Little Herzliya: Israeli ex-pats reshape South Bay Jewish life

Navigating the narrow aisles at Oakmont Produce Market, Dana Leiba can’t avoid bumping baskets with fellow shoppers. It’s OK, though. Odds are they will all end up chatting in Hebrew anyway.

The Cupertino store includes a 6-foot-tall display for Bamba, the Israeli peanut-flavored corn-puff snack, and many of its shelves are lined with packaged goods imported from the Holy Land, such as pickles, olives and couscous.

These are the comfort foods of home for Leiba and her fellow expatriate Israelis.

The greater Silicon Valley is home to tens of thousands of Israelis like the Leibas. For the most part, they have found each other and made a community for themselves.

“Israelis really support each other,” said Leiba, 35, who lives in Campbell with her husband and two children. “They tell you where to shop, where to find child care. If you want to keep yourself Israeli here, you can do it.”

Call it “Little Herzliya.”

Well, maybe not so little.  Unlike its namesake, a compact Tel Aviv suburb, this neighborhood stretches some 30 miles from San Jose to the north Peninsula. But like Herzliya itself, Silicon Valley is home to Israelis lured by its high-tech industry.

According to the latest demographic study, conducted several years ago, between 30,000 and 40,000 Israelis live in the Bay Area, most of them concentrated in the South Bay.

No one knows the exact number of Israelis living  in the United States as a whole; estimates range from 140,000 to 700,000,  according to the Jerusalem Post.

Though a transient community, with new families constantly moving in and others returning to Israel, the Israeli population in the South Bay has hit critical mass.  Retail shops, grocery stores, restaurants, banks and schools cater to the growing number of Hebrew speakers.

Dana Leiba shopping at Oakmont Produce Market in Cupertino photos/dan pine

“Originally Israelis in high tech arrived here to work for the large U.S. companies,” said Shuly Galili, executive director of the Sunnyvale-based California Israel Chamber of Commerce. “This is an incredible destination for Israeli entrepreneurs. I see the transformation in what happens to [Israeli] companies that grow their ecosystem here.”

That transformation led scores of Israeli entrepreneurs to move to Silicon Valley, from two-person startups to companies with 200 to 400 employees. Typically, the companies maintain research and development centers in Israel, while developing sales and marketing divisions here.

These entrepreneurs go all in. They move here with their spouses and children, and often have kids born in the United States. The trick is to live the California good life while sustaining Israeli identity and culture for themselves and their children.

Meanwhile, the government of Israel has launched a national campaign seeking to persuade Israeli expatriates to return home.

“Israel has to have a global economy and a global presence,” said Akiva Tor, Israeli Consul General of the Pacific Northwest, “but it’s deeply important that they maintain their Israeli identity, that they keep Hebrew as a mother tongue and that they come home.”

Most Israelis here say they do wish to go home someday. But for many, someday never comes.

Oren Dobronsky, founder of Oren’s Hummus Shop in Palo Alto

Therein lies the quandary: Living outwardly like Americans, yet still Israeli at heart, they avoid the mainstream American Jewish community. Many of them say they can’t relate to American-style Judaism; there may be other reasons at play as well.

Instead of assimilating, they have recreated a semblance of their native culture. Like the ethnic restaurants, stores and services found in any Chinatown, Little Herzliya offers its own version, albeit with an Israeli accent.

The sign on the wall of Oren’s Hummus Shop spells it out for diners: “Hummus Eating Guide — Rip, Scoop, Eat.”

The lunchtime crowd doesn’t need any instruction on what to do with pita and hummus. Patrons daily pack the downtown Palo Alto eatery, which specializes in Israeli cuisine.

Chicken skewers, shakshuka and hummus platters top the menu. To make his hummus, founder Oren Dobronsky imports tahini and chickpeas from Israel. He also brought over a bread machine that bakes fresh pita, making for an authentic falafel.

And yes, you can have fries with that.

Dobronsky never ran a restaurant before opening in June 2011. He is an Israeli-born Internet entrepreneur, having developed and sold four successful high-tech startups over the last 14 years, including

He and his family have lived in Palo Alto since 2008, where his current day job is serving as CEO of Infolinks, an in-text advertising provider.

