A Call to American Jewry: We Have Been Summoned!

imageIn a historic decision made a few months ago, the Israeli government ended its fifty-five-year-old agreement with the American Jewish community, and started to directly support aliyah programs in the West. To understand how remarkable this decision is, it is important to view it from a historical perspective. In 1950, David Ben-Gurion reluctantly signed an agreement with the American Jewish community in which the Israeli government committed to not invest in or promote Western aliyah. This was done to allay the American Jewish community’s fear of being accused of dual loyalty. Instead of promoting North American aliyah, Israel would help build a sense of Jewish identity and pride among American Jewry and work to create a palpable connection between American Jews and Israel; in return, Israel would receive political and financial support. This agreement survived for decades, throughout leadership changes both in the United States and in Israel.

But recently, it has become apparent that a sense of Jewish pride and identity among American Jewry is no longer a given. Recent reports—such as the 2007 National Survey of American Jews by Professors Steven M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman—have shown that there is a disconnect between American Jewry and Israel. Statistics reveal that Jews under thirty-five years of age feel a great apathy towards Israel. In fact, 57 percent of American Jews in that age group said that they would not consider the annihilation of the State of Israel a personal tragedy. Furthermore, 80 percent of American Jewry have never stepped foot in Israel. These sobering figures display major chinks in the armor of this almost sixty-year-old agreement.

In 2007, when the Israeli Cabinet made the unanimous decision to start investing in Western aliyah, it effectively ended this agreement and launched a new era in the relationship between American Jewry and Israel.

Amazingly, though a disconnect indeed exists among American Jewry, there is still an unprecedented resurgence of aliyah spanning all denominations. Beyond the nearly 18,000 North American olim that Nefesh B’Nefesh has helped bring to Israel thus far, more than 20,000 Americans have contacted the organization requesting aliyah assistance for the immediate future. Realistically, we can expect that the current average of 3,500 North American olim per year will increase to more than 5,000 in the near future.

Between 1948 and 2000, approximately 100,000 Jews made aliyah from the United States. It is reasonable to expect to bring that same number of people to Israel in the next ten to fifteen years. This formidable, yet eminently achievable, goal would be a remarkable, historic gift for Israel’s very core and essence.

American olim hit the ground running, buying homes and cars, paying income tax and contributing professionally to the State of Israel.

After the first 10,000 Nefesh B’Nefesh olim arrived in Israel, Israel Business Information Services conducted an independent study of the economic effects American olim have on Israel. The economic infusion of these aliyot was valued at half a billion US dollars; the study noted that American olim hit the ground running, buying homes and cars, paying income tax and contributing professionally to the State. The implications of multiplying this effect ten-fold are dizzying. However, while the economic impact is indeed impressive, the spiritual, ideological and entrepreneurial contributions of American olim are just as important. Thus, 100,000 new olim could have a tremendous effect on the State of Israel and could transform it significantly.

In order to increase aliyah from its current rate of 50,000 people in ten years to 100,000 in the same period of time, we must create an atmosphere that supports and strengthens the passion for Israel that already exists within the Diaspora. In order to change history, the American Jewish community needs to create an atmosphere that fosters aliyah.

There are five main challenges in creating and nurturing an environment necessary for American aliyah to grow:

• It is important to realize that any aliyah wave will be lay-driven. While this may be surprising to some, out of the 100,000 American olim who arrived in Israel between 1948 and 2000, the number of communal leaders who made aliyah is negligible. Many people have made aliyah in spite of rabbinic or communal pressure not to. This is nothing new. In our Amidah prayer, it states: “Vetechezena eineinu beshuvcha leTzion berachamim, Let our eyes see the return to Zion in compassion.” Rabbi Yosef Breuer questions why Chazal use the term “vetechezena,” which is derived from the root “chet, zayin, nun” (vision), a word used throughout Tanach exclusively for prophecy. His answer is that we are not asking God to give us a navi (prophet) to lead us, or a leader that we will follow, but rather we are asking God to let us have the vision, and let us have the courage to return to Zion. This prayer is particularly relevant in our time: although most Jewish leaders are not moving to Israel, aliyah is, reassuringly, growing with or without them.

• Israel should not be portrayed exclusively as a charitable cause. Such a portrayal has an adverse effect on our children’s perception of Eretz Yisrael. In the nineteenth-century, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer pleaded with the va’adot (organizations) in Europe that collected money for Eretz Yisrael to cease their practice of collecting tzedakah only for the poor and the sick and for the reconstruction of destroyed buildings. He demanded that they start collecting for Shivat Zion—for aliyah—insisting that it was important for the children. He reasoned that if children are exposed only to a poor, sick and broken Israel, then their perception of their homeland will be tarnished, making it difficult for them to yearn, dream and pray for returning to Zion. Unfortunately, the organizations refused and Rabbi Kalischer died without ever seeing a qualitative difference in his community’s perception towards Israel.

