A new immigrant at Ben-Gurion airport kisses the tarmac as he makes aliya.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The recent report on the numbers of Jews around the world released by the Jewish People Policy Institute – more than 6 million in Israel, more than 5.5 million in the United States, and a few million more scattered around the world, with 475,000 in France being the next-largest population – led me to ponder the issue of Jews in the Diaspora and aliya. Indeed, I have been thinking about this for the past month, since proudly marching down New York’s Fifth Avenue (twice!) as part of the Celebrate Israel Parade.
This week’s Torah portion relates that the gentile prophet, Balaam, sought to curse the Jewish people. However, whenever he opened his mouth to curse them, a blessing emerged. One of those blessings is: “How goodly are your tents O’ Jacob, your dwelling places O’ Israel.” (Numbers 24:5) The Malbim, a 19th-century Russian biblical commentator, explains that the “tents” refer to the time when the Jews were in the desert, and, by extension, in the Diaspora when the Jewish people are on the move. “Dwelling places” refers to our settling in the Land of Israel where we are firmly rooted, and not in the middle of a journey to someplace else.
He then elucidates that the name “Jacob” refers to a lower spiritual place, while the name “Israel” captures the greatest of spiritual heights. “This teaches that when they enter the Land they will be on a higher level, and will be called by the name Israel,” he wrote.
There is no denying the spiritual connection which people feel in the Land of Israel. Different people connect spiritually in different locations, but it is palpably there. I was inspired to hear Yankee legend Mariano Rivera describe that feeling as we walked through the Old City of Jerusalem, and by the 19 NFL Hall of Famers who recently visited Israel who described experiencing the same sensation at Masada, at the Western Wall, or just shopping in the market place.
This heightened spirituality was also on display at my son’s high school graduation a week ago. I have attended many high school graduations in North America where there is much pomp and circumstance, and an abundance of formality. However, without being critical in any way, I have never sensed any deep, spiritual connection between the staff and the students, nor among the students themselves. The depth of emotion – an outpouring of tears – from my son’s teachers, and the crying I saw and heard as he and his friends said goodbye to each other, reflect - ed a depth of connection and relationships that naturally occurs in a land of heightened spirituality.
Given this context, that number of 5-plus million Jews living in the United States is staggering to me. Don’t get me wrong: Most American Jews love Israel. Most support Israel. Most would proudly march down Fifth Avenue, openly proclaiming this affection for the world to see. But most do not consider moving to Israel, this place that they love and this place which they acknowledge has that special spiritual dimension.
I want to be clear. I am not from the camp which says that everyone must drop everything immediately and move to Israel. There are both professional and family considerations which cannot be taken lightly, and I am not suggesting that it is easy to do and won’t be full of numerous unforeseen challenges and difficulties.
Nevertheless, even if those concerns are preventing parents from moving to Israel with their families, why not raise the children to move to Israel? Don’t raise them with the goal of attending an Ivy League university. Instead, educate them with the tools and inspiration to make aliya, to attend university and receive professional training in Israel. It is here where they will feel more connected spiritually and Jewishly.
The belief system of religious families dictates that moving to Israel is either a religious obligation, or, at the very least, the fulfillment of a mitzva. For those who are more secular, I quote the response of a young, secular immigrant whom I asked why he had moved to Israel: “To insure that my grandchildren will be Jewish.” The current discussion regarding what criteria the JPPI used to calculate the global number of Jews – including how to determine the identity of children of Jews in North America, the majority of whom have intermarried – highlights this last point.
A great deal of commotion is also being made over the number of Jews in the world having either reached or coming close to reaching the 16 million that we numbered prior to the Holocaust. To me, the more meaningful number is the 6 million who live in Israel. Six million slaughtered by the Nazis, 6 million living in a Jewish state in a spiritual land.
While we extend gratitude to our fellow Jews around the world who worry, pray and lobby for and support Israel against a wide array of external and internal challenges, I pray that they recognize that the best thing they can do for Israel and for their own family’s spiritual and Jewish future is to either move to Israel, or at the very least, raise their children to do so.
Our collective future depends on it.The author served in the 19th Knesset with the Yesh Atid party.