After he moved here, Dobronsky missed having a little taste of home. So he decided to open his own place.

“What motivated me was 100 percent not financial,” Dobronsky said. “I wanted a community place. My wife and family told me I was crazy, that I’d lose money. I said, ‘You’re probably right.’ ”

They were wrong. Though not yet in the black, his restaurant is oh-so-close to being profitable.

Shula Solomonand her students at Kinderland day care center in Cupertino. photos/joyce goldschmid

Dobronsky estimates Israelis make up 15 percent of his customer base. For them, he said, his establishment is “way more than a restaurant. It connects them to home, it reminds them of home.” Many walk in and say, quite emotionally according to Dobronsky, “It’s so important we have this place, to teach our kids about [Israeli] food.”

Food isn’t the only aspect of Israeli life the ex-pats miss.

Israeli women hungry for the latest fashions from Tel Aviv need only head over to Ruti’s boutique, located in the Town & Country Village across from Stanford University.

When they walk into the store, customers are offered a rugelach from Eva Sweets (a nearby Israeli-owned bakery) and a glass of Israeli wine. All of Ruti’s merchandise comes from Israel, with owner Ruti Zisser receiving shipments every three days.

“I love making people feel good with clothing,” said Zisser. “Clothing really makes women feel good about themselves — much more than psychology or men.”

She and her husband moved to Silicon Valley six years ago. While her husband has worked for Amdocs, global provider of business support systems, in San Jose, Ruti Zisser pursued her dream of opening a boutique.

Ruti’s opened two years ago in Palo Alto, with a San Francisco shop on Fillmore Street opening several months later. She’s done so well, she is planning to open a store in Santa Monica later this year.

“Israelis can do everything,” she said. “Whatever they want, they do; the sky’s the limit.”

Like other Israeli parents, providing a good education for their three kids is paramount for the Zissers, as is keeping them Israeli.

Several dozen Israeli parents send their preschool-age children to Kinderland, a Cupertino child development center where only one language is spoken: Hebrew.

Founder Shula Solomon and her family moved to California in 1987. Her kids initially had a hard adjustment to the new culture, so with her background as a nursery school teacher, she decided to do something about it.

In 1999 she opened a day care center for Israelis, operating out of her home. Nine years later she had built up the business to the point of acquiring her current school site.

“We moved to Kinderland and in three months it was full,” Solomon said. “It was my dream come true. The school is full and we never advertise.”

Ruti Zisser, founder of an Israeli clothing store in Palo Alto

With 75 children enrolled (not all of them from Israeli families), Kinderland operates like a typical Israeli preschool. Shabbat is celebrated, as are holidays like Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut (Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day), when the kids dress in blue and white.

Moreover, Solomon imported the Israeli way of early childhood education. “Here [in the United States] it is more academic, pushing kids too much,” she said. “In Israel, it’s more playing. Let them be kids for the first five years.”

Chabad of Cupertino Rabbi Reuven Goldstein and his wife, Gitty Goldstein, also run a nursery school nearby. All 12 of their students are Israelis. They, too, celebrate holidays and Shabbat with an extra dose of Judaism.

Though most Israelis describe themselves as secular, Rabbi Goldstein said the parents are happy to give their kids some religious instruction.

“They might consider themselves secular,” he said, “but we find they have put in a very strong effort to expose their children to the holidays. We fill that need for them. In Israel, it’s natural, but in America they have to put in more of an effort.”

Gitty Goldstein teaches at the nursery school, and though she speaks Hebrew, her classes are taught in English.

“We’re not a Hebrew immersion program,” she explained. “A lot of [parents] like for their kids to learn English. But a lot of our music is traditional Israeli, and a lot of the stories are Israeli classic children’s books. So though we are English-speaking, we bring Israeli heritage and culture into the program.”

Once the children move on to primary grades, many parents send them to K-8 Jewish day schools such as South Peninsula Hebrew Day School in Sunnyvale or Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto. After that, Kehillah Jewish High School, also in Palo Alto, is an option.