• American Jewry needs to be more open-minded when reacting to issues in Israel. Every aspect of Israeli life needs to be distinguished on its own merit. To illustrate this point, consider the mitzvah of Brit Milah. When making a Brit Milah, one would expect to say the blessing of Shehecheyanu (“Thank You for bringing us to this moment”). However, the halachah states that we don’t recite the blessing because one can’t selfishly recite Shehecheyanu while a baby is crying in pain. In Israel, however, the halachah is that one should recite Shehecheyanu. Rabbi Chaim Drukman, commenting on an insight of the Vilna Gaon, explains that the reason for reciting the blessing is because in Israel, one experiences so many simultaneous contradictory experiences and intense emotions. One is accustomed to simultaneously feeling fear and joy, hope and despair—and so, when one is blessed with a joyous event, that happiness should be cherished. Anyone who lives in Israel understands the art of compartmentalization. There is a significant amount of frustration in many areas of Israeli life, be it political, social or religious. But one must look at the bigger picture. One must be able to compartmentalize in order to be able to listen to the frustrating daily news, yet at the same time feel a deep appreciation for living in the holy country. One must be able to see the broader reality of Israel with all of its diverse, and sometimes confounding, components. The challenge for every person is to be able to recognize that “this is a gift from God, and certain frustrations are the result of man’s manipulation.” These frustrations cannot, nor should they, tarnish the gift itself.

• We need to understand our history and our nation’s true roots while maintaining our loyalty to and appreciation of the United States. We must realize that as an American Jewish community we have matured; the insecurity Jews felt in the past about dual loyalties should no longer be a concern. We must be able to say “We are loyal to America; we are patriotic; we have hakarat hatov to this remarkable country for the freedoms it has given us,” while at the same time have no qualms about saying “The homeland that our hearts yearn for is Eretz Yisrael.” We are too concerned with how our loyalties will be viewed. Ironically, America is the one country where one can be proud of his roots. We can be patriotic to a country that has been welcoming and nurturing while recognizing that our Homeland is of ultimate value.

• The fifth and last challenge is the hardest: We must regain, retain and sustain our marvel in the magic of nissim, miracles. In the last sixty years we’ve experienced truly miraculous events in which we clearly saw Yad Hashem, and we need to regain that sense of wonder and sustain it. Chazal tell us that when we come to our Creator after 120 years, we will be asked the following questions: “Did you have a family? Did you conduct business ethically? Did you set aside time for Torah learning? Did you long for the Geulah (Tzipita leyeshuah)?”

The Ran quotes these questions but modifies the last one to “Did you long for the Geulah ‘beyamecha, in your day’?” Rabbi Shimon Schwab discusses why the Ran added the word “beyamecha.” It seems that each of the first three questions can be measured quantitatively. “Did you have a family?” (Yes, here’s a family picture.) “Did you conduct business properly?” (I did, look at my IRS forms.) “Did you set aside time for Torah learning?” (Here’s my palm pilot—look at my learning schedule.) But the final question poses a difficulty: How does one quantify if he waited for the Geulah?

The Ran suggests that the real meaning of this question is, What actions did you take in your life to move the Geulah to the next stage? In a similar vein, the Chofetz Chaim explains the phrase “tzipita leyeshuah.” “Tzipita,” he says, is derived from the Hebrew word “tzofeh,” a scout. It is the scout who moves the troops, not the general in the headquarters who is busy studying the maps and creating the strategies. The tzofeh, looking out, takes the lead. Anyone can say “We want Mashiach now,” but were you a scout? Did you run to the next mountain, to the next stage of history?

In the last sixty years, our community has expended much effort in analyzing the degree to which we embrace the gift of Medinat Yisrael. But because of our preoccupation with analysis, we have failed to create a strategy for getting to the next stage in history. We must take action and be passionate in order to enable the miracle of Israel to move forward! To sustain the marvel of Eretz Yisrael and get to the next mountain, we must be the scouts.

We have been given a window of opportunity. The only way we can achieve historic milestones is by ensuring that the American Jewish community introspects about its approach to aliyah and its connection to Israel. The challenges listed above must be internalized for us to succeed.

Whether or not our Jewish communities are up to confronting such an attitudinal shift, we can still marvel at the magic of living during these fascinating times. We must have a sense of appreciation that we are privileged to live at a truly inspiring and marvelous moment.

Will history be kind to us when it records our actions? Will this chapter be looked upon with awe and respect by future generations? This remains to be seen, but for now we must concentrate our efforts on making the most of this extraordinary chapter of our history. We have been summoned!

Rabbi Fass is the founder and executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh.

This article was featured in the Winter 2008 issue of Jewish Action.