Things We See from There: What I Discovered When We Went to the United States for a Year

We may complain about the Israeli education system, and there’s certainly room for improvement, but let’s imagine what would happen if the Israeli-Jewish knowledge base that our education system transmits to students were available to all American Jews as well.

Sometimes the best way to look at an issue isn’t to swoop in and focus on the small details, but rather to step back and take a bird’s-eye view –  to zoom out.

I’d like to try a zoom-out on the phrase I’ve been asked to write about – “a Jewish state.” I’m a sixth-generation Israeli, and from an early age I’ve worked as a journalist covering Israeli current events. From that vantage point, the dilemma known as “a Jewish and democratic state” or “religion and state” is a highly charged and burning issue. Every day brings news items, conflicts, articles, and interviews. But in 2020, we went to the United States as emissaries of the World Mizrachi movement in North America and discovered a different perspective.

For the first time, I realized the extent to which Israel is the spirit, the soul, the culture, and the identity prism for active and engaged Jews – and, potentially, for non-engaged Jews. Perhaps we Israelis would do well to remember these basic and fundamental values. As the Hebrew saying goes: the things you see from there, you don’t see from here. It seems to me that there are amazing things, things to be proud of, that are completely absent from our everyday discussion – and that’s a shame. I discuss four of them below.

Antisemitism – what is that?

Early in our stay in New York, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion with the American-Jewish journalist Bari Weiss and the then-Israeli Consul-General in New York, Dani Dayan. The topic was antisemitism. I told my children where I was going, and one of the younger ones asked: “Mommy, what’s antisemitism?” I was delighted by the question. For two thousand years, Jewish children heard “zhid” and “yahud” on their way to the market; my son has never yet encountered such expressions, because he’s simply never encountered antisemitism. He’s an Israeli. That, too, is part of the special DNA of the world’s only Jewish state. The state has other problems, but it’s antisemitism-free.

I remember the first time I saw a swastika in New York – I almost jumped out of my skin. In my thirty-something years on the planet, I’d seen that symbol only in movies and in books. Was this for real? On another occasion, people wrote in the neighborhood WhatsApp group about some neo-Nazis who gathered one Friday near the kosher grocery, calling slurs. This might have been nothing new for American Jews, but I refused to accustom myself to it. I’m used to a different, better reality.

Another thing worth mentioning about antisemitism and the memory of the Holocaust is what might almost be termed an American “sentimentality” about these topics. I’ll say it dugri – with Israeli bluntness: the “Holocaust” isn’t enough. In the States I found that people tend to base and form their Jewish identity in response to hatred from without. We need to fight antisemitism, we need to remember the Holocaust, that’s clear, but our identity should, above all, be a positive and substantive thing. Not just “no” to antisemitism, but also “yes” to ourselves, to our identity, to our heritage. And the Jewish state is of course a factor in the building of that positive identity.

The aroma of Shabbat  

Fridays in Manhattan do not have a pre-Shabbat ambience. On the contrary. We stayed in a Yeshiva University (YU) dormitory. Here, only I and the women students lit Shabbat candles, while through the window we could see taxis driving on and an entire world of Starbucks and Macy’s still open for business. The Kabbalat Shabbat service was held in a library on a high floor, from which we could view the city continuing to bustle as usual. “I feel like I’m in Noah’s ark,” my son said of this Shabbat “bubble” we’d created for ourselves.

I came from a country of 24/6 to a country of 24/7, and I could feel the difference. I won’t go into the constitutional issue here (I personally think legislation is needed to ensure that Shabbat in Israel bears a Jewish character), as what I’m trying to describe relates above all to atmosphere, to public will, to the distinctive essence with which we want to imbue the shared home we’re in the process of building. Every new immigrant and every Jew who visits Israel notices the Erev Shabbat ambience and the special Shabbat atmosphere that prevail in the world’s only Jewish state.

This is true of the Jewish holidays as well, and for the entire yearly cycle. Christmas lights gleam more brightly than our little Hanukkah candles. The task of the Jew in the Diaspora is to spread light and to kindle the fire of Hanukkah, to make the holiday attractive to one’s children – but it’s not easy when you enter Macy’s and hear nothing but Santa Claus songs. In Israel you can literally feel Hanukkah; by the end of the Tishrei holidays you can already buy sufganiyot. By contrast, during the autumn (Cheshvan/Kislev) we spent in the States, one of our Jewish neighbors told me I should buy Halloween costumes and save them for Purim, which falls at the end of winter, in the month of Adar. In Israel, the stores fill up with costumes in Shevat, the month prior to Adar, because everyone’s getting ready for Purim. Abroad, there was a constant feeling of “this isn’t our holiday.”

In Israel, the Hebrew calendar sets the rhythm of our national existence. Verses from the Torah come to life all around us: Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and so on. I’ll never forget the new immigrant I interviewed who told me how thrilled she’d been, before Passover, to see a sign on the back of a bus: Chag kasher v’sameach – “Have a happy and kosher holiday.”