“It’s less likely they will lose their Israeli identity here than in a public school,” said Marily Lerner, director of admissions at Kehillah, which boasts 20 percent Israeli student enrollment. “Here, there is so much focus on Israel.”

Rabbi Menachem Landa hosts Purim party for fellow Israelis at his Palo Alto home.

How would newly arrived Israelis even know to send their kids to these schools, or shop at Ruti’s, or eat at Oren’s? Aside from extensive informal networking, institutional aid exists.

While her husband built up his high-tech company, Aya Levkovitz of San Mateo launched a business of her own: Ogen Relocation, which helps Israelis hit the ground running once they arrive. Finding the right schools, the right neighborhoods, even finding a dentist who speaks Hebrew, all fall within her sphere.

“People need help,” she said, “to be held by the hand and shown around, because everything here is different. Everything is more relaxed but very strict. If you need to register the kids for school, you have to be here; you can’t do it from afar. In Israel it’s more flexible.”

She also helps newcomers find friends.

“We try to connect them with families with kids the same age,” Levkovitz adds. “We recommend they be open to local culture, though we recommend they speak Hebrew as much as they can, and at home only Hebrew. The kids will learn English with their friends.”

Providing similar outreach on a larger scale is the Israel Cultural Connection, a department of the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto that helps Israeli families adjust to Silicon Valley life and provides a physical space where Israelis can feel at home.

Launched two years ago, the ICC was initially a joint project of the Israel Center (a program of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation) and the JCC. When the Israel Center had to withdraw from the program, JCC executive director Alan Sataloff picked up the slack.

“It was too important to can it,” he said of the program. “It was no less important than serving the rest of the Jewish community. The JCC needed to put its full resources behind it, and the ICC was born.”

Rotem Landesman (with megaphone, left) leads fellow Tzofim scouts.

Though the JCC provides some funding, most financial support comes directly from local Israelis who value the program, and who volunteer their time at ICC events.

ICC director Ronit Jacobs empathizes with the families she helps. Brought up in Israel, she moved to the United States at age 22 and married an American. She’s bilingual, bicultural and, after 11 years in the South Bay, well positioned to help Israelis achieve what she calls “a soft landing” here.

The ICC partners with organizations like AIPAC, the Palo Alto branch of Israel’s Bank Leumi and the Israeli consulate, offering weekly events in Hebrew.

It could be a lecture from an Israeli author, or a parenting group. It could be a Kabbalah class or the screening of an Israeli film or an Israeli performer. In February, there was a Tu B’Shevat seder entirely in Hebrew. Many of these events, and others, are listed in Hebrew as well as English on the JCC website.

There’s also an afterschool all-Hebrew program for kids in grades 1-12, as well as large-scale celebrations for Israeli holidays such as Yom HaAtzmaut and Yom HaZikaron. Those are now conducted in English as well as Hebrew to bring in the wider community.

In fact, Jacobs puts a high priority on what she calls “bridges to the American Jewish community.” Experience has taught her that the Israelis here need help with this.

“What we see is that most Israelis do not blend in,” Jacobs said. “They stay in groups of [other] Israelis and don’t mix with the American Jewish community. It’s just foreign to them.”

That includes the American Jewish tradition of synagogue membership. The notion makes little sense to Israelis, who come from a nation in which most Jews consider themselves either secular or Orthodox, and where virtually all synagogues are maintained by the state.

Few join congregations here, though many Israelis attend synagogues on the High Holy Days. Menachem Landa, an Israeli-born Palo Alto-based Chabad rabbi who serves Israelis almost exclusively, doesn’t fret much over the self-proclaimed secularism of the Israelis who come to his events.

“Every Israeli who comes here [wonders] how to express Jewish identity, which wasn’t a question before,” Landa said. “We invite [Israelis] to the Shabbos table. We have them for coffee, classes, and not necessarily [services]. But they don’t want their kid to grow up without Judaism.”

Zohar and Aya Levkovitz

Rotem Landesman grew up with little formal Judaism, but plenty of Israeli culture.

For the past seven years, the 17-year-old has lived with her parents and two younger siblings in Cupertino, where her father works for the Israeli startup DirectBeam. Though born in New York, she spent most of her early years in Israel, and she goes back frequently.

