My Story: California, here I come - back to my home in Israel

After 26 years, a writer visits the country of her birth, only to happily return to Israel.

judy siegel drawing 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
judy siegel drawing 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Noting from my badge that I was a "Speaker" from "Israel" and my American-accented English, countless delegates at the Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization of America's 94th national convention ask me: "So how long have you been away from home?" When I reply "26 years," every one of them is flabbergasted and asks, "How could you stay away from the country of your birth for so long?" In fact, when they ask for details, I explain that my last arrival in the US, in the winter of 1982, was to cover the state visit of the fifth president of Israel Yitzhak Navon. "Israel is such an exciting country that I didn't want to miss anything," is my standard answer. But, in fact, my full reply would have been: "I am an Israeli. Having being part of the majority in the Jewish state since February 1973, I have not been keen to be part of a minority, even for a short time." And that is exactly what I felt during my recent week's visit to the US, three days with relatives in Westchester, a New York suburb, and four days in Los Angeles. So estranged and alien did I feel that not even once did I ask to be photographed there. I certainly can't claim to have "discovered America" during a week's stay on the East and west coasts - without having seen anything between. But my temporary return gave a kind of perspective to changes that might not be noticed by someone who goes there regularly. And as a veteran journalist who tries to pick up details and early trends that others might miss, I hoped to get a feel for the country. My, how things have changed! I had not even contemplated seeing the US again until I interviewed Nancy Falchuk, the national president of HWZOA, in Jerusalem. At the end of our conversation, she asked me when I had last been in the US and seen what Hadassah does - and she too was shocked by my answer. "I will do something about that," she said. Not long after, I received her personal invitation to participate in the convention, as well as to address delegates. I decided to cover the event as well, since as the Post's health and science reporter I knew very well what a massive, positive impact HWZOA and its beneficiaries - the Hadassah Medical Organization, the Hadassah College of Technology, Youth Aliya, Young Judaea and numerous others - have had on the state and people of Israel. As a Zionist and modern Orthodox Jew who believes every Jew should live in Israel, I nevertheless went to the US with an objective, open mind. But my trip gave me doubts whether HWZOA, as well as much less powerful and committed American Jewish organizations (except for those that are Orthodox or haredi) will exist in another generation or two. I would not be surprised if - due to growing assimilation, intermarriage and the low Jewish birthrate - its 120th national convention will not be held in 2034; sadly, Hadassah could cease to exist by then. BRUCHIM HABA'IM in Hebrew letters was one of the greetings on the videoscreen in front of my Continental Airlines seat - along with similar greetings in Spanish, French, Arabic and a variety of other languages when I landed at New Jersey's Newark Airport. It was certainly a warmer welcome than that accorded my late father, then about six years old, at Ellis Island. He and his older sister were taken by their mother from Palestine just before the British Mandate began to the US after an older brother died of starvation in Safed, where the family had been living since they arrived from Prague in 1780 and even survived the town's devastating 1832 earthquake. My grandmother, aunt and father had left to join my paternal grandfather, who had made his way a few years earlier to New York and then Baltimore to make a living and send for his family. After many weeks in steerage under horrible conditions, my father was green in the face, and officials at Ellis Island were not inclined to admit another Jew when America was about to clamp down on immigration quotas to halt the deluge of by-then-unwanted newcomers. They were about to send my father back where he came from. But my grandmother pinched his cheeks until they were red. My father learned English, excelled in Jewish schools and received rabbinical ordination from Yeshiva University. He served as a chaplain to US troops in the Pacific during World War II and reached the rank of colonel in the US Army reserves. He would have been pleased to know, less than a year after his premature death, that his two children had made aliya, married native-born Israelis and produced his 12 Hebrew-speaking grandchildren. As prearranged, I was picked up at Newark Airport by Al, a professional driver born in Colombia and a US citizen for more than 20 years. "This is a wonderful country," he told me. He had passed a qualifying test about American history and English comprehension to become a citizen, he beamed. Yet being an American was not so easy. The high price of gasoline, the unemployment, sinking economy, violence and crime, he said, were sometimes overwhelming. On the drive through New York City, Al assured me it had become much safer and cleaner than I had known it. I had no urge to detour to Ocean Parkway in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, where I had grown up - and Italians, secular Jews, Syrian and modern Orthodox Jews mingled in sweet coexistence. Now, I had been told, wealthy and insular haredim had bought up many properties and built little mansions there. My Yeshiva University High School for Girls had long ago disappeared, replaced by another Zionist yeshiva day school that, due to the lack of pupils, is moving and soon will be replaced by a haredi school. Beyond the Bronx lay leafy, wealthy Westchester. We reached the suburb where my cousin and her husband have been living with their three children for over a decade. Nearly 100 years ago, Jews had been barred from owning homes there to due to anti-Semitism; today, parts of it have a Jewish population reaching 50 percent. Huge homes, often with only a handful of people living in a dozen or more large rooms and green lawns all around, rise up on both sides of the streets. There are no sidewalks, as residents rarely go about on foot; they go almost everywhere in their two or three gas-guzzling SUVs or imported cars. From the looks of it, the US auto industry is in big trouble. Landscaped gardens carved out from a forest present animal life I am no longer used to: robins, chipmunks, squirrels and fireflies, which light up the darkening sky as Shabbat departs at a late hour. A Friday morning tour of the mall - at least twice the size of the Jerusalem Mall but in a city with a population a tenth of the size - presents an orderly queue of hundreds of would-be customers outside the Apple store, some of whom had camped out overnight so they could be the first on their block to buy the new iPhone. Acquiring the latest