Orthodox Jews and the aliya crisis
It is time for American, Canadian, Australian, British and other Orthodox Jews to set an example for their brethren, leave behind the exile and finally come home.
New olim arriving in Israel with Nefesh b'Nefesh, July 2012 Photo: Courtesy of Nefesh b'Nefesh
Last week, the Central Bureau of Statistics published a report that should have
provoked an outpouring of public sentiment but was instead greeted with little
more than a collective yawn.
According to the CBS, in 2012, just 16,557
people from around the world made aliya, which is slightly more than one-tenth
of one percent of world Jewry.
At that rate, it would take nearly 1,000
years for the entire Jewish people to return to the Land of Israel. This lack of
enthusiasm hardly bodes well for our nation’s ageold hope “to be a free people
in our own land,” as the national anthem puts it.
Consider the following:
last year’s figure was the lowest recorded since 2009 and the third-lowest in
the past two decades.
Indeed, in 2002, 33,567 Jews moved to the Jewish
state, which means that the immigration rate has dropped more than 50% in the
past 10 years.
No less disturbing is the fact that aliya from the West,
where the bulk of Diaspora Jewry resides, managed to contribute barely one-third
of the 2012 total.
Out of the five to six million American Jews, a paltry
2,290 members of the tribe made the journey home to Zion last year according to
I’ve been to New York Knicks basketball games at Madison Square
Garden with more Jews in attendance than that.
While aliya from France in
2012 was a respectable 1,653 strong and 569 Jews from the UK moved here, these
numbers are still tiny when compared with the size of their respective
Clearly, the appeal of aliya in recent years has begun to
Despite the 2008 economic crisis and uncertainty over the
future of the EU and America, the Jews of the United States and much of the West
are quite comfortably ensconced where they are and don’t appear to be moving to
Israel any time soon.
It is difficult to overstate the gravity of this
situation. The steady and continuing decline in Jewish immigration to Israel is
no less an issue of national security than borders, terrorism or missile
Aliya is the lifeblood of Zionism, a source of ongoing strength
to the state as it develops and prospers. It is also the surest guarantee of a
vibrant Jewish future – one free of assimilation, intermarriage and cultural
decay. And that is why it is so crucial that a concerted effort be made to
revitalize aliya from the Diaspora and especially from America and the
Just imagine the impact that an influx of a few hundred thousand
American Jews would have on Israeli society. With their energy and activism,
skills and talents, they could reshape this country and its civic life and have
an enormous impact on various fields ranging from politics to business to the
But thus far, this remains in the realm of fantasy because they
simply are not coming here in droves.
It would be easy to try and pin the
blame for this sorry state of affairs on groups such as Nefesh B’Nefesh, the
Jewish Agency or even the Israeli government.
But such censure would
largely be misplaced.
Those who bear direct responsibility for the lack
of Western aliya are first and foremost Western Jews themselves, and especially
their leadership and organizations, which make little to no effort to encourage
emigration to the Jewish state.
Just surf the web and visit the homepages
of various prominent American Jewish organizations and see if you can find
something – anything! – about aliya.
Sure, there is plenty of material
about pro- Israel advocacy and combating anti-Israel media bias. And if you are
looking for ways to fight bigotry, help the poor in Rwanda or lower greenhouse
gas emissions, you won’t be disappointed.
But seeking information about
leaving the exile behind and fulfilling the dream of generations by returning to
the land of our ancestors? Fat chance! Even my fellow Orthodox Jews in America,
who are committed to living according to Halacha, are just as guilty in this
Take, for example, the Orthodox Union.
Surely, a venerable
organization such as this, I told myself, one that is committed to Torah values
and Judaism, would highlight the mitzva of settling the Land of Israel and give
it pride of place on its website.
But when I went to its homepage, I
could find no mention of aliya. Instead, I was greeted by a “Kashrus Alert:
Tootsie Roll Large Pops” (in case you are wondering, some bags were printed
without indicating that the product is dairy).
Now don’t get me wrong. I
love a good Tootsie Pop just as much as the next guy and I am certainly all in
favor of the meticulous observance of Jewish law, by which I have chosen to live
But this says a lot about American Orthodoxy, which in recent
years has taken on greater levels of observance even while failing to appreciate
the centrality of aliya in Jewish thought.
The Sifrei on Deuteronomy, for
example, states unequivocally that “dwelling in the Land of Israel is the
equivalent of all the mitzvot in the Torah.” And the Talmud in tractate Ketubot
declares that “he who lives in the Land of Israel is akin to one who has a God,
while he who lives outside the Land is similar to one who has no
Centuries later, Nahmanides, the great medieval commentator, ruled
unambiguously that the commandment to live in Israel is incumbent upon every Jew
and applies even if the land is under foreign control.
Teshuva, in his 19th century commentary on the Shulhan Aruch, notes that all the
earlier and later authorities agree with Nahmanides that there is a positive
Torah commandment to live in Israel.
Israel is described in the Bible
(Deuteronomy 11:12) as the land “which the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of
the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year even unto
the end of the year.”
And, as the Or Hahaim noted in the 18th century,
“There is no joy other than in residing in the Land of Israel.”
sorts of issues, religious Jews seek halachic guidance from their local rabbi in
order to ensure that their behavior conforms to Jewish law. A dairy fork was
used to eat meat? Call the rabbi! A certain kind of medicine needs to be taken
on Shabbat? Ask the scholar! But how many Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, New York,
or Golders Green, London, or Marais in Paris have bothered to ask their rabbi a
similar question about whether they are obligated to make aliya? My intention is
not to cast aspersions on anyone or their personal decisions. But if people are
concerned enough about Halacha to ask questions about what they put in their
mouths, shouldn’t they also ask for guidance about where they choose to live
their lives? AT A time such as this, precisely when aliya is dwindling, it is
incumbent upon each and every Orthodox Jew in America and elsewhere to look in
the mirror and ask himself with unadorned honesty: Where do I really belong? A
surge of Orthodox aliya from the West could potentially light a spark, setting
an example for other Jews to follow.
It would make headlines, bolster
Israeli society and remind Jews everywhere – including a number of our fellow
Israelis – that our destiny as a people is in this Land and this Land
As people of faith, Orthodox Jews have a special responsibility to
put aliya back on the international Jewish agenda.
For two millennia,
observant Jews have turned to face Jerusalem three times a day every day,
pleading with the Creator to “gather us in from the four corners of the
Now that we have a sovereign Jewish state, moving to Israel is
easier than ever before.
So no more excuses! The call of Jewish destiny
and the cry of previous generations must no longer be ignored. It is time for
American, Canadian, Australian, British and other Orthodox Jews to set an
example for their brethren, leave behind the exile and finally come home.
writer is chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes
and hidden Jewish communities to return to Israel and the Jewish people.