Landesman is perfectly bilingual and bicultural. She’s 100 percent American — and 100 percent Israeli. That, said the Monta Vista High School graduate, creates challenges.

“It’s fun because I like surprising people with my good Hebrew,” she said. “I love saying I’ve been out of the U.S. and know other places. On the other hand, especially at this age where you’re trying to decide where you want to study, it’s hard. You never got a clear picture. What exactly am I? You’re faced with decisions not many other kids [face] and it’s hard to explain it.”

One thing that has helped her stay Israeli over the years has been her membership in Tzofim, a Hebrew-only Israel-based youth scouting movement that has had a Bay Area chapter for many years.

Landesman belonged as an elementary school student, dropped it, then returned to the program as a teen. Last year she was made a counselor and this year serves as head counselor. That’s a big job, considering 100 kids show up every Sunday for Tzofim at the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos.

She says Tzofim has been a great experience, “not only because of the Hebrew, but I love leading and planning. We play games with [the younger] kids, teach them about the movement and its values. We do all the holidays, with a huge ceremony for Yom HaZikaron.”

Landesman’s  intense devotion to her Israeli heritage has led her to face the most significant decision of her life: whether to go on to college in the United States or return to Israel for military service.

She is drawn to the Israel Defense Forces because she views service as a way of giving back to the country. Landesman also acknowledges that were she to enlist, there is a high likelihood she would stay in Israel.

She’s already been accepted by U.C. Santa Barbara and U.C. Santa Cruz. She has until early May to make up her mind.

Tor would prefer that she go to  Israel. Israel’s S.F.-based outgoing consul general,  and an American who made aliyah himself, he believes Israelis belong in Israel. The consulate has an outreach department that works with local Israelis , the mission of which, he says, is “to enable those Israelis who wish to return home to do so with the greatest of ease and maximal knowledge of their rights.”

Ronit Jacobs

The consulate works closely with Jacobs at the ICC and other Jewish community institutions to keep in touch with local Israelis. Tor says it’s important that they remember where they came from so they may return home one day.

Living in the relative calm and comfort of California can prove seductive, and Tor knows it.

“Israelis who come here do not have difficulty maintaining their own identity,” he said, “but if they are here for six or eight years, I observe a lot of difficulty in transmitting this identity to their kids. Often Hebrew is no longer their mother tongue and, often, Israeli families do not join synagogues, Jewish day schools or other organs of Jewish communal life. It makes it difficult to transmit Judaism or Israeli identity in the American context.”

Zohar and Aya Levkovitz know what Tor is talking about. The co-founder of Amobee, a global digital advertising company, Zohar and his partners sold the company last month for more than $300 million.

“Life is great in California,” he said. “This is a much better environment to raise our daughter, but still we’re not feeling this is our place.”

Despite his uneasiness, the family is not packing up for a return to Israel. With Amobee sold, he plans to pursue new opportunities in the digital mobile industry. For the foreseeable future, Silicon Valley will remain home.

For Aya, who runs the company she founded, Ogen Relocation, her time in California has been a mixed blessing.

“At the beginning it’s euphoria,” she said. “You’re here, it’s shocking; everything is new and exciting. But after a while a few years have passed and you say, ‘What have I done with myself?’ ”

Her husband, who proudly maintains his thick Israeli accent despite his many years in the United States, echoes his wife’s unease.

“The general idea was that life in California is much better than Israel,” he said. “Life is much more convenient, but all you have is 7-Eleven and Safeway after 11 p.m. We’re coming from Israel — where we have too much history — to a place where history is Starbucks.”

Sedate as the nightlife in San Mateo may be, compared to go-go Tel Aviv, Levkovitz and his family are staying put for now. They, like so many of their fellow Israelis, feel a gravitational tug pulling them both eastward to home, and here in the uttermost West.

“It’s nice to know you can find Bamba, but that’s not a good enough reason to change your place,” he said. “We like life in California much more than Israel, but we can never forget that every day here is one day less my daughter has to know her grandparents.”

In addition to being quoted, former j. intern Rotem Landesman contributed to this report.

Cover illustration by Cathleen Maclearie

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.