Pennies versus positives

The real case for leaving the Diaspora and coming home.

bielski 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
bielski 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski had it right - and wrong - when he urged the American Jewish community to come to Israel because "the penny will drop and they will realize they have no future in the United States as Jews." Of course, he's right about the ravages of assimilation and intermarriage, which are decimating not only American Jewry, but the Jewish populations of virtually every Western community. These "twin towers of tragedy" have been perpetrating a "silent Holocaust" for at least half a century, inexorably grinding down the Jewish presence in the Diaspora. The numbers don't lie, and they indisputably show that Jewish populations outside of Israel are stagnating at best, and on the verge of vanishing at worst. America is a classic case in point; its Jewish population has been stuck at 5.5 million to 6 million for more than half a century. The influx of thousands of Russian Jews to the shores of the goldene medina, the best efforts of anti-assimilationists to stem the tide and the spirited struggle to woo non-Jewish partners to the fold has not significantly altered the equation. Meanwhile, hundreds of smaller, outlying Jewish communities have vanished, their once-proud synagogues turned into churches, mosques or medical clinics, while many larger Jewish enclaves have circled the wagons and use every trick in the book to keep their numbers from falling further. BUT MY fellow Ra'ananite Ze'evik was a bit off the mark when he suggested that American Jewry could - or should - be frightened into making aliya because of the specter of the vanishing Jew. That is a strategy that did not work when Ezra the Scribe tried it in Babylon as the Second Temple was being built; it did not work in Germany as the Nazis gained power; and it will not work in 21st-century America, either. For starters, to whom will this approach appeal? Half of American Jewry has already experienced intermarriage in their nuclear family, or has become assimilated and ever more distant from Jewish commitment. They are past the point - socially, intellectually and conceptually - of considering coming here. And the other half considers itself doing so well in the States - financially and religiously - that it cannot drag itself away from the good life. To move an American Jew sitting around his pool in LA , surrounded by his kollelnik sons-in-law and planning his biannual trip to Jerusalem's five-star hotels, an awful lot of pennies have to fall. I PREFER taking a totally different tack. I think the aliya argument we make to our fellow Jews must be of a positive, not negative nature. World Jewry should be coming to Israel not because they have it so bad in their own countries, but because they could have it so good here. From a religious perspective, Israel is at least the partial fulfillment of billions of prayers uttered over thousands of years. We beseeched God to return us to Zion, and so He did. He gave us another chance to build a Jewish homeland in the land of the prophets, on authentic Jewish soil, to control our own destiny and carve out a nation in the Jewish image. Do we not have a sacred obligation to try? And we haven't done so badly, to be quite honest. We make our share of mistakes, to be sure. But we still have a thriving democracy, a dynamic economy and a courageous and devoted army whose morale remains sky-high despite the severity of the Lebanon war. Not to mention a 1,000 percent growth rate since the founding of the state. For an observant Jew, Israel can be a paradise: The proliferation of learning opportunities for men and women, the kosher restaurants and hotels, the low cost of Jewish education and the ease with which we observe Jewish holidays at a fraction of the cost in the US are just some of the pluses. Even for the non-observant, Israel is definitely where it's happening on the global Jewish scene. The arrow of Jewish history points here. Jewish destiny will be decided not in Joberg, but in Jerusalem; not in Teaneck but, yes, in Tel Aviv. Israel is the engine that drives the Jewish nation, and anyone who wants in on the action needs to be here, not there. While stellar Jewish communities do indeed exist - even flourish - in the exile, they are, after all, still in the exile. It's time our Israeli emissaries stopped accentuating the dismal state of Israel's economy, its dangerous neighbors, its precarious existence, blah, blah, blah. While this ploy may play upon Jewish emotions and enhance fund-raising, casting us in such a negative fashion does irreparable harm to Israel's image. Who would want to live in a place where the people are starving and terrorists lurk around every corner? Instead, we ought to emphasize the miracle of Israel, its gritty determination to survive and its ability to defy all the odds and prosper. Let's urge every Jew to seize the opportunity to be part of this amazing enterprise - not only financially, but also physically. Over the years, we have characterized our role in the Jewish world as a place to run to when things turn bad out there. This has certainly been the motivating factor for immigration from North Africa, Russia, Ethiopia and, more recently, South America and France. But it doesn't have to stop there. There must also be a concerted effort to encourage privileged Western Jewry to engage in aliya by choice - to make a free and focused decision to join the ingathering of the Diaspora because it makes sense. Those who do opt for Israel will be making the right choice. The writer, a rabbi, is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra'anana.