Coffee break emissary

Traveling to small-town America can reinforce our sense of why we've chosen Israel as home.

man on porch 88 (photo credit: )
man on porch 88
(photo credit: )
Overland Park, Kansas, from where I recently returned after a 10-day business trip, is a city you won't find in the center of the Jewish radar screen. Unlike places with robust Jewish communities, there's one Modern Orthodox shul and several Chabadaffiliated facilities competing with about six Conservative and Reform synagogues in the struggle to remind the Overland Park's Jews of their heritage. There's also a single "Jewish store" that provides the necessary fare for the few who are concerned about keeping kosher. To be fair, there is also a Jewish Community Center and a vibrant Federation. But in Overland Park, and dozens of other American suburban communities like it, being Jewish doesn't come easy. And that cogently highlights what living in a Jewish state is all about. After spending some time there, I'm convinced that Israeli Jews - Orthodox as well as non-observant and secular - should make a special effort to travel once every few years to a city that's off the beaten Jewish track. Call it "birthright in reverse." Orthodox Jewish Israelis would quickly learn not to take for granted such conveniences as readily available lunch-hour mincha services, or having a kosher pizza shop around the corner. And it wouldn't be long, I bet, before even those who are not observant would come to recognize that the absence of Shabbat commerce or transportation is a small price to pay for feeling Jewish. BUT THIS would not be a one-way experience. When Israelis go abroad they are often regarded, with an almost embarrassing degree of reverence, as unofficial ambassadors. Although security, politics and the upcoming elections are highest on the agenda, Diaspora Jews you encounter almost always also want to discuss aliya. Your non-accented English tells people you're an immigrant to Israel rather than a sabra. And few can resist expressing admiration for having actually packed your bags and making your life in Israel. Like the young woman who stopped me as I was returning to our conference room after a 15-minute coffee break. "It's nice to see another one of us here once in a while," she said to me. I was taken aback for a second, but then realized she had noted my kippa, and was referring to the fact I was obviously Jewish. "Not too many Jews in Overland Park, I suppose," I replied with a smile. "Oh there are plenty of us here," she said, fiddling with the Star of David around her neck, "but we're sort of spread around. And not too many walk about with yarmulkes on, even the ones that belong to the Orthodox synagogue. You're from Chicago, I guess?" "A bit farther east, actually." I answered. "I'm originally from New York, but I've lived in Israel for some 20 years." Her eyes opened wide. "Really? You actually made aliya? You know, moving to Israel has been a dream I've had now for some time." She went on to tell me that she has cousins living somewhere in the Haifa area, and how the "best time of her life" was the six months she spent on a kibbutz in the Golan nine years ago. "So why aren't you there instead of here?" I inquired politely. "Surely your cousins would be tickled pink to have you with them." She shrugged. "Oh, you know. This reason, and that. The time's not right. Later on maybe, but right now, too many things are going on. It just wouldn't work out." JUST THEN two fellows who were part of the group I had come with walked by. The three of us exchanged a few words regarding the next stage of the workshop, which was to start in another few minutes. The young woman, I noticed, positively glowed with pride upon hearing Hebrew spoken nonchalantly. You kind of forget that for many Jews in the Diaspora, physical and visible evidence of coming from Israel is a novelty, and that even something as mundane as discussing business takes on an aspect of holiness when it's done in Hebrew. "Look," I said, "it's been nice talking to you, but there's a roomful of sourfaced clients that we have to somehow make happy. Keep in mind, though: Every one of us who made aliya could have found this reason or that not to. And not a single one of us boarded the plane knowing that our aliya would work out. We all hoped and expected it would, but none of us were 100-percent confident about it. It's a scary decision, I know. "So please understand - we were all as uncertain and unsure as you are. Good luck, and I hope to bump into you somewhere in Israel not too long from now." She nodded and smiled and, as I started to walk away, said haltingly but proudly, "L'shana haba b'Yerushalim." She was still playing with her Magan David which, so help me, seemed to shine a bit brighter than it had five minutes earlier.