Why are so many North American Orthodox rabbis silent on aliyah?

In light of rising antisemitism in the US, the growing political divide, and mounting social unrest that seems to be sweeping the continent, this query only takes on added urgency.

AS A kid growing up in New York, I attended ballgames where more Jews were present than that. (photo credit: BRAD PENNER/USA TODAY SPORTS VIA REUTERS)
AS A kid growing up in New York, I attended ballgames where more Jews were present than that.
Over the years, as I take part in the annual festive celebration of Yom Ha’atzma’ut and the Divine restoration of Jewish sovereignty that Independence Day embodies, I have found myself increasingly troubled by a question that may be simple yet is anything but simplistic.
To put it bluntly: why are so many North American Orthodox rabbis silent on the issue of immigrating to Israel?
In light of rising antisemitism in the US, the growing political divide, and mounting social unrest that seems to be sweeping the continent, this query only takes on added urgency.
Indeed, for anyone with even an inkling of Jewish historical consciousness, the failure of much of the Orthodox rabbinical leadership to inspire, cajole, nudge, preach, plead and teach their followers to make aliyah is both staggering and inexplicable.
After all, over the past 1,900 years of exile, Orthodox Judaism nourished the vision of returning to Zion, placing it at center stage in Jewish ritual, thought and belief. Despite the slaughter of the Crusades, the dungeons of the Inquisition, the pogroms, expulsions, forced conversions and massacres that our people endured, Jews were always sustained by the dream of restoration.
And now, after the modern State of Israel was established 73 years ago, transforming that aspiration into reality has never been more achievable.
So why aren’t Orthodox rabbis in America and elsewhere vocally leading the charge to return to our ancestral homeland?
To understand just how pitiful the extent of Orthodox immigration from North America has been, it’s worth taking a quick look at the sorry statistics.
Each year, an average of 3,000 to 4,000 North American Jews immigrate to the Jewish state, of whom an estimated 80% are said to be Orthodox. That translates into just 2,400 Orthodox Jews from the US, Canada and Mexico who annually make the long journey home to Zion.
As a kid growing up in New York, I attended ball games at Shea Stadium and Madison Square Garden where more Jews were present than that.
All told, there are more than half-a-million Orthodox Jews in the US alone, which means that less than one half of 1% of them are migrating to Israel each year.
If it came to any other mitzvah, whether ordained by the Torah or the sages, and just one half of 1% of Orthodox Jews were bothering to fulfill it, wouldn’t there be an outcry from the pulpit?
Wouldn’t the spiritual leadership of North American Orthodoxy jump into action, organize conferences, write articles, deliver sermons and try to get people to act?
And yet, when it comes to immigration, not much hand-wringing seems to take place.
This “oversight,” if it can be called that, is particularly difficult to comprehend in light of the importance that Jewish sources down through the centuries have attached to making aliyah.
For example, the Sifrei on Deuteronomy 12 states unequivocally that “dwelling in the Land of Israel is the equivalent of all the mitzvot in the Torah.” That isn’t a quote from an aliyah brochure. It is from a midrashic work of Halacha (Jewish law) dating back to Talmudic times.
Nachmanides, the great medieval scholar, in his comments on Maimonides’s Sefer HaMitzvot, wrote categorically that the mitzvah to dwell in Israel “is a positive commandment for all generations, obligatory upon every individual, even in a time of exile.”
THE PITCHEI TESHUVA, in his 19th-century commentary on the Shulhan Aruch (Even HaEzer 75:6), notes that all earlier and later authorities agree with Nachmanides’s position that there is a positive Torah commandment to live in Israel.
Moreover, the overwhelming majority of modern-day decisors of Jewish law, such as the Chazon Ish, the Avnei Nezer, Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, and countless others all conclude that aliyah is a mitzvah incumbent upon every Jew.
This includes the late Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg, a leading Orthodox rabbinical authority known as the Tzitz Eliezer, who in a remarkable responsum goes so far as to say that the establishment of the State of Israel “brought about an increased obligation even with respect to individual Jews living in the Diaspora to fulfill the mitzvah of aliyah and settlement.”
Of course, there are other opinions as well, but even those who say there is no obligation to make aliyah nonetheless concur that doing so is a tremendous mitzvah rife with spiritual benefit.
In light of the above, it is time for Orthodox rabbis abroad, and particularly those in North America, to revive the idea of aliyah, underline its importance and encourage observant Jews to start booking flights.
Sure, immigrating is not simple or easy or convenient, and I do not think it is my right or anyone else’s to pass judgment on the decisions that individuals make on this issue.
But it is most certainly the responsibility of Orthodoxy’s spiritual shepherds to guide their flock and lead them in the right direction.
Just think what an influx of tens of thousands of North American Jews would mean for this country. Their arrival and contribution would be felt in nearly every field imaginable.
Perhaps one way to stimulate greater immigration from North America would be for more rabbis to set a personal example and make the move. In this regard, it is worth recalling one of the least-known, yet highly significant mass immigrations to have taken place in the past millennium: the aliyah of the 300 rabbis, known as Tosafists, from France and Germany in 1211.
In the Shevet Yehudah, written by the Spanish Jewish historian Solomon Ibn Verga in the 15th century, it states, “God inspired the rabbis of France and England to go to Jerusalem. They numbered more than 300 and were accorded great honor by the king.” He further writes that they built “synagogues and houses of study,” and that when a drought struck the Land of Israel, “they prayed for rain and were answered and the name of heaven was sanctified because of them.”
I dare say that Israel is currently experiencing another drought, albeit of a different kind. It is a drought of Orthodox aliyah from North America and elsewhere, which amounts to just a few drops each year rather than the torrent it could potentially be.
So maybe, just maybe, if 300 North American rabbis would follow in the footsteps of the Tosafists, it would not only sanctify the name of heaven but also move more of their congregants in New York, Toronto or Los Angeles to do the same.
Here’s hoping that the call of Zion will not go unheeded.
Chag Ha’atzma’ut sameach! Happy Independence Day!
The writer is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to the Jewish people.