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Israelis settle in Rockville and create flavor of home

The Baltimore Sun

When Amir Mushkat was on the verge of relocating to Maryland, a fellow Israeli gave him a strongly worded piece of advice: Find a home within the 20852 ZIP code.

"He told me, 'You go here. Don't go anywhere else,'" said Mushkat, a financial planner and father of three. "That's exactly what I did."

When he moved to that slice of Rockville 11 years ago, Mushkat found a neighborhood that was home to so many Israelis that residents have adopted Hebrew names for one sprawling apartment complex and the adjacent neighborhood. Children talk in Hebrew on the playground, supermarket chains carry Israeli food products, and more than 100 youths show up every Sunday to participate - in Hebrew only - in the Israeli Scouts. Some call the area "Little Israel."

"We consider it like living in Israel, but in the United States," said Mushkat, who founded the Israeli Business Network of Washington, a membership group made up largely of Israelis who live in Rockville.

No one knows exactly how it started. Some say it was the esteemed Montgomery County public schools or the proximity to the National Institutes of Health, where scores of Israelis have fellowships. But word passed from family to family - some learned of Rockville from articles in Israeli publications - and over time, the city of 47,000 has become a lively hub for Israelis in the Washington-Baltimore corridor.

Once he leaves the office, Izik Balely - who moved to the area in 2005 to work at an Israeli-owned satellite communications company - speaks Hebrew almost exclusively. "It makes me feel like I'm back in Israel," said Balely, 43. "Sometimes I forget that I live in the U.S."

The 2000 Census showed that Rockville, a prosperous Washington suburb that includes the county government offices, was then home to 474 people born in Israel. More recent figures aren't available, but it is obvious to those who visit or live in the area that the community is large and active.

Evening of dance

On a recent evening, about 60 people gathered for an evening of Israeli folk dancing at Tikvat Israel Congregation, a Rockville synagogue. The group was significantly smaller than usual because Passover had not yet ended and the regular organizer, an Israeli who has been leading the weekly sessions for 18 years, was in his native country for the holiday.

No matter. Those who showed up to the large hall - an intergenerational crew, mostly Israeli - danced to up-tempo Israeli pop music until nearly 1 a.m.

The choreographed dances find their way from Israel to dance floors around the world through traveling teachers and the Internet. The participants knew the steps, song after song. Switching among line, circle and couple dancing, they twirled and kicked, sometimes hooting or shouting out the Hebrew lyrics.

Orit Greenberg, an Israeli woman who is married to an American, has been a regular participant since she moved to the area nine years ago to live near her husband's family.

"Every little thing that will help me reconnect to my roots, I try to get involved with or get my kids involved with," she said. "It helps me survive."

Such activities that draw Israelis yearning for home are common in Rockville. The Israeli Scouts, a co-ed group for 8- to 18-year-olds, meets every Sunday to volunteer in the community, participate in outdoor activities, and learn about Israeli and Jewish holidays, customs and culture, in the hope that it will deepen their Israeli identity.

In addition, the Jewish Community Center screens current Israeli films (with English subtitles) at a monthly film program and employs Hebrew-speaking sports trainers at the fitness center. A parent who noticed that some Israeli children were failing to pick up or maintain their Hebrew reading and writing skills recently organized a before-school Hebrew Club at Farmland Elementary School.

Israeli parents say that in certain schools their children generally have a half dozen or more classmates from their native country. Yuval Luger, a fifth-grader at Farmland, did not pause when asked about the number of Israelis at her school. "Millions!" she exclaimed. "It's been, like, very homey."

Even the supermarkets have adjusted to meet the needs of the Israeli population here. Giant carries Israeli products in a kosher section that serves the local Jewish community as well as some Israelis. And the two Kosher Mart stores import everything from pita bread to cream cheese - foods some Israelis think Americans don't get right.

And then there is the Rollins Park Apartments, a complex of 1,150 units just off Rockville Pike and south of downtown Rockville. People refer to it as the kibbutz - an Israeli collective farm or settlement - because of the concentration of Israelis living there. On a recent afternoon, boys playing basketball in the neighborhood park were shouting to each other in Hebrew and the adjacent playground was, likewise, awash in those speaking the language. "Ma ha-inyanim," parents said to each other in greeting - Hebrew for "What's up?"

Some say the kibbutz moniker goes back at least 20 years, perhaps to a time when Israelis started flocking to the NIH. The relative affordability of the apartments, which rent for $1,300 to more than $2,000 a month, appeals to graduate students and fellows - and NIH employees get a 10 percent discount.

Some think the complex physically resembles a kibbutz. The drab, low-rise buildings constructed in the 1960s surround grassy courtyards crisscrossed by pathways and littered with bikes, scooters and balls. Two towers sit at one end.

Israelis who live here say they knock on each other's doors without calling first and impromptu gatherings often turn into dinner parties. They never worry when their kids run around outside or disappear into each other's homes. When new transplants arrive, their neighbors shower them with tips about shopping, day care or schools. One man said it was almost too social - sometimes he yearns for a quiet weekend at home.

"It is communal," said Yaara Mooki, 34, who was watching her son at the playground. "It's more communal than it was in Israel for me."

The neighborhood of single-family homes surrounding the so-called kibbutz also has an Israeli nickname, the moshav -a cooperative settlement of small individual farms. "There is very, very high demand in our neighborhood," said Mushkat, the financial planner. "If something comes on the market, it's immediately sold to an Israeli family."

Liran Carmel, a post-doctoral fellow at the NIH and a kibbutz resident, said he feels it's important living among Israelis and maintaining those ties because he has always planned to return to Israel with his family. "Most people are here for several years," he said. "So it's convenient to live this way."

The Israeli population here is indeed fairly transient. Academics often return home, as do some workers employed by Israeli companies or the nation's embassy. Others struggle mightily with the question of whether to stay in this country.


On one hand, they miss their homes and families terribly; some find America's problems more daunting than Israel's.

Yet many Israelis in Rockville consider life here less complicated. They can make more money and some believe their children will get a better education. Some say it is more peaceful; they wake up less afraid.

"I really like it here, and it's possible to make a living," said Galit Shilo, the co-director of the Scouts. Yet, especially since she started working with the Scouts, she has been wondering about her future.

"Should I go back? How do I want to raise my own kids one day?" she asked.

Whether to stay in "Little Israel" is a tough question, Balely said.

"We ask ourselves every year and more than this," he said, adding that his sons' ages - 12 and 16 - make the decision more difficult.

"It's getting more complicated every year we're staying," Balely said. "Right now we live here, but we just don't have an answer."

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