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Recently in Jerusalem, a dinner conversation with friends from the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies turned into an impassioned discussion about secular aliya.
While enjoying our vegetarian Shabbat dinner, Deborah, 21, modern Orthodox from Wisconsin, scoffed at the fact that her friend had just made aliya from Miami to Tel Aviv. This friend is completely secular and "despises" religion. "He's enthralled by secular modernity and the Western way of life," she said.
So why, she wondered, bother leaving the comforts of America, where opportunities are limitless and terrorism - for the most part - is an ocean away to come to Tel Aviv? And, anyway, why come to the Holy Land only to live in the "decadence" of Tel Aviv?
Deborah's impetuous argument stirred a heated debate, and warranted a particular response from me, a secular Jew, which I now relay:
FIRST, IT'S important to note that although I don't agree with Deborah, statistics do. In 2005, as the second intifada began to wane, Israel welcomed a record number of olim from North America. Nefesh B'Nefesh brought over 3,000 immigrants. Seventy percent of the arrivals identified themselves as Orthodox, 15% as Conservative, 10% said they were Reform, but a mere five percent were secular or unaffiliated.
These numbers are understandable. To the observant Jew of whatever stream, Israel is the most precious place on earth. Israelis are perceived as special people; the Western Wall isn't just a wall, and fast food is not just fast food - it's kosher. But what impetus do secular Jews have to make aliya?
Start with the fact that the founders and most influential thinkers of modern Zionism were all secular. Theodor Herzl, Max Nordau, and Ze'ev Jabotinsky were as cosmopolitan and secular as Deborah's secular friend.
If they were so acculturated, why the desire to create a Jewish state? Answer: anti-Semitism.
Alarmed by the Dreyfus Affair and the universality of anti-Semitism, the founding Zionists all agreed that the Jewish soul needed to be liberated and made safe. In Herzl's words: "It is true that we aspire to our ancient land. But what we want in that ancient land is a new blossoming of the Jewish spirit."
Herzl was cognizant that Jews were second-class citizens; and whether they were in imminent physical peril in the Pale of Settlement or constrained by more genteel discrimination in Western Europe, Jews needed a place where they could determine their own culture and live their lives in fulfillment.
And in Jabotinsky's words: "What we see around us among Jews is merely the outcome of arbitrary action perpetrated by others. Only after removing the dust accumulated through 2,000 years of exile, of galut, will the true, authentic Hebrew character reveal its glorious head."
In order to be redeemed, Jabotinsky argued, the Jew would first need to be liberated from the dangers of European Jew-hatred.
These Zionists' premonitions proved only too accurate. Half a century after Herzl's death almost all of European Jewry had vanished.
But today, for the most part, the Jew living in America or Europe is under no physical threat. Yarmulke-wearing Jews can live comfortably throughout the Western world while enjoying the perks of a first-world lifestyle.
TODAY, IT is the secular Jew living in America who is in cultural peril. And assimilation is the imminent threat to his or her Judaic existence.
In Israel, if a youth rebels against his or her traditional upbringing, wanting to pursue a more secular life-style, he or she can escape to Tel Aviv. There they might not keep Shabbat or kosher anymore. But they'll be present when the siren goes off on Holocaust Remembrance Day. They will speak Hebrew. They will still take off work for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur - even if it's to take a three-day cruise to Turkey.
And chances are they'll marry another Jew.
In Israel, being Jewish is organic; in America it is not.
In America, a cosmopolitan Jew who is completely secular and not culturally connected to a Jewish community has no connection to our people. So in New York City, Los Angeles or London, such a Jew would have little reason to have a Shabbat dinner or take off work for Rosh Hashana.
Falling in in love with a non-Jew is a very real possibility. And, over the generations, those Jews' lineage would likely come to an end. Thus, the secular Jew, no longer attached by faith, also risks detachment from tradition and peoplehood by living in America.
BEING JEWISH in America requires a special effort. Although most of the Jews making aliya from America today are affiliated with some branch of Judaism, it is secular Jews who need Israel the most. Only Israel can save them from long-term cultural decline. Only in Israel can they redefine what it means to be a Jew.
In response to Deborah and those who don't understand why a secular Jew would leave Miami for Tel Aviv, the answer is quite straightforward: to remain Jewish. In Israel, regardless of ethnicity, whether Orthodox or secular, right-wing or left-wing, gay or straight, each Jew constitutes - as described by Shimon Peres in his inaugural speech as president - one of the "fine threads of fabric that weave us together as a nation."
The writer was raised in Rio de Janeiro and recently graduated from Boston University. He is a media fellow at the Israel Project in Jerusalem this summer.
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