An Orthodox perspective on the situation of U.S. Jews

On the 40th anniversary of OU Israel, its leader Avi Berman says that the future of the American Jewish people is in Israel.

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August 31, 2019 02:06
THE OU ISRAEL’S Makom Balev youth centers offer leisure-time activities and leadership programs for

THE OU ISRAEL’S Makom Balev youth centers offer leisure-time activities and leadership programs for kids 10 to 18 who are students in the National Religious school system in Israel’s periphery or are from depressed socio-economic areas. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Avi Berman expects to see an increase in aliyah.

The executive director of OU Israel has been helping North American Jews have a softer landing in Israel since 2006.

OU Israel is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. during the past year, Berman said, 110,000 people came to the organization’s building on Keren Hayesod Street in Jerusalem.

Of course, he wants to say that the center is bursting at its seams because of the religious and spiritual draw of the State of Israel and the dynamic programming that the OU offers its constituents – and all of that may be true. But he said that on his monthly fund-raising visits back to the United States and in private calls with friends, “my gut [feeling] is that I don’t think everyone thinks there’s another 100 or 200 years in North America” for the Jewish people.

“If I go back 18 years ago, when my wife and I went to Vancouver to run NCSY, the OU’s youth group, if I was to ask Jews how many more years do you think Jews could thrive in North America, the average answer would be 100 to 200 years,” he said. “I don’t think anyone answers like that anymore.”

That is because antisemitism and hate crimes against Jews are on the rise in North America, especially in states with the highest Jewish populations, such as New York.

Earlier this week, a 64-year-old man was violently attacked while walking in a Crown Heights park. The perpetrator threw a large brick at the religiously dressed Jew, knocking out his teeth. His son tweeted, “This is absolutely frightening and obviously something that a civilization should never tolerate. May Hashem protect us.”

New York City Council member Chaim Deutsch asked: “Has it become too dangerous for openly religious Jewish men to walk the streets of New York City?”

In May, the New York Police Department reported an 82% increase in antisemitic hate crimes in the city during the first three months of 2019.

Berman said he sees older religious Jews, who used to purchase winter homes in Florida, choosing Israel instead. Beginning in 2016, a new alliance between United Airlines, Lufthansa, Austrian Airlines, SWISS, Brussels Airlines and Air Canada increased the options for travelers visiting Israel from North America – with greater connecting options in Europe for those traveling from cities that do not have direct flights to Tel Aviv. El Al has opened several new direct routes as well.

“I am seeing more people retire here, more people coming and bringing their families; more people encouraging their kids to come and learn [Torah] here, to come to university here and to build their lives here,” Berman said. “I am not saying North American Jewry is closing down tomorrow, but I think people in the states who want to look to the future: They are saying the future of the Jewish people is in Israel.”

WHILE IT is true that there has been a spike in antisemitism, Orthodox and conservative-leaning Jews – attributes that often go together – are benefiting from the current US administration’s support of the State of Israel – and especially the support of Donald Trump.

Gallup polls have for decades shown that religion plays a large role in Americans’ support for Israel and Israelis. A 2014 analysis that used an aggregate of 2001-2014 Gallup data showed that 66% of those who attended religious services weekly or almost weekly said their sympathies were with Israel rather than the Palestinians. And in 2019, based on data from 2015-2019, 71% of those who frequently attend religious services are sympathetic to Israel, compared with 49% of those who never attend.

In part because they are more religious, Republicans remain more positive than Democrats about Israel.

Berman maintains that there are “few Jews in the world who don’t appreciate that [Trump] moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem. The OU was ecstatic about it.”

He said that Trump’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, among other moves, has been met with the embrace of the American Jewish and Israeli communities. But Berman admitted that “some of his tweets put the Jewish community in an uncomfortable situation.”

The OU leader said that he personally received many phone calls after the recent decision by Israel to ban congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, both supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, from entering the country. Many attributed the decision to a request made by Trump to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The feedback was that the situation should have been dealt with in a different way,” Berman said: “That if there was a stronger relationship between the current Israeli administration and the more left-wing liberal Democrats, then it could have been solved in a different way.

“If people on the ground are perceiving that the Israeli administration is not tight with liberal Democrats, that is a problem,” he continued. “Israel should be a bipartisan issue.”

At the same time, Berman is not willing to condemn the president, saying that it is logical that the Orthodox Jewish community would support him.

“I think the fact that Trump chose Orthodox people to be part of his closest team, this is no different than anything else. If a soccer team picks a player from whatever community, you have that community cheering for it,” he explained. “So, when Trump chose David Friedman, Jason Greenblatt and Jared Kushner – and Ivanka [Trump], of course – when he chose them to be in these top positions, he chose people from our community, which made it easier for the Orthodox Jewish community to associate and cheer for them.

“We try to thank and appreciate the good that any world leader does for Israel,” he continued, “especially the American president.”

RECENTLY, BERMAN participated in a closed meeting with Netanyahu. He said the prime minister told attendees that Israel does not rely on North American Jewry for its strong relationship with America, and that he believes the relationship will continue based on the amount of interests – security and otherwise – that the two countries share.

Berman said he could not accept that scenario. In his perspective, “Jews in America are definitely a strong and vital part” of the US-Israel relationship.

In that aspect, he said he also wants to “call out to the Israeli government” to better understand the needs of the English-speaking olim (immigrant) community, which experiences complex challenges when it moves to the country.

“The Anglo community here is a vibrant, idealistic, volunteering and giving community, and they want to be integrated into Israeli society,"he said. "While the OU will continue to be here and provide services for those who speak English, we need the entire country to move toward better integrating them.”

This could become even more relevant, he added, as aliyah increases from areas struck by antisemitism and hate crimes.

“This is the only country in the world that you were not born in that will take all of you just because you are Jewish,” he said. “The Jewish people should take seriously that we are the state for the Jewish people.”


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