Just a Thought: On aliya

The question I posed to them was basically what can Israel offer to induce you to come here?

NBN aliya flight_311 (photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
NBN aliya flight_311
(photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
This year, as Israel marks 65 years of existence, American Jewry has demonstrated a complete disinterest in aliya. This is not a new statement. Michael Freund wrote about this very topic in these pages, just over a month ago. His article, an indictment if ever there was one, singled out Orthodox Jewry for its failure to practice what it preaches. American Orthodox Jewry can be proud of its strength as demonstrated by its institutions, vice-presidential candidates, White House chiefs of staff, and Treasury secretaries (yes, I know, he is the same guy); yet when it comes to aliya, the Central Bureau of Statistics reports that last year just 2,290 Jews out of some five to six million made aliya from the United States. (That’s Jews, not just Orthodox Jews.)
For over a decade now, I have been teaching classes on Jewish history and Zionism to American college freshman, here in Israel during their gap year. The question I posed to them was basically what can Israel offer to induce you to come here?
The deal as it stands is more or less the following: Your college or graduate school tuition will cost next to nothing, and you will be provided with subsidized housing, Hebrew lessons, tax benefits and cash in your hand. You will even be flown here free of cost, with all the paperwork done for you by a professional staff. Why are you not coming?
Along with some very real and emotional answers that included ill, dependent family members, some other answers I heard from my students – all adults mind you – included that Israel is too beige in color, it is difficult to wear heels because of the cobblestones, there is no Target or Costco, and it is just too hard. (I have no doubt some of you smiled when you read these excuses, but I can assure you they were real answers offered to me in my classroom during real heart-to-heart discussions.)
In other words, some of my students are so uninterested in aliya, they would rather pay a quarter of a million dollars in tuition and fees not to be here! I tried to explain to them that the miracle of Israel would be the same if the State of Israel was some third-world country with raw sewage running through the streets. If we were living in huts wearing loincloths alone to shelter our bodies from the elements, one would still be able to point to Israel and see in it the fulfillment of 2,500-year-old biblical prophecies.
But no one is asking any of our American students to do that. We are asking them to come to one of the most sophisticated and wealthy countries in the world. Yes, we are asking them to exchange what would probably be a large house in the Diaspora for a medium-sized apartment in the homeland, two gas-guzzling cars for one “responsible” station wagon – and I agree that Bazaar Strauss is no substitute for Target (although the Ikea here is pretty cool!). The frustration only intensifies when one realizes that the audience I am talking to in my classes is already here in Israel for the year. It represent some of the most Jewish- and Israel-engaged of our youth. They are quite literally some of the best and brightest of American Jewry.
In my mind it reflects a blasé attitude among our students, who just don’t get it. They don’t get that we make aliya so that our children don’t have to. They don’t get that Israel is the single most important event in the life of the Jewish people since the destruction of the Temple some 1,943 years ago. When the early Zionists would sing of the Jewish state they longed to build, the words included the line: “A Jewish kingdom, gentlemen! Can you fathom it? A kingdom of kings alone!”
I wish this article could provide some insight into why this is the case. I wish I knew why American Jewry is simply not interested. The only thought that comes to mind is the first command given to our patriarch Abraham. God told Abraham: “Go forth yourself from your country, your birthplace and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1) God has to show it to you. If He does not, then short of any large-scale persecution, God forbid, there isn’t anything anyone can do to convince you to make aliya.
Perhaps this is why some of our greatest rabbis and Jewish thinkers have not come on aliya, while some of the most simple of Jews have made the move. It is not a question of an intellectual understanding of Jewish history or redemption. It is a question of to whom God has shown it.
Until then, it is my job as an educator to help God show his people that the future of the Jewish people lies in Israel alone. That “Israel is the drama, while American Jewry is but the audience” of Jewish history. ■ The writer is a doctoral candidate in Jewish philosophy and currently teaches in many post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot.