Navigation – Plan du site

Accueilnumeros2006/1ArticlesJewish Israelis in Los Angeles


Jewish Israelis in Los Angeles

Les Juifs israéliens de Los Angeles
Steven Gold
p. 47-60


Los Angeles, où vivent environ 26 000 Israéliens auto-identifiés, est une des plus dynamiques communautés d’émigrants israéliens. Cela inclut une économie ethnique très active et un grand nombre d’institutions tournées vers les besoins des émigrants. Le climat méditerranéen de la ville, son importance comme centre de media, les caractéristiques socio-économiques des immigrants, la diversité des communautés juives contribuent à la réussite sociale de ces émigrants et aux bonnes relations entre les migrants israéliens et leurs co-religionnaires américains. Cet article reposant sur des enquêtes de terrain examine les motivations de départ vers Los Angeles et les conditions de vie des immigrants israéliens. Il s’achève par une caractérisation du transnationalisme israélien, processus par lequel les Israéliens de Los Angeles maintiennent les liens sociaux, économiques et identitaires entre la Californie du Sud et leur pays d’origine.

Haut de page

Texte intégral


  • 1 Self-identified Israelis may be the children or Israeli emigrants or have few identifiable connecti (...)

1New York, which has the largest Jewish population of any city in the world, also has the largest number of Israeli emigrants – approximately 30,000. For several reasons however, Los Angeles, which is the home to approximately 15,000 Israel-born persons and 26,000 self-identified Israelis1, is one of the most dynamic Israeli emigrant communities, and one that plays a significant role in the ways Israeli emigrants understand themselves and are viewed by the country of origin [Herman, 1998, p. 14]. Unique features of the Israeli Diaspora in Los Angeles include its members’ high levels of education, self-employment and earnings; their voluntary presence abroad, the population’s diversity in terms of religiosity, class, ethnicity, ideology, occupation and outlook; their extensive contacts with the local Jewish community, their familiarity with the notion of diaspora and their openness about their multiple involvements with both the Jewish State and the Golden State. This article describes the Israeli community in Los Angeles, its social and economic characteristics, the religious and national identity of Israeli sojourners, and their relations with the host society and the country of origin.

Israelis and diaspora

2The State of Israel was founded so that Jews could cease their long saga of wandering and oppression in the diaspora. Since 1948, almost three million have settled there. While the founders of Israel believed that the in-gathering of exiles into a Jewish homeland would bring about an end to Jews’ existence as a minority group in other peoples’ lands, a fraction of the Israeli population retained aspirations and connections associated with life outside of the Jewish State and chose to leave. As time passed, it became apparent that emigration was not strictly a first generation phenomenon caused by the lingering influence of the diaspora on recent arrivals. On the contrary, some number of those born in Israel also elected to go abroad. As Israel has become more affluent and more involved in the global economy, its citizens have become even more aware of ways of life abroad and have been tempted to travel there.

3According to the Israel Foreign Ministry, as of 2003, some 650,000 Israelis – equal to about a tenth of the country’s population – live abroad, with the vast majority dwelling in the US [Enav, 2003]. The largest fraction resides in major North American Jewish communities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Toronto. Others live in Paris, London and Sydney. According to demographic analysis, this flow is the predictable outcome of prior migration as well as current political and economic conditions [Goldscheider, 1996]. Precisely because Israel is a country of immigration, Israelis and Israeli emigrants are characterized by a complex array of identities as well as multiple connections to social groups within and beyond Israel. As both Jews and Israelis, Israeli emigrants are part of two diasporas -- the age-old Jewish diaspora as well as the recently established, but more personally consequential, Israeli Diaspora.

4The term diaspora has been used to describe a wide variety of groups and situations and as such is imprecise. Moreover, even when speaking of a single diaspora (such as that of the Jews) we see widely varying forms, reflecting the authors’ particular ideologies, religious orientations, and historical contexts [Clifford, 1994; Cohen, 1997]. In order to clarify the concept, in his Global Diasporas, Robin Cohen (1997, p. 26) identified a list of criteria defining diaspora. Diaspora involves: dispersal or travel from an original homeland to two or more foreign regions; a collective memory or myth of an idealized homeland; a commitment to the maintenance of the homeland, including a movement for return; a strong, long-term, group consciousness and identity; a belief in a shared fate; a range of possible relations (from troubled to enriching) with the host society; and finally, a sense of empathy and solidarity with coethnics in other places of settlement.

5These characteristics apply to Jews -- the archetypal diaspora group -- and hence to Israeli emigrants. Despite their separation from the Jewish State, Israeli emigrants probably do not qualify as a diaspora per se, largely because of the short duration of their exile and the relative ease of return [Safran, 1999, pp. 265-266). Nevertheless, having been socialized in Israel, they are intimately familiar with the language of diaspora and often describe their experience and identity as such.

6Going abroad subjects Israeli emigrants to the condemnation of co-nationals who generally contend that their exit threatens the political, economic, military and demographic viability of the Jewish State. Nevertheless, they retain strong and durable connections to the country of origin. Despite their lengthy stays abroad and usually successful adaptation to host societies, they seldom concede the permanence of their emigration, refuse to identify with the country of settlement, and express a longing for Israel, to which they often visit and sometimes return. As they build lives in one country while identifying with another, Israelis can be included within a growing number of migrant populations -- sometimes called transnationals -- whose behavior corresponds to neither of the categories of settler or sojourner long used to classify migrant behavior.

  • 2 About 18% of the population of Israel is non-Jewish. When members of this community go abroad, they (...)

7According to the 2000 US Census, about 125,000 Israel-born persons live in the US. This figure includes non-Jewish Palestinians, who seldom regard themselves as part of the Jewish State.2 At the same time, about 40 percent of the Jewish population of Israel is foreign-born and a considerable fraction of these Israeli citizens have also made their way to the US, but are not enumerated by the US Census as Israeli. Accordingly, it is difficult to identify and enumerate Israeli emigrants. Estimates of the Israeli population in the US range between 100,000 and 200,000. [Gold and Phillips, 1996, p. 61].

