelis also have differing cultural and even religious understandings of what it means to be a Jew.

Living in a Jewish state allowed Israelis to feel Jewish whether or not they were religious (the majority are secular) or contributed to Jewish communal organizations (which in Israel are tax-supported and do not depend upon donations).

The religious, charitable, educational and social activities that serve to unite minority communities outside of Israel are utterly alien to Israeli Jews.

American Jewish leaders and longtime Israeli-Americans say these cultural differences leave Israelis unprepared for American Jewish life, and their children particularly vulnerable to assimilation.

"A secular Jew can still feel very much a Jew in Israel," said Pardo, who has become a leader in federation efforts to involve Israelis. "But a secular Jew cannot remain that for very long in the United States, even if your name is Cohen or Levy. Here you must function as a Jew to remain one.

"Speaking Hebrew at home is not enough when your kids speak English at school and watch American TV every day."

Because of this concern for the children, much of what the federation is planning involves young people. Israeli children already account for an estimated 15% to 40% of the 7,000 students enrolled in L.A. Jewish day schools (Israelis also account for more than one-third of the teachers), and federation officials see the classroom as a primary tool for nurturing community involvement.

One idea being considered is to ask synagogues to waive membership fees for Israelis who enroll their children in Israeli-style, Hebrew-language supplemental Jewish education programs hosted by synagogues.

But except for those Israelis that Choppin characterized as the elite, most Israelis here remain largely outside the process of Los Angeles Jewish-Israeli reconciliation and are indifferent toward the goal.

Yitzchak Dekel, who runs the West Coast office of the Jerusalem Foundation, which raises money for projects in the Israeli capital, noted that such discussions have been an on-again, off-again affair since 1976, and with little to show for it.

But other observers note that the gulf that separates Israeli and American Jews in Los Angeles is akin to differences that often exist between settled communities and groups of new immigrants.

Russian-Polish Jews who came here early in this century also complained bitterly about the treatment accorded them by established German-American Jews.

Given time, these optimists say, differences will be bridged and Israelis will become part of the larger American Jewish community.

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