This winter, family celebrations and Age of Clinton speaking gigs propelled me up and down Florida’s Gold Coast from Palm Beach to Miami Beach. I get the Florida vacation thing. Amid the brutal winter frost, hopping down south, shedding layers of down and luxuriating in the sun is liberating. But jogging every morning past one nouveau palazzo after another, eating nightly in one kosher restaurant after another, experiencing all the flashy Jewish wealth in America’s fastest-growing Jewish community, depressed me. Isn’t there more to life than McMansions and $80 kosher steaks? I understand Florida’s womblike appeal, but isn’t it smothering if you move when you’re young and vigorous, as so many retirees now are? Too many Jews move south to live longer – why not move somewhere you and your dreams can live more fully? If just 10,000 snowbirds every year moved to Israel, either permanently or temporarily, to become shkaydiot – the almond tree that blossoms in winter, as a harbinger of spring – they and Israel would flourish.
My decision to make aliya often elicits two contrasting reactions. One friend said, “I never took you for a weirdo.” Many others react in ways similar to the way history majors turned lawyers react to my decision to become a professor. These people get wistful, sighing about choosing their more pragmatic, often lucrative, route. Those who think me weird will never “winter” or “summer” in Israel, let alone move there. But the wistful ones should stop sighing and start planning. Why not organize annual stays or a permanent move to Israel when you are still young and lively but no longer working full-time? Once you’re flying, fly a bit longer. Once you’re moving, move a bit more boldly. Retirement can be a revival, not a withdrawal.
My challenge to Orthodox American Jews is blunt.
Stop pretending to be so halachically scrupulous when you’re picking and choosing what to observe.
Stop scrutinizing your lettuce for bugs. Stop singing “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Before your next big aphid hunt, before acting hypocritically yet again next Seder, start planning your retirement in Israel. Your performed-mitzvah tally will jump and your local grocer will often assume the headache of choosing clean greens. So Orthodox Jews unite, you have nothing to lose but your neuroses and hypocrisies.
Move to Israel, permanently or temporarily, where your legalistic commitments become normal behaviors not bizarre idiosyncrasies.
My invitation to wistful non-Orthodox American Jews is subtler. Retirement can be mind-numbing, soul-deadening, alienating. Why not embrace an exciting new challenge? Seek a second honeymoon with your spouse rather than two one-way tickets to gated community oblivion. Instead of moving south and learning Spanish to order around the help, move east and learn Hebrew to speak to your neighbors. Relish the adventure of starting afresh in a place that is struggling with deeper questions than where you get the best “Early Bird Special” – yet offers quality medical care and American-style comforts. Rather than feeling wistful about the Israeli road not taken, feel proud about this new, deep, multi-dimensional contribution you’ll make to the Jewish state, by bringing your money, your patronage, your passion, your kids and grandkids as visitors. So non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews unite, you have nothing to lose but your sense of feeling lost.
Move to Israel, where simply by living, you build today’s greatest collective Jewish adventure.
The argument for this kind of aliya should be couched in Zionist terms, with a twist. Today’s immigrant, typically, is seeking meaning rather than fleeing oppression. Since the Soviet Union fell and most Ethiopian Jews arrived, most Jews live in free countries. Even European Jews fleeing anti-Semitism have alternatives to Israel and only choose Israel on purpose.
This Golden Age Zionism won’t work unless seeing the shkaydiah, the almond tree, flowering now, in season, quickens your pulse; unless feeling the quiet of the oncoming Shabbat stirs your soul; unless hearing “Hatikvah” sung by Israeli recruits on Independence Day gladdens your heart.
The motivations and needs of immigrants vary with age and stage. Young singles tend to be idealists, hoping to live by their values. Middle-aged parents should be ideologues, often needing a more developed worldview to survive the challenges of adjusting spouses and children to a new language, culture, relationships, sensibilities. Retiring pioneers – shkaydiot – should be pragmatic idealists, meaning classic Zionists, factoring in the added communal, spiritual and soul values to their unconventional retirement plan, while assessing the financial, medical, familial and legal factors involved.
Ask yourself: what’s Miami or Boca got that Israel hasn’t got? If you want good weather, go south to Eilat or Ashkelon. If you want great culture go to Tel Aviv, or go to Jerusalem for great learning. And if you want a community, start recruiting friends.
This could be exciting – and lucrative. The trailblazers who tap into the Jewish retirement market will make history – and could make lots of money.
Some of the Israeli expatriates who specialize in building retirement housing in Florida should apply their expertise to Israel. Entrepreneurs should consult with gerontologists to develop the medical supply stores and hearing aid centers and pharmacies and heart institutes and physiotherapy clinics that are as numerous in Florida as palm trees.
And let others create model communities built on shared values and more meaningful experiences than South Beach’s latest bikini volleyball tournament or drinking contest.
Retirement communities are made, not born.
Florida, Palm Springs in California, San Miguel Allende in Mexico, were developed by developers, entrepreneurs, and influentials who found a place that worked meteorologically but also existentially and easily for a critical number of retirees. If we build it in Israel, they will come. Once they come, some idealistic children and grandchildren might follow too.The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, just published by Thomas Dunne Books of St. Martin’s Press. His next book will update Arthur Hertzberg’s The Zionist Idea. He is professor of history at McGill University. Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.