Israelis in Los Angeles

8While Israeli emigrants have settled in cities throughout the world, for several reasons, Los Angeles is regarded as the archetypical location of the Israeli Diaspora. Los Angeles is a global city and media capital with a large and diverse immigrant population as well as a local Jewish community of a half a million. Economically, over the last several decades, Southern California has experienced an impressive rate of economic growth and a rapidly increasing population. The city came to prominence only in the late 20th century and is associated with both conspicuous consumption and cataclysmic social problems like race riots, environmental pollution, gang violence and savage inequalities. Accordingly, it symbolizes both the temptations and the risks suggested by contemporary migration. Finally, Southern California is home to many economic activities in which immigrants generally, and Jews and Israelis in particular, tend to concentrate. These include real estate, construction, film and media, garments, retail, education, healthcare, and aerospace/defense.

9With its sunny weather, strong economy, and many opportunities for leisure, Los Angeles, has been among the most favored destinations of Jewish migrants from Eastern and Midwestern American communities as well as those from Europe, Latin America, Iran and elsewhere. During the 1990s, it had a larger fraction of the foreign-born amongst its Jewish population than any other city in the US. With recent memories of their own families’ immigrant roots, Los Angeles Jews (and Israeli émigrés as well) readily discern that the arrival of Israelis bears marked similarities with earlier Jewish migrations to North America in order to acquire education, affluence, individual freedom, family unification and security [Goldscheider, 1996]. As such, Israeli emigrants are not so different from the sizeable native Jewish population, with whom they live and work.

10Los Angeles maintains a liberal, vibrant and decentralized Jewish milieu that tolerates and even welcomes newcomers from the US and abroad – from gays and Chabadnicks, to Modern Orthodox and Yemenis -- to a degree that outstrips other Jewish communities [Gold, 2002]. Los Angeles is also home to a broad array of Jewish institutions and both Jewish and secular colleges and universities – from trade schools and community colleges to world-class institutions like UCLA and Caltech -- that draw Israeli students and employ Israeli academics and professionals. All of these factors make Southern California an attractive setting for Israeli émigrés.

Israeli emigrants and the organized jewish community

11As a consequence of the controversies surrounding the presence of Israelis in the diaspora, until the last two decades, there has been limited organized contact between host Jews and Israeli migrants [Gold, 1992; Shokeid, 1988]. Writing in Contemporary Jewry, (1986) sociologist Steven M. Cohen characterized American Jewry's view of the Israelis in their midst as "part denial and part outrage" -- reactions unlikely to foster outreach, incorporation or research. However, since the late 1980s, a considerable opening has taken place. Los Angeles has been the location of early and long-standing efforts by the organized American Jewish community to break with a policy discouraging settlement by Israeli emigrants. For example, in 1983, the Los Angeles Jewish Federation published a report stressing “the importance of enabling Israelis to become part of the mainstream of our organized Jewish community” (Task Force on Immigration, 1986, p. 8). In a similar vein, during a 1989 trip to Los Angeles, Israeli Absorption Minister Yitzhak Peretz claimed that Israel should change its attitude towards émigrés if they cannot be convinced to return. “Israelis,” he said, “should be encouraged to be part of the Jewish community and become integrated because it offers them, and particularly their children, some chance of retaining their Jewish identity” [Tugend, 1989].

12Two years later, in 1991, Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin recanted his famous condemnation of Israeli émigrés in an interview in the Israeli-American newspaper Hadashot LA saying “What I said then doesn’t apply today . . . the Israelis living abroad are an integral part of the Jewish community and there is no point in talking about ostracism” [Rosen, 1993, p. 3]. By the mid 1990s, Israelis in Los Angeles were increasingly accepted as a vital part of the local Jewish community. These many factors suggest the unique nature of Los Angeles’ Israeli emigrant community.


13Data for this article were collected by American and Israeli researchers through in-depth interviews and participant observation fieldwork with Israeli migrants in several settings. A major source was 194 interviews (conducted in both Hebrew and English) with a socially diverse sample of Israeli migrants and others knowledgeable about their community in Los Angeles between 1991 and 1996. Interviews with 30 returned migrants were conducted in Israel in 1996-1997 and 2000. Finally, in order to access the perspective of Israelis who went abroad during the time of the Al Aksa Intifada and information technology economic collapse (from 2000 to 2004), during 2004, an additional 19 interviews were collected with Israelis who had left the Jewish State since 2001. Most interviews were tape recorded, translated into English (if conducted in Hebrew) and transcribed. All names of respondents in this report are pseudonyms. Additional data were obtained through census analysis and communal surveys collected in several points of settlement.

Motives for migration

14When asked why they came to Los Angeles, most Israelis offered one of three overlapping responses -- economic opportunities (including education), family factors, and a need for broader horizons [Rosen, 1993; Sobel, 1986; Sabar, 2000]. David, who was interviewed in 1993, offered a relatively typical explanation of how his short-term plans to attend university turned into a permanent stay.

“I came here about 18 years ago. It was in 1975, right after the Yom Kippur War. I went to UCLA for about a year and a half. I had no money, so I worked and went to school, studying economics. I didn't know if I wanted to stay at that time or not. The thing is, I might have gone back to Israel. However, every time I called, all my friends said “Don't come back, there's nothing happening here.” So I stayed another year and then I met my wife and that's how I started. I got into the clothing business and I stayed. Since then, I haven't done anything but clothing. That's all I've done.”

15A fairly large number, generally women and children, came to accompany their husbands and fathers who sought economic betterment and educational opportunity. [Kimhi, 1990; Lipner, 1987]. In 1986, marriage to an American citizen accounted for a third of all Israelis who received immigrant status in the United States. [Herman, 1994, p. 92]. Further, in fieldwork interviews, Israelis often mentioned coming to host societies to join relatives. And reflecting the other side of the same process, émigrés in Los Angeles described bringing Israeli relatives and friends to join them.

