The Hanukka menorah at Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Identifying problematic long-range trends early is a condition for being able to ameliorate them before they lead to irreversible damage.
In recent years we have been making annual trips to the Diaspora, during which we visit communities and meet with rabbis, congregation leaders and members, and students nearing graduation. We discuss with them a range of subjects: coming to Israel for a year to experience Israel first-hand and to understand the issues and conflicts that exist here, integration with Israeli students their age, learning Hebrew and serving in the IDF.
We see the connection, the solidarity and the mutual support between the nation in Zion and the community abroad as a primary value and strategic priority.
The State of Israel needs the support of the Jewry of the Diaspora – and not just in donations. But no less than that, the Jews of the Diaspora need the connection with the State of Israel in order to strengthen the identities of their communities – religious as well as nonreligious. Since the State of Israel is the spiritual center of the Jewish nation, it comprises a central element of Jewish identity in the Diaspora as well as a safeguard against assimilation.
Over recent years we have been witnessing a disturbing trend of distancing. In communities where in the past, a major part of Jewish identity was expressed by learning Hebrew and identification with Israel, the situation is changing, and now Jews are increasingly turning inward and focusing on local challenges. For them, the State of Israel has become a tourist venue or a place to visit relatives. This doesn’t contradict the fact that if there is an emergency in Israel, they will immediately become active and raise donations.
Today, most of the Diaspora educational institutions no longer insist that the students learn Hebrew. The overwhelming majority of high school graduates who come to Israel for a year do so in separate frameworks for Diaspora students where they don’t study Hebrew, do not have day-to-day contact with Israeli students, and have no opportunity to be part of Israeli life or to understand the Israeli experience. (Some of these institutions for foreign students are profitable businesses in every sense of the word, which unjustifiably charge the parents a fortune in tuition – around $30,000 per year – that’s NIS 20,000 per month!) The result is that these students are insulated in an “extraterritorial” extension of the Diaspora in Israel, and return home after a year of being tourists in Israel and no more.
The graduates of these programs will lead their communities in the near and distant future. The generation of veteran rabbis and community leaders, for whom the connection with Israel was a cornerstone of the community’s identity and education, is gradually being replaced by a young generation of leadership which has no significant connection to Israel and does not sense that its roots are here, and consequently it focuses almost exclusively on its own community issues.
This trend is extremely dangerous. The communities of Israel and the Diaspora are drifting apart. From a long-range strategic viewpoint, in about another decade this is liable to create a very significant separation, possibly eroding mutual responsibility and support.
Among all the other messages of Hanukka and the valor of Judah the Maccabee, we recall one battle that not everyone has heard of, the one to rescue the far-off and detached community of Chispin on the Golan (east of Ramat Magshimim). This community was taken captive by the Edomites (as described in the Book of Maccabees). This battle involved a long trek from Judea to the Golan Heights, a journey which stemmed from the solidarity and mutual responsibility within The people of Israel, where everyone is most definitely his brother’s keeper.
Hanukka is the perfect time to reinforce the mutual responsibility between Israel and the Diaspora. Let us find the ways to strengthen it, before it is too late.
Rabbi and IDF reserve colonel Eliezer Shenvald is the head of the Meir Harel Hesder Yeshiva of Modi’in and Ofakim.