Essay: Why do the Orthodox make aliya?

Israel is the only country in the West in which there is not yet full freedom of religion for Jews.

aliya orthodox haredi el al plane 248 88 (photo credit: Illustrative photo by Ariel Jerozolimski)
aliya orthodox haredi el al plane 248 88
(photo credit: Illustrative photo by Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sixty-eight percent of those who made aliya from the United States in 2008 were affiliated with the Orthodox world. This is a fact. This sector of society, a minority among Jews in the States (only about 1/10 of US Jews are Orthodox - haredi, centrist and modern Orthodox together), fills the ranks of olim. Of the 2,794 olim who arrived from the US last year, 1,897 were Orthodox. Aliya is a complex issue. Those of us who have experienced it know how high the price can be. Uprooting yourself - even by choice - from your home, life and language, and planting yourself in a foreign land, is not a painless process. The parents, children, grandparents (those who have or will join the rest of the family) - they must create a new reality for themselves in native surroundings of which they are not part, and sometimes never will be. Whoever takes the plunge of aliya rightly deserves great respect. But why are the majority of US olim Orthodox? Are they the only ones ready to pay the price? Is the price they pay lower, making aliya more attractive to them? The answer is not clear-cut, but it is certainly worth examining. To its credit, the Orthodox community is characterized by a level of personal obligation. A halachic lifestyle is considered binding; the mitzva of settling the Land of Israel cannot be belittled; and the willingness to pay a personal price, both in quality and comfort of life, is not foreign to one who strictly observes all mitzvot. BUT THE mitzva of settling the land is not the paramount issue. Jewish education is another factor. We native-born Israelis complain about obligatory payments to schools, but it is impossible to compare these payments to school fees at a private Jewish school (and there are no Jewish schools that are not private) in the US. Fees can reach as high as $28,000 a year for each child. A family with three or four children - and Orthodox families can be blessed with many children - may pay tens of thousands of dollars a year just for education. And lo and behold, on making aliya, the yoke of education costs almost disappears, while the quality of education is often no less than in the land of all possibilities. It should be noted that the class into which the Orthodox young oleh will enter is not the same as a class in the regular state education system. Generally, it will be more comfortable, less crowded. The average number of students in a regular state education class, according to a survey conducted by the Knesset's Research and Information Center, is substantially larger than in the state religious system, or the independent haredi system. The economic variable, accordingly, definitely plays a part, and could become even stronger in the wake of the present crisis hitting the US. However, it would be superficial to suggest that the principal motivation for making aliya was financial. Something much deeper is at play. Orthodox society has succeeded in feeling embraced here. They land at the airport and feel that they have arrived in a place that respects and allows them to celebrate their way of life. THE FEELING of being at home is not instilled by just the Hebrew language or the fact that the public calendar is the Jewish one. It is also the religious services that are granted, to a particular religious stream, at public expense; it is the synagogues - for every possible Orthodox ethnic group and style - that the state builds; it is the mikvaot that adorn almost every neighborhood but which do not permit access to converts who are not Orthodox or to brides wishing to immerse themselves before their huppa; it is the thousands of rabbis (more than 3,000 according to some estimates) employed in the public sector, rabbis who are all - need it be said - Orthodox. Put everything together - education, religious services, community activity that is often funded by public money - and the picture looks a bit different. For olim from an Orthodox background it is easier. The establishment embraces them in a way that it does not do for others. As in Hava Alberstein's song, "Despair is made more comfortable." Indeed, the Orthodox in the US made an important move and have placed Israel on their agenda. A gap year in Israel, as part of Jewish education, is customary in many Orthodox communities. And they deserve our blessing for that. But it must be remembered: Most of the world's Jews are not Orthodox, and to them Israel turns a cold shoulder. With which feeling will the Conservative girl return after almost being attacked at the Kotel for wanting to pray with a kippa and tallit? What will the rabbi, a great Jewish scholar and teacher who heads a congregation of more than 2,000 families, think when the State of Israel does not recognize the weddings he officiates at here? What will the Jewish federation president, whose wife was converted Reform, think when his daughter, who has made aliya, tells him in tears that she cannot get married in the Jewish state? These are just a few examples. Yes, Israel can be attractive for North American Jews - the majority of whom are Conservative and Reform - but it must extend a warm welcome to them. Unfortunately, Israel is the only country in the West in which there is not yet full freedom of religion for Jews. We are paying a heavy price for the Orthodox monopoly. The leadership of the Masorti/Conservative movement, in Israel and abroad, together with the Jewish Agency has recently launched a global operation to encourage aliya. But aliya without a warm embrace will not succeed. Whoever believes in aliya must be mobilized to transform Israel into a pluralistic Jewish state. Otherwise we will continue to be relevant only to a minority of Jews in the Diaspora. The writer is the executive director and CEO of the Masorti Movement. This article reflects his personal views.