16During the late 1990s the Israeli economy witnessed a meteoric rate of growth, followed by a drastic fall off since fall of 2000. Accordingly, a fraction of Israelis who were self-employed prior to migration and retain their entrepreneurial pursuits in points of settlement continue to assert that diaspora settings are better for capitalistic endeavors than Israel [Uriely, 1994; Gold, 1994].

17As is the case with most migrant populations, Israelis are involved in chain migration. The presence of established coethnics in the host society is a valuable resource for later migrants. It lowers the social and economic costs associated with migration and plays a major role in both organizing receiving communities and retaining ties to the country of origin. Israelis also ease their resettlement by residing in LA’s Jewish neighborhoods.

18While most Israelis travel abroad with the specific goals of education, economic advancement or family unification, another group arrives as part of a "Secular Pilgrimage" of world travel that is a common rite of passage among Israelis following their military service, which is compulsory for men and women alike [Ben-Ami, 1992]. Israelis interviewed in Los Angeles described how they had arrived as part of their travels, picked up a job to earn some cash and then had gotten stuck” -- because of economic opportunities, relationships or other factors -- for a period longer than they had initially planned.

19An additional explanation for Israeli emigration is the desire to be outside of the confines of the Jewish State. For supporters of Israel, direct criticism of the Jewish State by those living beyond its boarders is seen as disloyal, and as such, is relatively infrequent among émigrés. However, in explaining why they left Israel, certain migrants described feelings of disillusionment or a general attitude of not being able fit into the social order. Since the start of the Al Aksa Intifada and decline in the global information technology economy, the number of Israelis heading abroad in search of economic opportunity and personal security has increased considerably [Gold and Hart, 2005].

  • 3 Respondents used the terms Sephardic, Oriental, Eastern and Mizrahi interchangeably to describe Jew (...)

20Israelis who are from low status ethnic backgrounds (North African, Asian and Middle Eastern) sometimes claim they left because of discrimination [Sobel, 1986; Uriely, 1995]. Similarly, some members of Israel’s Ashkenazi (Northern and Eastern European-origin) elite complain about the growing influence of the Orthodox and Mizrahi3 portions of the Jewish State as driving them abroad [Gold, 2002]. According to an Israeli government estimate, about 5 percent of all permanent emigrants exit because of unspecified ideological reasons. (For Those Returning Home 1995).

Job finding and the israeli ethnic economy

21Journalistic reports sometimes depict Israeli emigrants as employed in menial occupations, such as cab drivers or furniture movers [Ben-Ami, 1992]. However, every study based on systematic analysis of census or survey data demonstrates that emigrants are far more educated and skilled than Israelis and Americans generally, and among the very most highly educated of all arrivals in countries of settlement. Fifty eight percent in Los Angeles have at least some college, while less than 15 percent are not high school graduates. While Israeli emigrants are already a highly educated group, they tend to further improve their educational credentials while abroad.

22Approximately half of the Israeli emigrant population in Los Angeles is employed in high status occupations such as managers, administrators, professionals and technical specialists [Gold and Phillips, 1996]. According to the 2000 US Census, their rate of self-employment in LA –32 percent – is among the highest of all nationality groups both locally and in the US. Entrepreneurship has long been a viable economic strategy for Jewish migrants who, as a group, are party to an extensive tradition of self-employment prior to their arrival in this country. Israelis are notably active in the real estate, construction, jewelry and diamond, retail sales, security, garments, engineering, information technology and media industries [Gold and Phillips, 1996; Waldinger and Bozorgmehr, 1996].

23Through coethnic cooperation, Israelis obtain a series of economic benefits. These include access to jobs, workers, customers, investment capital, goods and services, tools and equipment, skill training, information, and communal prestige [Gold, 1994; Light and Gold, 2000]. Often, these benefits are provided by coethnics under friendly circumstances, at preferable rates, and with valuable advice on how to deploy them. At the same time, the benefits provided by ethnic economic resources are not free. In order to receive them, Israeli emigrants must conform to various group standards involving philanthropy, religious practice, patterns of consumption, ideological orientation, social engagement and other activities.

24While self-employed Israelis are immersed in a variety of cooperative networks, those who work for non-coethnic firms, non-profit organizations, and government also rely on coethnic connections in their work lives as they count on co-nationals for advice and job referrals and select other Israelis as employees, clients, subcontractors, suppliers and the like. Finally, many Israeli emigrants retain economic links to the country of origin, engaging in trade, providing and consuming business services, organizing religious and cultural exchange programs, working for Israeli companies, cooperating with government agencies and non-profit organizations, while relying on Israeli banks, shipping firms and recruiting employees from the Israeli labor force.

25In their analysis of ethnic occupational concentration in Los Angeles, Waldinger and Bozorgmehr (1996, p. 450) discovered that foreign-born Israelis had the highest index of occupational concentration of 14 native and foreign-born ethnic groups, including Latinos, Asians, Middle Easterners, and several European groups. Sixty four percent of Israelis worked in occupations defined as an ethnic niche. For some nationality groups, niche employment is a mobility trap, yielding low wages. This is not the case for foreign-born Israelis in Los Angeles, who had greater earnings than any other foreign-born group, including Iranians and Filipinos, who have more years of education.

26As they orient themselves in Los Angeles, Israelis rely on various social contacts to establish their economic lives. For some -- such as specialists recruited directly from Israel to work for American companies, Jewish agencies and universities -- these are provided by professional connections. However, many look to the coethnic community for information and resources. Yossi, a Los Angeles building contractor, describes his reliance on the native Jewish community in starting his business:

Investigator: Were most of your customers Jews or just anyone who needed contracting?

Yossi: Basically, it had to be a lot of Jews. Fortunately, most of them were helpful. And all kinds of building supply companies are owned by Jewish people. I would obviously go to them. They don't know that you are Israeli, but if you introduce yourself, they tend to work out with you more. More flexibility and they will stretch a little bit more, too. I like that, so that's why I go to them. That's why I'm still with another Jew. I think it's part of Jewish heritage. We all one loyal group. Somehow, we become loyal to another or help another whether we plan to or not.

