Orthodox Jews and the aliya crisis

It is time for American, Canadian, Australian, British and other Orthodox Jews to set an example for their brethren, leave behind the exile and finally come home.

Nefesh b'Nefesh July 2012 (photo credit: Courtesy of Nefesh b'Nefesh)
Nefesh b'Nefesh July 2012
(photo credit: Courtesy of Nefesh b'Nefesh)
Last week, the Central Bureau of Statistics published a report that should have provoked an outpouring of public sentiment but was instead greeted with little more than a collective yawn.
According to the CBS, in 2012, just 16,557 people from around the world made aliya, which is slightly more than one-tenth of one percent of world Jewry.
At that rate, it would take nearly 1,000 years for the entire Jewish people to return to the Land of Israel. This lack of enthusiasm hardly bodes well for our nation’s ageold hope “to be a free people in our own land,” as the national anthem puts it.
Consider the following: last year’s figure was the lowest recorded since 2009 and the third-lowest in the past two decades.
Indeed, in 2002, 33,567 Jews moved to the Jewish state, which means that the immigration rate has dropped more than 50% in the past 10 years.
No less disturbing is the fact that aliya from the West, where the bulk of Diaspora Jewry resides, managed to contribute barely one-third of the 2012 total.
Out of the five to six million American Jews, a paltry 2,290 members of the tribe made the journey home to Zion last year according to the CBS.
I’ve been to New York Knicks basketball games at Madison Square Garden with more Jews in attendance than that.
While aliya from France in 2012 was a respectable 1,653 strong and 569 Jews from the UK moved here, these numbers are still tiny when compared with the size of their respective communities.
Clearly, the appeal of aliya in recent years has begun to lose steam.
Despite the 2008 economic crisis and uncertainty over the future of the EU and America, the Jews of the United States and much of the West are quite comfortably ensconced where they are and don’t appear to be moving to Israel any time soon.
It is difficult to overstate the gravity of this situation. The steady and continuing decline in Jewish immigration to Israel is no less an issue of national security than borders, terrorism or missile defense.
Aliya is the lifeblood of Zionism, a source of ongoing strength to the state as it develops and prospers. It is also the surest guarantee of a vibrant Jewish future – one free of assimilation, intermarriage and cultural decay. And that is why it is so crucial that a concerted effort be made to revitalize aliya from the Diaspora and especially from America and the West.
Just imagine the impact that an influx of a few hundred thousand American Jews would have on Israeli society. With their energy and activism, skills and talents, they could reshape this country and its civic life and have an enormous impact on various fields ranging from politics to business to the arts.
But thus far, this remains in the realm of fantasy because they simply are not coming here in droves.
It would be easy to try and pin the blame for this sorry state of affairs on groups such as Nefesh B’Nefesh, the Jewish Agency or even the Israeli government.
But such censure would largely be misplaced.
Those who bear direct responsibility for the lack of Western aliya are first and foremost Western Jews themselves, and especially their leadership and organizations, which make little to no effort to encourage emigration to the Jewish state.
Just surf the web and visit the homepages of various prominent American Jewish organizations and see if you can find something – anything! – about aliya.
Sure, there is plenty of material about pro- Israel advocacy and combating anti-Israel media bias. And if you are looking for ways to fight bigotry, help the poor in Rwanda or lower greenhouse gas emissions, you won’t be disappointed.
But seeking information about leaving the exile behind and fulfilling the dream of generations by returning to the land of our ancestors? Fat chance! Even my fellow Orthodox Jews in America, who are committed to living according to Halacha, are just as guilty in this regard.
Take, for example, the Orthodox Union.
Surely, a venerable organization such as this, I told myself, one that is committed to Torah values and Judaism, would highlight the mitzva of settling the Land of Israel and give it pride of place on its website.
But when I went to its homepage, I could find no mention of aliya. Instead, I was greeted by a “Kashrus Alert: Tootsie Roll Large Pops” (in case you are wondering, some bags were printed without indicating that the product is dairy).
Now don’t get me wrong. I love a good Tootsie Pop just as much as the next guy and I am certainly all in favor of the meticulous observance of Jewish law, by which I have chosen to live my life.
But this says a lot about American Orthodoxy, which in recent years has taken on greater levels of observance even while failing to appreciate the centrality of aliya in Jewish thought.
The Sifrei on Deuteronomy, for example, states unequivocally that “dwelling in the Land of Israel is the equivalent of all the mitzvot in the Torah.” And the Talmud in tractate Ketubot declares that “he who lives in the Land of Israel is akin to one who has a God, while he who lives outside the Land is similar to one who has no God.”
Centuries later, Nahmanides, the great medieval commentator, ruled unambiguously that the commandment to live in Israel is incumbent upon every Jew and applies even if the land is under foreign control.
The Pit’hei Teshuva, in his 19th century commentary on the Shulhan Aruch, notes that all the earlier and later authorities agree with Nahmanides that there is a positive Torah commandment to live in Israel.
Israel is described in the Bible (Deuteronomy 11:12) as the land “which the Lord your God cares for; the eyes of the Lord your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year even unto the end of the year.”
And, as the Or Hahaim noted in the 18th century, “There is no joy other than in residing in the Land of Israel.”
On all sorts of issues, religious Jews seek halachic guidance from their local rabbi in order to ensure that their behavior conforms to Jewish law. A dairy fork was used to eat meat? Call the rabbi! A certain kind of medicine needs to be taken on Shabbat? Ask the scholar! But how many Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, New York, or Golders Green, London, or Marais in Paris have bothered to ask their rabbi a similar question about whether they are obligated to make aliya? My intention is not to cast aspersions on anyone or their personal decisions. But if people are concerned enough about Halacha to ask questions about what they put in their mouths, shouldn’t they also ask for guidance about where they choose to live their lives? AT A time such as this, precisely when aliya is dwindling, it is incumbent upon each and every Orthodox Jew in America and elsewhere to look in the mirror and ask himself with unadorned honesty: Where do I really belong? A surge of Orthodox aliya from the West could potentially light a spark, setting an example for other Jews to follow.
It would make headlines, bolster Israeli society and remind Jews everywhere – including a number of our fellow Israelis – that our destiny as a people is in this Land and this Land alone.
As people of faith, Orthodox Jews have a special responsibility to put aliya back on the international Jewish agenda.
For two millennia, observant Jews have turned to face Jerusalem three times a day every day, pleading with the Creator to “gather us in from the four corners of the earth.”
Now that we have a sovereign Jewish state, moving to Israel is easier than ever before.
So no more excuses! The call of Jewish destiny and the cry of previous generations must no longer be ignored. It is time for American, Canadian, Australian, British and other Orthodox Jews to set an example for their brethren, leave behind the exile and finally come home.
The writer is chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to Israel and the Jewish people.