Whenever I speak to a group outside of Israel, I always begin with the same preamble: “I am assuming that this will be the first – and only time – that I will be addressing you. So I may as well just say exactly what’s on my mind!” The reason for this rather peculiar introduction is that, regardless of the particular religious or political topic I may be exploring that day, I will always devote at least some of my remarks to the seminal, scary, even scandalous subject of aliya. And that is certain to make Western Jewish audiences restless, if not outright resentful.
I do this for two main reasons: First, because I believe it is not only a spiritual but a national Jewish imperative to stress the centrality of living in Israel. A door has been opened in our lifetimes – a miracle for which we endlessly prayed throughout the millennia – and too few Jews from the West, in particular, America, are walking through that door. The reasons and rationale for their decision to stay put in the Diaspora – or, as it is traditionally known, the Exile – are neither new nor novel; we have heard them countless times since the State was recreated: family, friends, language, livelihood, culture clash, short on cash, or just plain inertia. Without dissecting any or all of them, and granting that moving to Israel is not without its manifold challenges, I wonder: Just what exactly was that prayer uttered thrice daily? That returning to our ancient homeland be completely seamless and hassle- free? That we fall asleep on the pillow of our 777 and wake up in an all-expenses-paid mansion, to serenely sip forevermore our hafuch espressos ‘neath the shade of our Sabra tree?! WHAT GREAT things in life, I ask you – from financial success to marriage to raising children – are accomplished with sublime ease and no risk whatsoever? While Jews across the board are making aliya in very small numbers, particularly perplexing is the reluctance of the observant community to answer God’s call to come home. Rabbinic literature is replete with superlatives about the uniqueness of the Land of Israel, as well as clear directives as to the mitzva of living here.
To quote just a few: “Living in Israel is equal to all the other commandments of the Torah”; “He who lives outside the Land of Israel is as if he has no God”; “It is better to live in Israel, even in a place inhabited by idolaters, than to dwell outside the land, even in a place filled with Jews.”
Great rabbis throughout the generations – from the Ramban (Nahmanides) to Rabbi Ya’acov Emden to Maharam Schick to the Hatam Sofer to the Hazon Ish to Rav Kook and hundreds more – have ruled that it is incumbent upon every Jew who is able to live in Israel, and that the only exemptions to this rule are the failure to make a living, to find a wife or to learn Torah here. Well, last time I checked, the Israeli economy was in splendid shape, with extremely low unemployment; it’s a fact (just ask my wife!) that no country on earth has more beautiful women than Israel, and more Torah is being studied now in the Holy Land than at any other time in our history.
And as for the danger factor? Fact is, the world as a whole is a pretty unsafe place. We have our security concerns, to be sure, but so do France, England, even Australia. And America? Anyone remember the Twin Towers?! What I find most frustrating – galling might be a better word – is the push being made against living in Israel. This bizarre philosophy is being promulgated in numerous religious circles, which magnify every fault and foible of Israel, as if there was ever a time in history when national life here was perfect and problem- free (there wasn’t). And so, perhaps as compensation for rejecting God’s gift of Israel, Diaspora’s Orthodox Jewry moves farther and farther to the right, with an emphasis on taking the strictest possible approach to every nuance of Jewish practice. But they would do well to ask themselves if merely treading exilic water is the end-all and be-all of Jewish existence.
I WOULD add to the mix the latest fascination with “reviving” Jewish life in the moribund mausoleums of Eastern Europe. An obscene amount of Jewish money and spiritual energy is being poured into these once-thriving places of Jewish sojourn, in a nostalgic, yet misplaced desire to recreate their former glory.
But do we really want to expend our efforts on places like Estonia, a country so virulently anti-Semitic that, at the infamous Wannsee Conference, the Nazis noted that there was no need to send the SS in to murder the Jewish population; the locals had already taken care of that little chore.
What is missing here is the Big Picture, the wide-screen perspective of Jewish history. So let me sum it up: From the beginning of our existence as Jews, we were told that our natural habitat is Israel, that Israel is an indispensable component of ideal Jewish life. God’s very first words to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses – look it up! – emphasize the eternal, unbreakable connection between the Jew and the land. We conquered Israel and resided here for 900 years; we were exiled, returned to Jerusalem and exiled once again. We have lived – and often flourished – in the Diaspora, but it was never meant to be a permanent condition.
We were always meant to return here, and so, as God faithfully promised, we have begun our miraculous renewal. As the Jewish Diaspora crumbles, we have become the largest Jewish community in the world. Indeed, Israel and – in a bitter irony – Germany are the only national Jewish communities today that are growing rather than shrinking – and soon we in Israel will comprise the majority of all Jews worldwide. The failure to see where the arrow of history is pointing may only be a case of mass myopia; but the refusal to be a part of that history is spiritual, if not physical, suicide.
Where, today, I ask you, are the Jews who stayed behind in Egypt rather than join in the Exodus? THE SECOND reason I broach this subject at every opportunity is because, simply put, virtually no one is talking about it! It’s no wonder that the rank and file of Western Jewry do not have Israel on their radar – unless forced to do so by circumstances imposed upon them; the “leaders” of western Jewry avoid the “A-word” like the plague. Do rabbis preach from their pulpits the mitzva of living in Israel, even as they lecture about Shabbat and kashrut observance, or the necessity to regularly check their mezuzot? Do Jewish schools educate their pupils about it? As much as I respect and am grateful to the sainted rabbis of my youth, none of them filled me with a burning desire to make aliya. That was provided by my membership in the Bnei Akiva Zionist youth movement which, to my chagrin, has also lost much of its zeal for pushing aliya.
I have tried over the years – admittedly, with little success – to talk about aliya. I write about it; I nudge my friends and family overseas about it. I even pleaded with Yeshiva University to put aliya on its agenda. As YU oversees programs that bring thousands of American Jewish students to Israel for a year or two, where many of them get “turned on” about living here, they are a natural resource for nourishing that spark and fanning it into a flame. I even outlined a “Zionist track” for these young people to be given both while in Israel and after returning to college in the States, accompanied by guidance toward pursuing professions that would be most useful and in demand in Israel. YU’s response to my proposal? Complete and utter silence.
“Zionism,” it seems, has been redefined in the last generation. Whereas once it meant working toward establishing a Jewish state that would accommodate the entire House of Israel, today it has been watered down to mean supporting Israel, either financially or politically, maybe visiting a couple times a year, but not actually living here. There is nothing wrong with being a Zionist, in any form, but it doesn’t compare to the higher title: Israeli.
At heart, what really bothers me is a severe case of separation anxiety. We Jews are a family.
We unfortunately drifted apart over the years, as families tend to do, but we were never meant to be divided forever. The “master plan” called for us to reunite on our own fertile soil and claim our destiny. Israel is the catalyst sent from Heaven to make that happen.
As I prepared to move to Israel, I went to one of my rabbis for a blessing. He placed his hands on top of my head, in the traditional gesture, and said to me: “When someone has passed away, we use the expression, ‘The neshama should have an aliya,’ the soul should be elevated. But to you I say, ‘The aliya should have a neshama’ – your ascent to Israel should be good for your soul.” And that, when all is said and done, is the ultimate blessing of Zion and Jerusalem. ■
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; [email protected]