27Coethnic cooperation most commonly occurs on three levels that represent Israeli émigrés’ multiple affiliations with Jewish and Israeli communities. First, because they tend to settle in Jewish neighborhoods and are active in realms of Jewish economic preponderance, Israelis interact with diaspora Jews in places of settlement. In most cases, these are native born Jews, but Israelis in Los Angeles also develop economic ties with Jewish immigrants from other countries -- for example, Russians and Iranians.

28While Israelis share commonalties with host society Jews, they have more in common - language, culture, nationality, life-shaping experiences, education and military service - with co-nationals, and hence cooperate with them. Finally, Israelis’ most extensive patterns of economic cooperation develop among co-nationals with whom they share strong social ties. Although Israeli emigrants display extensive coethnic cooperation, they also understand that coethnic arrangements can put them at possible risk of exploitation, abuse and free riding. Accordingly, workers and entrepreneurs sometimes describe ways through which they avoid undesired interactions with coethnics.

Israeli Immigrants and Jewish Ethnic Succession

29The orientation of Israelis (as well as other Jewish migrants) towards Jewish enclaves creates a pattern of Jewish ethnic succession. In the Jewish neighborhoods of Los Angeles, the Israeli presence is made evident in storefronts with Israeli names like Sabra, Golan, Pita, Carmel, or Middle East. Israelis in the food business often sell a range of kosher delicacies unlikely to be found in a typical Eastern European style delicatessen. Instead of (or in addition to) corn beef, pastrami, rye bread and smoked fish that are consumed by US-born Jews, one finds falafel, schwarma, various “mezi” salads, Middle Eastern baked goods, nuts, couscous, Turkish coffee, and dry and canned foods exported from Israel. Other stores market publications, religious articles, and art works. Israeli shops also provide Hebrew newspapers; phone cards for calling Israel and Israeli DVDs and CDs. Bulletin boards advertise religious services, cultural celebrations, and events that may interest the community. Finally, local Israeli businesses -- musicians, taxi services, child care centers, computer specialists, tutors, home remodeling companies -- use these display areas to offer their wares.

30In addition to providing goods, service and jobs, the presence of recent Jewish migrants permits the unique social environments of LA’s older Jewish neighborhoods, like those in Fairfax, Pico Robertson and North Hollywood, to retain their Jewish orientation in a context of rapidly changing demographics. Native-born Jews have largely abandoned small business pursuits in favor of professional employment and suburban lifestyles [Waldinger, 1996]. In the absence of new Jewish migrants, small retail businesses and urban Jewish neighborhoods are often occupied by other ethnic groups. However, Israelis continue to be interested in running these sorts of businesses and residing in urban neighborhoods. Consequently, new arrivals purchase established operations or start new ones, extending the tradition of immigrant Jewish business ownership and urban residence for another generation while also supporting local Jewish community institutions, such as schools, synagogues, clubs and recreational facilities.

31Using their common religion and ethnicity to establish trust, some recent arrivals purchase existing businesses from long-established or native-born Jews who are reaching retirement age. Other migrants direct new operations towards these clients. In an interactive process, Israeli immigrants maintain but also transform the nature of the Los Angeles Jewish community. Just as Israeli immigrants become familiar with the patterns of native Jewish life, established Jews and other immigrants pick up some of the habits, tastes (like Israeli folk dancing), business practices and outlooks of the recently arrived. Thus, Israeli emigrants bring new social, economic and cultural dimensions to Los Angeles.

32As their generally lucrative occupations might indicate, the average earnings of Israelis in Los Angeles are considerable. While Israeli emigrant men have very high rates of labor force participation, a considerable fraction of Israeli women in LA and elsewhere are not in the labor force. As discussed below, Israeli emigrant women often devote their time and effort to domestic and communal activities intended to enhance the quality of family life in points of settlement [Lipner, 1987]. This makes Israelis distinct from many other contemporary migrant groups, who maintain higher labor force participation rates for women in the host society than in their countries of origin. [Pedraza, 1991].

The experience of adaptation

33Reflecting the controversy about Israeli migration, existing literature on the group offers very different images of their adaptation. One body of studies argues that because emigration violates the basic tenets of Zionism, Israeli emigrants’ experience is one of alienation, isolation and guilt regarding their presence in the diaspora [Shokeid, 1988; Linn and Barkan Ascher, 1996]. They are said to occupy a "liminal" (temporary/outsider) status in host societies and as a result, suffer a guilty identity crisis that prevents community unification, integration with host Jews, and the development of realistic, long-term plans regarding settlement [Cohen, 1986; Shokeid, 1988; Mittleburg and Waters, 1992; Uriely, 1995].

34In contrast, a second body of work emphasizes their positive adjustment. Writing in The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, Arthur Goren (1980: 597) states: Israelis "have successfully established themselves in the professional life of the greater society and have contributed to the Jewish community as teachers and communal functionaries." Reports from several points of settlement characterize Israelis as having done quite well. They are highly educated, entrepreneurial, prosperous, fluent in English, have high rates of naturalization, make important contributions to economic and cultural life, and are likely to reside in comfortable neighborhoods, near other Jews. Generally white, they encounter little racial discrimination and have easy access to the local Jewish community, within which they often live and work. [Gold and Phillips, 1996]. While the two images seem diametrically opposed, both reveal an element of truth. Despite their impressive earnings and occupational prestige, after residing in Southern California for decades, Israelis often express feelings of nostalgia for the Jewish State [Shokeid, 1988].

35Israelis’ ambivalence about being abroad may be partially explained by the fact that they are voluntary immigrants, a relatively unique status among Jews. Most Jews who have entered Western countries during the last 300 years have been de jure or de facto refugees, with few opportunities for returning to their countries of origin. By contrast, Israelis retain the real possibility of going back to Israel; indeed host country Jews, the Jewish State and even the migrants themselves generally agree that they should return. As voluntary emigrants, Israelis describe their sojourn as temporary, and many make frequent trips back to the Jewish State, sometimes culminating in permanent repatriation [Cohen, 1999; Shokeid, 1988]. In the words of a community leader in Los Angeles:

Israelis would always suffer a certain touch of nostalgia because they are missing the things that they grew up with. Psychologically, most Israelis did not come here to be Americans. They did not come here to swear to the flag; to sing the national anthem and to go to Dodgers [the Los Angeles baseball team] games. They came here to have the house and the swimming pool and the two cars and the job and the money.

