Just a thought: On Israel

Orthodox Jews in the exile have yet to make Israel a central part of their thinking, belief or practice.

A group of new olim pose after arriving in Israel (photo credit: SHAHAR AZRAN)
A group of new olim pose after arriving in Israel
(photo credit: SHAHAR AZRAN)
Today, February 9, 2018, is the greatest day in Jewish history and if you are living in Israel, you have front-row center seats.
Never before in Jewish history have we been more powerful militarily, economically and spiritually. We are a force to be reckoned with – a play on Balaam’s prophecy 33 centuries ago: “They are a people that dwell apart, they are not reckoned among the nations.”
More Jews keep Shabbat, keep kosher and donned tefillin this morning than perhaps ever before in the annals of our people. More Shabbat candles may be lit tonight than on any other Shabbat since God first made a covenant with us so many millennia ago. Whereas the largest yeshivot in Babylon or Eastern Europe never numbered more than a handful, boasting a modest student enrollment, today’s yeshivot are innumerable, some of them having thousands of talmidim. Probably more Jews are conversant in the give-and-take of Rava and Abaye today than all of the Jews who sat in all of the academies of Babylon for over 500 years.
Jewish books and libraries are ubiquitous. They are found in every Jewish community, and chairs for Jewish studies are endowed in almost all of the major universities around the world. Jewish money and philanthropy abounds. We serve as titans of industry and capital. We lead in science and the arts.
Yet when it comes to Israel, engagement and connection are nowhere near where they should be.
The center stage for all of this success is in Israel. Jews in the exile, while still more numerous than our numbers in Israel, at best serve as part of an interactive audience, not its actors.
Our economy is soaring and the shekel is one of the strongest currencies in the world. Our universities have produced some of the finest scholars and scientists in the world and our start-ups are developing some of the most important cutting- edge technologies.
We have one of the highest life expectancies in the world and one of the best healthcare systems in the world. Our standard of living is ranked higher than most Western European countries, including Belgium, Finland, France and Italy.
We Jews posses a military that is feared by its enemies and admired by its friends.
Even former enemies, recognizing Israeli superiority, turn to Israel’s army to help them solve their own domestic threats.
YET THE majority of Jews around the world are simply uninterested in what is going on here. This fact amazes me more than Israel’s success. If Israel were half as successful as it is now, it would and should serve as a beacon to all Jews to take a role in the miracle that is Israel. Forget the romance of an ancient people returning to their ancestral homeland to “build and be built by her.” I am talking dollars and cents. I am talking about real wealth. I am talking about actual facts and figures that prove that Israel offers a high-quality material life. Married to the vision of thousands of years of hope and millions of prayers, moving to Israel should be a logical, dare I say, selfish move. Yet, very few people see it that way.
Orthodox Jews around the world pride themselves in a higher engagement in their Judaism and the Jewish community over their more liberal brothers and sisters, and yet, while many of the Jews who make aliya are Orthodox, the numbers of Jews coming are paltry.
Orthodox Jews in the exile have yet to make Israel a central part of their thinking, belief or practice. Trips to Israel are taken just like trips anywhere. Israel serves as a kind of Jewish Disneyland where the food is kosher; the teacup ride is exchanged for a camel and Magic Mountain for Masada. As with Disneyland, everyone loves going, but no one actually contemplates living there. It remains part of the world of fantasy. There is more excitement about visiting the newest trendy restaurant in Jerusalem than there is about visiting the Kotel (and God forbid that the trendy restaurant doesn’t have a mehadrin hashgaha.)
What’s missing is a serious engagement about what Israel means. How does the return to Jewish sovereignty change Halacha? How does the reconstitution of a Jewish state fit into our eschatology?
In the exile, aliya is not a subject to be discussed. I went through more than 12 years of yeshiva education in a “modern” school and I wasn’t once told to make aliya. Not one rabbi in the school or at the synagogue ever uttered those words. I had not one course on Israeli history or Zionism. I never even heard of Yom Ha’atzma’ut (Independence Day) until I was 15 years old.
The aliya “deal” Israel offers is extremely generous by any account. Free flight, free college degree, free healthcare and housing subsidies (for a limited time, until you get yourself on your feet), free professional placements, free Hebrew language education and cash in the hand. Oh yeah, and your foreign income is tax-free for a decade!
Yet not enough Jews are coming. The reason why they are not coming is that they have no realization of what a profound change Israel has brought to our lives. They are deaf to its call and blind to its vision because they have not been taught how to hear it or see it.
The writer holds a doctorate in Jewish philosophy and teaches in post-high-school yeshivot and midrashot in Jerusalem.