gadgets, I learned, is an American obsession. So is junk food and the resulting obesity, which except among the rich is shockingly prevalent, but ironically, the smoking rate in many states is considerably lower than Israel's. My American-born cousins - who visit Israel every year and hope to make aliya - have a dish on the roof that pipes in TV programs from Israel. But they are in the minority. The fanciest homes belonging to Jews - with swimming pools and tennis courts - are owned by families that don't send their children to Jewish day schools but to free public schools. A Jewish education and three weeks of summer camp for three children costs more than $70,000 a year; that is enough to promote the galloping rate of assimilation and intermarriage and the fact that half of American Jewry are unaffiliated to Jewish organizations, synagogues and causes. A cousin who walks with me for 55 minutes to Shabbat services points out problems - intermarriage there, divorces here and a man who replaced his longtime Jewish wife with a Turkish Muslim... The synagogue, with furnishings and melodies that reminded me of my childhood, would not be recognized as an Orthodox one in Israel: men in the middle, with the women's section on raised platforms on both sides, and the women fully visible. After a man circles his section with the Torah, it is presented to a woman to do so in hers. The American-born cantor pleasantly chants the services in Ashkenazi Hebrew. Responsive readings in English and prayers for America, Israel and their leaders have been added. Most congregants have visited the Jewish state more than once and send their children there to study. "Why are they still here?" I think to myself nastily, my Israeliness peeking through, when they recite verses about their "deep longing" for Zion. LANDING IN LA, I note the Manhattan-like skyscrapers in the financial district and the ugliness of the surrounding urban sprawl, except for the wealthiest suburbs. I was invited along with major Hadassah donors to a magnificent Beverly Hills mansion owned by Jews who fled Khomeini's Iran. The couple are generous hosts in their home, which looks like a combined White House and museum with servants, paintings, sculptures, an artificial waterfall in one of the gardens and room for a sit-down dinner for 250. LA is filled with Mexicans, Koreans, Afro-Americans and a rainbow of other ethnic groups, hardly the white-only Father Knows Best society in which I grew up. Caucasians almost seem to be in the minority, although I am told there are 400,000 Jews there, nearly half of them Israeli emigrants. Hadassah has turned the hotel where the convention is held into a beehive of energetic and efficient activity, and volunteers greet the 2,000 delegates from around the US. A 182-page program lists plenary sessions, workshops, a women's minyan, Jewish yoga and discussions of everything from fund-raising, anti-Semitism and the threat of Iran to the US presidential election and raising Jewish adolescents. The speaker of the US House of Representatives, the mayor of Los Angeles, billionaire businessman Stef Wertheimer (who receives HWZOA's Henrietta Szold Award for his industrial park development), Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik and former minister Natan Sharansky reflect the influence that Hadassah still holds in Israel. But there are very worrisome developments. This premier American Jewish organization has lost 6 percent of its membership of 300,000 and contributions were down 20% in the past year; the shekel value of dollar fund-raising has plunged by 30%. "I don't know whether when we are no longer here, our children and grandchildren will take our places" in donating to Jewish charities, laments Stewart Greenebaum, a Baltimore multimillionaire businessmen who is a Hadassah supporter. He urges delegates to "speak to a larger audience" and solicit donations from others, including non-Jewish groups. The growing materialism and "meaninglessness" in much of American Jewry could be fought with teaching Zionism by creating savings accounts for children and teenagers to be used for eventual trips to Israel, suggests McGill University history professor Gil Troy. As most younger Jewish women hold full-time jobs, it's more difficult for Hadassah to attract them as active members than the enthusiastic, ardent housewives of the older generation. Pushing buttons on digital polling devices, only half of the delegates said that their youngest adult child is "just as attached" to Israel as they are, and only 15% said US Jews in their 20s and 30s are as attached to Israel and Judaism as those in their 50s and 60s. The only thing that can help offset this trend, experts agreed, was to send young people to visit Israel not just once, but many times. Many delegates - most middle-aged or older despite an impressive minority of younger ones - admitted that they have non-Jewish grandchildren or no grandchildren at all. HWZOA, which three decades ago was reluctant to discuss religious observance or aliya, is now promoting the study of Hebrew and actively encouraging trips to Israel, and a short version of Birkat Hamazon is always recited at official events. Yet most of the delegates preferred the hotel's non-kosher meals to the option of kosher catered food in the downstairs cafeteria when there was no official convention meal. There is a movement that has brought secular Jews back to observance, and the modern Orthodox and haredi communities will continue to exist (although some will certainly make aliya), but they constitute only 10% of American Jewry. US Jews have enjoyed a magnificent century of surging wealth, political and cultural influence and primacy in scientific research, medicine, the media and many other professional fields. But I fear they have passed their peak and entered an irreversible decline. If Hadassah is struggling, what about the future of smaller and much less influential Jewish organizations? At 6 a.m. on the last day, an emergency siren sounds through all 32 floors of the hotel: "Keep calm. Our team is investigating the cause of the alarm," I am told. Realizing that nobody checked bags at the hotel entrances, but security guards looked only for nametags outside the main ballroom, my first thought is that it was a terror attack. It turned out to be a small fire in the basement. My plane lands at Ben-Gurion Airport. Unlike passengers arriving at LAX and Newark, those in their seats here burst into applause - perhaps not just for their arrival but in appreciation of the achievement of a Jewish state - and even before the jet comes to a halt, every Israeli immediately calls half-a-dozen relatives to tell them he has landed safely. Since my aliya, the population of Israel has increased by about 130%, with its Jewish population larger today than that of any other country. Israel, I believe, is the place of the Jewish future, and the US the place of the Jewish past. Despite all our problems, wars, terror, the social gap, the brain drain, pockets of religious and political extremism and mediocre (or worse) politicians, California, here I come - back to my home, my country, Israel.