Communal Patterns

36Several scholars have argued that Israelis’ ambivalence about emigration discourages their formation of ethnic communities [Shokeid, 1988; Mittleburg and Waters, 1992; Uriely, 1995]. However, a growing body of evidence reveals that Israeli migrants have developed many activities and organizations in order to support each other as well as local Jews and address their misgivings about being outside of the Jewish State [Gold, 1994; Shor, 1998; Cohen, 1999].

37In her book about Israeli immigrants in Los Angeles entitled Kibbutz LA (2000), education scholar Naama Sabar describes how a combination of established co-national friends, a Hebrew-speaking ethnic economy, and an immigrant-friendly legal system allow a just-arrived Israeli to acquire a job, a driver’s license, a car, and a feeling of social orientation within a few hours of his flight’s arrival at Los Angeles International airport. Israeli community activities include socializing with other Israelis; living near coethnics (and within Jewish communities); consuming Hebrew-language media (produced locally and in Israel); frequenting Israeli restaurants and nightclubs; attending coethnic social events and celebrations; joining Israeli associations; working with other Israelis; consuming goods and services provided by Israeli professionals and entrepreneurs; keeping funds in Israeli banks; participating in Israeli-oriented religious, language, recreational, day-care and cultural/national activities; raising money for Israeli causes; calling Israel on the phone; and hosting Israeli visitors. While some communal settings are the product of migrants’ own efforts, others are maintained in cooperation with local Jewish communities or with the Israeli government. Further evidence of Israelis emigrants’ organization is apparent in their political activities. In spring 1993, Los Angeles mayoral candidate (later mayor) Richard Riordan stumped for votes at the community’s Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day) festival as the invited guest of the Summit Club, a pro-Israel lobbying group made up of affluent Southern California Israelis. The fact that the mayor of the second largest city in the United States would seek votes at this event demonstrates that Israelis have become American citizens and are political actors of some significance.

38In the course of field work in Los Angeles in the mid 1990s, we identified some 27 Israeli organizations -- ranging from synagogues, Hebrew schools and political groups to scouting programs, sports teams, business associations and even a recreational flying club [Gold, 2002]. This number of organization exceeds that created by other, comparably sized middle class immigrant groups in Los Angeles, including Iranians and Soviet Jews. Such a multiplicity of organizations allows émigrés to maintain various Israeli practices and outlooks in host society settings. While a similar set of organizations exists in New York, Chicago, Toronto, London and other points of settlement, the degree of communal organization in Los Angeles is exceptional [Shor, 1998; Cohen, 1999; Rosen, 1993].

39Israelis in Los Angeles sometimes act on the level of the entire community. However the most durable social ties and forms of social interaction and cooperation are maintained among those who share commonalities based upon their experience and social characteristics in Israel. Such factors include class, educational level, religiosity, military service, ethnicity, ideological outlook, tenure in the Jewish State and other factors. In this, forms of social stratification rooted in Israeli society are retained and sometimes even enhanced in Los Angeles. An accountant describes this diverse community.

“There are lots of Israelis here and there are many groups. Everyone finds his own group, and that's how it is, many groups. There are lots of Israelis living in this area of the Valley -- Woodland Hills, Tarzana, Encino. My office is in Encino. I meet all kinds of Israelis, my clients. If you are looking for a specific prototype of Israelis here, you won't find it. You will find every aspect of Israelis -- for better and for worse. It is demonstrated by their behavior and intellectual levels.”

Gender and Family Adaptation

40In nearly every study of Israeli emigration, we find that while migration was a "family decision" and the family as a whole enjoys economic benefits as a result of migration, the decision to migrate was made by the men for the expanded educational and occupational opportunities available abroad [Rosenthal and Auerbach, 1992; Sabar, 2000].

41Once in the host society, men often enjoy the benefits of such expanded opportunities, and accordingly, feel comfortable with the new nation. Women, however, especially those with children and established careers, have more negative views of migration. Even when Israeli women work in California, they often have less of a professional identity than men and would prefer to return home [Kimhi, 1990, p. 95].

42Our own interviews as well as the literature indicates that a large fraction of Israeli women go abroad not of their own volition, but only to accompany their husbands who seek economic and educational improvement. In the words of Rachael:

“For most of the people that came here, the men came and the women came after them. Like when I came, my husband came for a job. I had to leave my job and I had to find a new job and it was very painful. I think more and more now there are women coming on their own, but if you look at most cases, it is the men coming after jobs and it means that the women are the ones that have to take care of finding apartment, finding schools for kids and they get depressed, very badly depressed.”

43Once in the point of settlement, through their immersion in education and work, men develop a social network and a positive sense of self. Women, however, often remain isolated in the home -- saddled with the task of caring for children in a strange new country and lacking access to social networks. Further, because they are responsible for child rearing and many of the family's domestic and social activities, Israeli women are the family members who most directly confront unfamiliar American social norms and practices. However, separated from the resources and knowledge to which they had access at home, Israeli immigrant women find their domestic and communal tasks -- such as building social networks, finding appropriate schools and recreational activities, dealing with teachers and doctors, obtaining day care and the like -- to be quite difficult. This increase in difficulty in women's tasks is contrasted to the various advantages of life abroad yields for husbands involved in the economic sphere.

44It is important to note that while many of the economic advantages of the overseas stay can benefit Israeli women as well as men, due to the gender-based division of labor, they most commonly go to men alone. Lipner's research indicates that an Israeli woman's family status and involvement has much to do with her opinion of life outside of Israel. Younger women who had few social attachments prior to migration (i.e. no children or established careers) looked forward to migrating and often enjoyed being abroad. However, women who had children and who were forced to give up good positions in Israel to come to the host society had a much harder time, experiencing their exit as "devastating." [Lipner, 1987, pp. 144-145].

