Rina Levy has only the slightest Israeli accent. After all, she may be from Tel Aviv, but she has lived and worked in the United States for 30 years, and she has three American-born children, all of them grown up now.
Indeed, when she returned to Israel from 2008 to 2014 to look after her elderly mother, she experienced reverse culture shock. And yet…. “I feel culturally adjusted in America, but my heart is in Israel,” she said. “I realized I have to live here because of my kids. So for the last three years I’ve decided to dedicate myself to the Israeli and Jewish community in America.”
Ms. Levy’s latest project is called Sabra Culture. The unique not-for-profit program for adult Israeli Americans — and anyone else in the community who would like to join in — will launch at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/CBI on September 5. The four pilot classes are morning and evening sessions of beginners’ Israeli dancing, comparative Israeli literature, American history, and arts and crafts. They’re all led by experienced teachers.
“My goal is to engage the adult Israeli and Jewish community in affordable, fulfilling, and meaningful activities related to their home country,” Ms. Levy said.
It’s hard to come by estimations of the Israeli expat population in Bergen County, but Fair Lawn, Closter, and Tenafly are believed to have the largest Israeli-American communities in New Jersey. Ms. Levy, a high-tech entrepreneur who has lived in Ridgewood for the last two years, says there are “huge communities of Jews and Israelis here that are underserved.”
To be sure, Sabra Culture is not the first or only local program geared to Israelis. Ms. Levy sings in the Israeli choir at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, for example, and the Fair Lawn Jewish Center long has hosted the Nitzanim cultural school for children of Israeli expats.
Through her volunteer work with organizations such as the Israeli American Council, the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, ERAN Israeli mental first-aid hotline, and the Israeli Artist Project, however, Ms. Levy came to the conclusion that something still was missing. “There are tons of Israelis in Fair Lawn and almost no programs for them,” she said. “Since I’m an entrepreneur, I thought to start activities right here.”
She found a home base for her venture at the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/CBI, at 10-10 Norma Avenue. “It’s a heimish, open-arms place, and they welcomed me to rent space for Sabra Culture programs there,” she said. “The goal is not to make a profit — I’m spending my own money. If there is any excess after expenses, it will go to support Israeli artists or cultural organizations.”
Abe Adler, the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/CBI’s new executive director, said that Sabra Culture “meshes perfectly with the strategy of what we’re trying to do at the Jewish Center: to reboot as a community center with programs that appeal to all demographics and ages. Rina brings a lot of creativity with dance, music, and arts. Those are things we want to bring under our roof for everyone around during the day and after work.”
Mr. Adler said that the Nitzanim cultural school’s program about Yom Hazikaron — Israeli Memorial Day — last May drew about 300 people, largely from the Israeli community. He therefore is eager to offer additional programming for this population. “We really want Rina’s program to succeed,” he said. “We hope to see it grow from week to week.”
Ms. Levy lived in Maryland, California, and Manhattan before coming to New Jersey, and no matter where she was she always sought out other Israelis. She was a mentor in the IAC’s Eitanim program, which fosters Israeli-style entrepreneurship among Jewish and Israeli high school students, and she was active in the IAC Gvanim program, which grooms Israeli American leaders.
It’s like any other immigrant community, Ms. Levy said. “Many Israelis who live here as first-generation immigrants stay within their comfort level, their mini-tribe of Jewish Israelis, and want to speak in Hebrew.” Many Israeli Americans see themselves as “hybrids,” just as she does, straddling the linguistic and cultural divide between the land of their birth and the land where they live.
The Sabra Culture courses also will be somewhat hybrid. The morning classes —crafts with Maya Oren-Dahan and the Israeli dance classes with American teacher Elyse Litt in the mornings and Israeli teacher Judith Karmeli at night — will be bilingual, depending on who the students are. Dr. Shirli Sela Levavi will give lectures in comparative Hebrew literature in Hebrew by, and on alternate weeks high school history teacher and American Revolutionary War reenactor Andy Lieb will teach American history in English.
The latter topic seems surprising, but “many Israelis living here really want to know about American history,” Ms. Levy said.
In addition to the four pilot courses, Sabra Culture also will present an intimate concert by Guy Mintus, an Israeli-born, New York-based award-winning pianist, composer, and educator, on Saturday, September 14, from 8 to 11 p.m. at a private home in Fair Lawn. That program will be conducted in Hebrew.
For information about the concert and all Sabra Culture courses, running through mid-December, and to submit thoughts and ideas for future programming, go to www.sabraculture.com.