Here’s a statistic that illustrates the point: In 2022 (5782), from the beginning of Elul to the end of the Tishrei holidays, over two million people visited the Kotel – the Western Wall. That’s a huge number, and it includes both Israelis and tourists from around the world (Jews and non-Jews). The selichot prayers at the Kotel before Yom Kippur – sometimes with over a hundred thousand participants in a single night! – have become an event that the commercial television stations broadcast live. On Yom Kippur itself, Israeli TV shuts down, and it’s not only the synagogues that are full but also the streets. Prayer quorums in backyards and public spaces have become a common sight, even now that the coronavirus pandemic has ended.

In 2022, I had the pleasure of seeing over two thousand people at Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square (generally regarded as a symbol of secularism) praying the Kol Nidrei and Ne’ila prayers. Lena Rosovsky, a journalist with the Kan television network, immigrated to Israel from Russia at the age of nine. At the end of the Yom Kippur prayer service, she told me: “For me, Jewish holidays mean shuttered windows. As a child in Moscow, I remember we’d close the windows so they wouldn’t see us celebrating the Jewish holidays, and on Yom Kippur my parents even went to work while fasting. That’s why it makes me so happy to see Yom Kippur go outside, into the street. Here we don’t have to close our shutters.”

Gap year, Birthright and more

During the year I spent in the U.S. with my family I found that Israel is an educational superpower for Diaspora Jewry. Or maybe it’s more correct to call it an educational insurance policy. Tens of thousands of teens finish Grade 12 and then go to spend time in Israel. It’s not enough. We need to expand these programs and also reach non-religious and non-Zionist teens. We need to reach fathers and mothers as well (and of late there’s been a renaissance of such projects). What did Eli Wiesel once write? Even a Jew who goes to Israel for the first time at the age of 80 calls it “home.” It is a supreme interest of Israel and of Diaspora Jewry that as many Jews as possible visit that home at least once – preferably as early as possible in their lives.

Those who do come are forever changed. Sometimes they come for a year or two, sometimes they even make Aliyah, sometimes they come only for short programs such as Birthright or MASA. When meeting people in the States, I could usually guess whether the person in front of me had spent time in Israel or not; whether he or she had received that “immunization.” And for the most part they themselves say it was the most meaningful period in their lives.

In rational terms, this proposal of mine can be justified by the fact that Jews who visit Israel will contribute more money to the country later in their lives, return more frequently as tourists, send their children here, and help with Israel advocacy wherever they go. But there’s more to it than that. “There’s something in the air of Eretz Israel,” someone in New Jersey told me, trying to convey the experience after having exhausted all the rational explanations – and maybe she’s right. Years later, they don’t always remember where exactly they did agricultural work, where exactly they volunteered, or what exactly they learned in yeshiva, but the overall experience wows them – the living, first-hand connection. They get Eretz Israel in “capsule” form.

And if we’re already talking about “capsules” (Capsula, by the way, was what Israelis called the small-group “pods” in which children learned at school for periods of time during the COVID-19 pandemic), it’s worth mentioning that the two American graduating classes that didn’t make it to Israel due to the pandemic lost out. Many teachers told me how sorely that year in Israel was missed by the young people who continued straight to college. Their attachment to Torah, to the people, to the land, and indeed to themselves, is weaker, perhaps permanently so. The “air” of Eretz Israel cannot be transmitted via Zoom.

“And thou shalt teach them diligently”: It’s the law, and it’s free

Less than a year after the State of Israel was founded, the first Knesset passed the Compulsory Education Law (1949) – one of the first laws it enacted. I don’t think we Israelis realize how impressive the system that provides free education to every child up to age 18 actually is. You don’t have to pay for your four-year-old to learn about the holidays at preschool, and even if your family is large, you don’t have to take out loans so your children can learn Hebrew. But that’s not how it is in the United States.

American-style separation of religion and state means that private Jewish schools need to charge high tuition fees. There are places where tuition is forty thousand dollars per year! The system that has emerged is an immoral one: wealthy Jews have access to better Jewish education. Low-income Jews, or even Jews who aren’t poor but simply aren’t rich and therefore can’t afford that kind of expense, are left outside the circle of Jewish education.

It’s true that there are scholarships, after-school programs, and “Sunday schools,” and these things are very important and worthwhile. Even so: only a minority of American Jews go to Jewish schools; only a minority benefit from organized Hebrew study; only a minority are connected to the yearly cycle of holidays and Torah portions. And so, the world’s largest Jewish community outside of Israel also has the highest assimilation rate. American Jewry has failed to provide free Jewish education for all, and without education for future generations – there is no future.

We may complain about the Israeli education system, and there’s certainly room for improvement, but let’s imagine what would happen if the Israeli-Jewish knowledge base that our education system transmits to students were available to all American Jews as well. The Jewish world as a whole would be a different place.


Only from a distance was I able to appreciate the Jewish state’s absence of antisemitism, the special atmosphere on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, the fact that the state is a global educational magnet, and that its Hebrew education is provided free of charge.

As we mark the Jewish state’s 75th year of independence, the time has come to stop arguing about it and to start being proud of it. We have a mission!


Sivan Rahav-Meir is a journalist, author, and speaker. Her Daily Thought project provides insights on the weekly Torah portion to an Israeli and global audience.