45In reflecting on their experience outside of the Jewish State, Israelis contrast the nation's positive economic and occupational environment to its communal and cultural liabilities. At least prior to the Al Aksa Intifada (when the economy and security situation became much worse), immigrants generally regarded Israel as a better place for kids [Gold and Hart, 2005]. It had fewer social problems and does not impose the manifold generational conflicts Israelis confront when raising children overseas. Further, in Israel, Jews are the culturally and religiously dominant group. The institutions of the larger society teach children Hebrew and instruct them in basic national, ethnic and religious identity as well as Jewish history. However, in going abroad, Israelis become a minority group and lose government-provided resources as well as communal networks based upon family, friendship and neighborhood which provided a social life and assistance in raising children. Comparative research involving Israelis settled in various locations in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe suggests that Israelis – especially women – are more satisfied with life in LA than in other points of settlement. Gila, who returned from Los Angeles to Israel because of her divorce, expresses her preference for it:

Gila: In many ways I felt that L.A. was my home. I came there when I was 20 years old, I had my children there, I become a person there. I acquired my profession there, had family life. In a way I become middle-class there, and sort of square, became an established person there. It took me a long time to leave my Israeliness behind me. And when I came back (to Israel) I didn’t want to claim my Israeliness again. I just wanted to be in L.A.

Interviewer: “Where is home for you?”

Gila: Home is L.A. and I know that one day I’ll go back there and establish my life there. That’s home and where I need to be.

46Gila’s comments notwithstanding, the general tendency of men wanting to stay on and women wishing to return makes for a level of tension surrounding settlement decisions among LA’s Israelis. Long term plans remain unclear and choices about where to live remain unresolved.

Jewish Identity and Involvement in Jewish Life

47Israeli and diaspora-Jewish notions of group membership contrast because the basic group identities associated with being Israeli, on the one hand, and diaspora Jewish, on the other, are rooted in particular cultural/national contexts. For the majority of Israelis, ethnic identity is secular and nationalistic. In fact, émigrés universally referred to themselves in national terms as “Israelis,” while calling local co-religionists “Jews.” While Israelis are knowledgeable about Jewish holidays and speak Hebrew, they most directly connect these behaviors to "Israeliness" rather than Jewishness. Reform and Conservative Judaism, the denominations with which the great majority of Los Angeles Jews affiliate, are all but unknown in the Jewish State. Rituals, including marriages and religious conversions, performed by these denominations’ rabbis in Israel have no legal standing there. Finally, while LA Jews are accustomed to life as a self-supporting minority group in a religiously pluralistic society, Israelis grew up in an environment where religion and nationality were one and the same and religious activities are subsidized by the State.

48Because of Israelis’ lack of familiarity with diaspora forms of Jewish identification and involvement, some pundits decry their assimilation into non-Jewish cultural patterns. They assert that Israelis’ very exit from the Holy Land signifies a move away from the Jewish ideal, and that their participation in and contribution to Jewish activities is limited and oriented towards secular pursuits with little religious content -- meals, parties, Israeli folk dancing and sports. [Shokeid, 1988]. In contrast, other observers argue that Israelis actively participate in American Jewish life while simultaneously maintaining their links to Israel by noting that the Israelis speak Hebrew, live in Jewish neighborhoods, are involved in a variety of Jewish institutions and visit Israel frequently. Survey data on Israelis’ Jewish behaviors indicate that established immigrants engage in many Jewish behaviors at rates equivalent to or sometimes higher than is the case among native-born Jews.

49For example, data collected for the 1997 Los Angeles Jewish Population Survey reveal that Israeli by birth households are more likely than all Los Angeles Jews to send their children to Jewish day schools, belong to Jewish organizations, give to the United Jewish Federation and identify as Orthodox [Herman, 1998]. Moreover, Israeli migrants' rate of synagogue membership, at 27 percent, is quite close to that of Americans. Further, 80 percent of Israeli parents provide their kids with some form of Jewish education at some point during their lives -- 50 percent of Israeli kids in Los Angeles attend Jewish day schools. The figure for children age 5-17 from Israeli by birth households in Los Angeles is twice as great as that of all Jewish households in LA [Herman, 2000]. Israelis’ rate of intermarriage to non-Jews, at only 8 percent, is 40 percent less than the recent average for American Jews [Gold and Phillips, 1996] (See table 1).

Table 1: Jewish behaviors among Israeli immigrants in Los Angeles, 1997

Israeli By Birth Household

All LA Jews

Children attend Jewish Day School



Belong To Jewish Organization



Donation To United Jewish Fund in the last 4 years






Reside in area of 25% + Jewish Density



50Source : Herman 2000

  • 4 These include lighting candles on Shabbat and Chanukah, attending synagogue on the High Holy Days a (...)

51When comparing Israeli immigrants' observance of Jewish religious practices4 with their patterns in Israel, we find that among naturalized Israelis in Los Angeles, ritual behaviors have actually increased. Increased rates of ritual practice reflect the efforts of these Jewish migrants to retain their religious identity within a predominantly non-Jewish country. [Gold and Phillips, 1996]. Finally, a growing number of Israeli-emigrant parents work to re-establish connections with Israeli and/or Jewish behaviors through special family activities of their own creation or involvement in various Israeli migrant programs such as after-school Israeli Hebrew courses and Hebrew language scouting activities.

Transnational Israelis

52Transnationalism, a relatively new approach in the field of migration studies, has been created precisely to understand a growing number of international migrant communities, who, like Israeli emigrants, maintain social, cultural and economic links to multiple nation states on a more or less permanent basis. [Glick Schiller et al., 1992; Portes et al., 1999]. A central point of transnationalism is its view of migration as a multi-level process that involves various links between two or more settings rather than a discrete event constituted by a permanent move from one nation to another. The concept of transnationalism suggests that by retaining social, cultural and economic ties with two or more countries, people can avoid the impediments traditionally associated with long distances and international boarders. At the same time, transnationalism reminds us that people often remain intensely involved in the life their country of origin even though they no longer permanently reside there.

