My great-grandfather, Israel Wagner, a devoted and pious Boyaner hassid from the Bukovina region of Romania, was enraptured with the land of Israel. He and his wife, Baila, visited Palestine numerous times, and even purchased a home and a plot of land upon which they planned to build a lumber mill. Sadly, their hopes of aliyah were put on hold when their daughter, my grandmother, Gittel, died suddenly in 1937, leading them to stay in Europe to raise their three orphaned grandchildren. On Sukkot, 1941, they, along with my father and his two siblings, were deported by the Nazis to Transnistria where they spent the duration of the war in a forced labor camp. Israel Wagner survived the war, but died in Transnistria shortly after the war’s conclusion, his dream of aliyah unfulfilled.
My great-grandfather lived with a loving commitment to the land of Israel. He would speak glowingly of their visits to the Kotel and kibbutzim, of the unique religious experience of Israel and of the astounding development of the land. When a prominent Orthodox communal leader paid a Shabbat visit to their home and began to speak critically of non-observant and anti-religious pioneers, he gently but firmly redirected the conversation, saying, “at our Shabbat table we speak positively of the land of Israel.” As well, weekly at shalosh seudos (the third Shabbat meal), he would sing the tune “Atah Echad” that he learned while attending Hayyim Nachman Bialik’s weekly oneg (enjoyment) Shabbat gathering in Tel Aviv.
What was my great-grandfather, a pious Boyaner hassid, doing at the gatherings of a famously non-observant former student of the famed yeshiva of Volozhin? Despite his lapses in personal Jewish practice, Bialik was a zealous guardian of the public observance of Shabbat in the land. His oneg Shabbat gatherings were designed to build the Jewish spirit and character of the future Jewish state, regarding which the master poet unpoetically declared: “If someone were to smoke at my oneg Shabbat, I would grab him by the neck and fling him out. What he does at home is his own affair. There he is free to behave as he likes.” Their shared love and aspirations for Israel and the Jewish people brought these people together.
THE JEWISH moment of the return to Zion was the fulfillment of the dreams of millennia. Those dreams had a specific language and text, the traditional Jewish prayer book, the siddur. For 2,000 years, three times a day, the Jewish people prayed, dreamed, and hoped for a return to Zion, and in those prayers we described our vision for that return. It was not simply a geographic homecoming, but a return to the fullness of Jewish life as taught in God’s Torah. To this day, we end our “Amidah” prayer multiple times daily with these words: “May it be Your will, Lord our God and the God of our ancestors, that the Temple be rebuilt speedily in our days, that you grant us a share in your Torah, and there we will serve you with reverence as we had in the days of old and in former years.”
These lines are not included in modern non-Orthodox prayer books, as it would be inconsistent for non-traditional movements to yearn for a return to serving God as we had in the days of old, but that does not change history. The hopes and prayers of our grandfathers and grandmothers were for a return, not just to Zion, but to the Torah as it had always been lived and practiced, the Torah of the Talmud and Maimonides, built on the acceptance of its divine origin and eternal relevance.
The current struggle in Israel over the Kotel and other issues is about those dreams of our ancestors. Let us dismiss the false narratives. The matters being debated are not questions of religious coercion but of religious character. Conservative and Reform Jewry have freedom of worship in Israel, even locating their major world centers within a few blocks of the Old City walls. Limiting egalitarian prayer at the Kotel is no more religiously coercive than restricting Protestant services at the Church of the Nativity. Blue laws promoting a public atmosphere of a national and religious day of rest are instructive, not coercive, even if they preclude the individual from shopping on the Sabbath. The Jewish State’s very non-Orthodox founders supported Orthodoxy as the public faith of the country. They viewed it appropriate for a state-supported rabbinate to be charged with maintaining standards that establish the state’s public religious character in the manner of traditional Orthodoxy.
Some advocate that this approach should be discarded in favor of the pluralistic model of American Jewry, in which religious streams co-exist without any significant measure of either cooperation or hostility. Yet, this surface calm hides the reality that American Jewry is in crisis. As Judaism here can mean almost anything, it has come to mean almost nothing for the majority of American Jews, resulting in overwhelming rates of assimilation and attrition.
The state of Israel presents a singular opportunity for Judaism and the Jewish people, as it is by far the most compelling anchor of Jewish identity, both national and religious. Every part of our community must work together to strengthen that sense of identity with Israel and Judaism for all Jews. Israel’s power as a unifier of our people will not be enhanced by it being all things to all Jewish People, but rather by clearly representing the hopes, dreams, prayers, and mission of the Jewish People through the ages.
On that point, Israel Wagner and Hayyim Nachman Bialik would certainly agree.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union