53As already noted, a whole series of factors surrounding Israelis makes their movement from the Jewish State to Los Angeles relatively easy. They are well educated and often in the possession of occupational and cultural skills that are useful in both settings. They generally have access to networks in both countries that can provide a broad variety of resources ranging from pre-travel information to job opportunities, childcare, housing and a social life. While some Israelis in points of settlement lack legal resident status, as a group, they are very likely to become naturalized and are among a select few allowed to have dual citizenship [Jasso and Rosenzweig, 1990]. Even prior to migration, Israelis often feel extremely familiar with host society cultures society from their exposure to popular culture, visitors and inter-government relations. As Israeli social scientist Zvi Sobel put it “America, it might be posited, has become the alter ego of Israel in political, economic and cultural terms.” [Sobel, 1986, pp. 192-193].

54A great proportion of the Israeli population has resided within the Jewish State for fewer than two or perhaps three generations. Accordingly, their family lore and cultural baggage is rich with both expectations and skills associated with life in other locations. And while professionals and high-level entrepreneurs had lived overseas, so have less skilled and less educated migrants such carpenters and restaurant workers.

55Further facilitating Israel transnationalism are the extensive political and economic relations and numerous links shared by the host societies and Israel. A variety of Israeli-oriented activities that allow migrants to maintain a semblance of the Israeli life in Los Angeles. Because travel between the two nations is easily arranged, Israeli migrants often report making frequent trips to Israel and it is not uncommon for children to return to spend holidays, summer vacations and to complete their military service. Sol, an entrepreneur who returned from Los Angeles to Israel, hoped that his family’s time abroad provided his children with the best of both worlds:

“My son Bar was born in LA and lived here for almost 16 years. Then we moved back. He is graduating high school this year and I told him that he has a choice either to come to go to college here or to go to the Army and he decided to go to the Army in Israel.

Even though Bar and his brothers they grow up in the United States, they love Israel and follow what's happening. I think for the kids, it was a very good move.

Bar was just in LA and he was able to keep in touch with his friends over here, so when he comes here, he has a lot of friends and he can see a lot of people. So in a way, I feel that my kids have a taste of both worlds and, I hope that they'll learn to live in this big village we call the world. Yeah they have a taste of both and I hope it will be for the beneficial.

All of them are bilingual and they speak pretty good English and Hebrew and, when they'll grow, they'll decide what they want to do. But I felt it was my obligation to show them a little bit of Israel. I'm an Israeli and I thought this was the most important thing.

56In these ways, the Israeli context, history and culture and the environment of Los Angeles facilitate Israeli transnationalism. It would appear that the whole notion of being an Israeli versus an Angeleno is not nearly as clear-cut a distinction as the literature on international migration would generally suggest. Instead, such factors as flexible notions of ethnic and national identity, access to and participation in social and occupational networks, and the ability of people to sustain cultural competence and legal status in more than a single society allow Israelis to maintain meaningful forms of involvement in multiple national settings at one time. In fact, we interviewed several Israelis who lived in the Jewish State while regularly traveling to Los Angeles to maintain jobs and levels of income they desired. Despite these many factors that permit Israelis to maintain a transnational existence, nevertheless, many remain troubled by the distance -- physical as well as cultural -- between nations.

57Hence, for many Israelis, transnationalism is a reality. This does not mean, however, that it is an easy way of life. While these migrants build communities and networks that help them cope with the social and cultural dimensions of ties to two nations, and enjoy economic benefits from migration, most are not quite comfortable with this status. In the words of a Los Angeles accountant: “Israel is my mother and America is my wife, so you can imagine the way I must feel.”


58Regardless of emigrants’ reactions to life overseas, the number of Israelis who travel, live and work in Los Angeles is likely to increase. Israel’s growing social, economic and cultural integration with Southern California means that national boundaries will impose ever fewer restrictions on connections with external entities. Between 2000 and 2004, political and economic conditions in Israel further encouraged going abroad. As a consequence, Israeli emigrants (and their associates abroad) are likely to follow multiform lines of action -- including settlement, sojourning, commuting, and return -- to adapt to the myriad circumstances, opportunities and obstacles that they confront. Links between Israelis and Los Angeles have been and will continue to be vital to this process. This is especially the case for those who are directly involved in both settings. However, the well known possibilities of travel, multiple identification, autonomy and membership suggested by the experience of the Israelis in LA offers a sense of possibility even for those persons who do not travel between these settings.

Haut de page


BEN-AMI Ilan (1992), Schlepers and Car Washers: Young Israelis in the New York Labor Market, Migration World, vol. 20, n°1, pp. 18-20.

CLIFFORD James (1994), Diasporas, Cultural Anthropology, vol. 9, n° 3, pp. 302-338.

COHEN Rina (1999), From Ethnonational Enclave to Diasporic Community: The Mainstreaming of Israeli Jewish Migrants in Toronto, Diaspora, vol. 8, n° 2, pp. 121-136.

COHEN Robin (1997) Global Diasporas, Seattle, University of Washington.

COHEN Steven M. (1986), Israeli Émigrés and the New York Federation: A Case Study in Ambivalent Policymaking for `Jewish Communal Deviants', Contemporary Jewry, 7, pp. 155-165.

ENAY Peter (2003), Report: A half million Israelis live in United States, The Miami Herald, July, 20.

For Those Returning Home (1995) [Hebrew], Supplement to Yisrael Shelanu.

GOLD Steven (1994), Patterns of Economic Cooperation among Israeli Immigrants in Los Angeles, International Migration Review, vol. 28, n° 105, pp. 114--135.

GOLD Steven (2002), Israeli Diaspora, Routledge, University of Washington Press.

GOLD Steven J. and Bruce A. PHILLIPS (1996), “Israelis in the United States”, in American Jewish Yearbook 1996, pp. 51-101.

GOLD Steven and Rona HART (2005), Transnational Ties during a Time of Crisis: The Israeli Diaspora since Fall 2000, Paper presented at Middle Eastern Diasporas: (In)visible Minorities, Yale University, March 19.

GOLDSHEIDER Calvin (1996), Israeli’s Changing Society: Population, Ethnicity and Development, Boulder, Westview Press.

GOREN Arthur A. (1980), "Jews", in Stephen Thernstrom (ed.), Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, Cambridge, Harvard-Belknap Press, pp. 571-598.

HERMAN Pini. (1994), "A Technique for Estimating a Small Immigrant Population in Small Areas: The Case of Jewish Israelis in the United States", in K. Vaninadha Rao and Jerry W. Wicks (eds.), Studies in Applied Demography, Bowling Green, Ohio, Population and Society Research Center, pp. 81-99.

ERMAN Pini (1988), Jewish-Israeli Migration to the United States Since 1948, Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association of Israel Studies, New York, June 7.

HERMAN Pini (2000), The Jews of the Jews: Characteristics of Los Angeles Households of Israelis by Birth and Israelis not by Birth, Paper submitted for Division E Contemporary Jewish Society The Thirteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies, December 2000.

JASSO Guillermina and Mark R. ROSENZWEIG (1990), The New Chosen People: Immigrants in the United States, New York, Russell Sage.

KIMHI Shaol (1990), Perceived Change of Self-Concept, Values, Well-Being and Intention to Return among Kibbutz People Who Migrated from Israel to America, Ph.D. dissertation. Palo Alto, CA. Pacific Graduate School of Psychology.

LINN Ruth and Nurit BARKAN-ASCHER (1996), Permanent Impermanence: Israeli Expatriates in Non-Event Transition, The Jewish Journal of Sociology, vol. 38, n° 1, pp. 5-16.

LIGHT Ivan and Steven J. GOLD (2000), Ethnic Economies, San Diego, Academic Press.

LIPNER, Nira H. (1987), The Subjective Experience of Israeli Immigrant Women: An Interpretive Approach, Ph.D. dissertation., Washington, D.C., George Washington University.

MITTELBERG David and Mary C. WATERS (1992), The Process of Ethnogenesis among Haitian and Israeli Immigrants in The United States, Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 15, n° 3, pp. 412-435.

PEDRAZA Silvia (1991), Women and Migration: The Social Consequences of Gender, Annual Review of Sociology, 17, pp. 303-325.

PORTES Alejandro, Luis E. GUARNIZO and Patricia LANDOLT (1999), Introduction: Pitfalls and Promise of an Emergent Research Field, Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 22, n° 2, pp. 217-327.

ROSEN Sherry.(1993), The Israeli Corner of the American Jewish Community,. Issue Series #3, New York, Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations, The American Jewish Committee.

ROSENTHAL Mira and Charles AUERBACH (1992), Cultural and Social Assimilation of Israeli Immigrants in the United States, International Migration Review, vol. 99, n° 26, pp. 982-991.

SABAR Naama (2000), Kibbutznicks in the Diaspora Albany, SUNY Press

SAFRAN William (1999), Comparing Diasporas: A Review Essay, Diaspora, vol. 8, n° 3, pp. 255-291.

SCHILLER Nina Glick, Linda BASCH and Cristina BLANC-SZANTON (1992) “Transnationalism: A New Analytic Framework for Understanding Migration”, in Nina Glick Schiller, Linda Basch, and Cristina Blanc-Szanton (eds.), Towards a Transnational Perspective on Migration: Race, Class, Ethnicity and Nationalism Reconsidered, New York, New York Academy of Sciences, pp. 1-24.

SHOKEID Moshe (1988), Children of Circumstances: Israeli Immigrants in New York, Ithaca, Cornell University Press.

SHOR Gil (1998), Israelis in L. A: Present and Absent, Israel L.A., September 16, p. 5 (Hebrew).

SOBEL Zvi. (1986), Migrants from the Promised Land. New Brunswick, N.J., Transaction.

Task Force on Immigrant Integration (1986), Final Report on the Metropolitan Region: Findings and Recommendations, Jewish Federation of Los Angeles (July).

TUGEND Tom (1989), Peretz: Integrate Yordim into Jewish Community”, Jerusalem Post, November 29.

United States Bureau of the Census (2000), Census of Population, 5% Public Use Microsample.

URIELY Natan (1994), Rhetorical Ethnicity of Permanent Sojourners: The Case of Israeli Immigrants in the Chicago Area, International Sociology, vol. 9, n° 4, pp. 431-445.

URIELY Natan (1995), Patterns of Identification and Integration with Jewish Americans Among Israeli Immigrants in Chicago: Variations Across Status and Generation, Contemporary Jewry, 16, pp. 27-49.

WALDINGER Roger (1996), Still the Promised City? African-Americans and New Immigrants in Postindustrial New York, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

WALDINGER Roger and Mehdi BOZORGMEHR (eds.) (1996), Ethnic Los Angeles, New York, Russell Sage Foundation.

Haut de page


1 Self-identified Israelis may be the children or Israeli emigrants or have few identifiable connections with the country.

2 About 18% of the population of Israel is non-Jewish. When members of this community go abroad, they can be considered members of the Israeli Diaspora, but non-Jewish ones. Accordingly, this article deals only with Jewish members of the Israeli Diaspora [Gold, 2002].

3 Respondents used the terms Sephardic, Oriental, Eastern and Mizrahi interchangeably to describe Jews with origins in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa.

4 These include lighting candles on Shabbat and Chanukah, attending synagogue on the High Holy Days and Shabbat and fasting on Yom Kippur.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Steven Gold, « Jewish Israelis in Los Angeles »Espace populations sociétés, 2006/1 | 2006, 47-60.

Référence électronique

Steven Gold, « Jewish Israelis in Los Angeles »Espace populations sociétés [En ligne], 2006/1 | 2006, mis en ligne le 03 novembre 2016, consulté le 26 septembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Steven Gold

Department of Sociology
316 Berkey Hall
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824-1111

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Espace Populations Sociétés est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Université de Lille
  • Logo Laboratoire TVES
  • Logo Laboratoire Clersé
  • DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • Revue soutenue par l’Institut des sciences humaines et sociales du CNRS
    CNRS - Institut national des sciences humaines et sociales
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search