By Mandell I. Ganchrow, M.D.
To paraphrase a well-known Latin saying, “Nil humani a me alienum puto” [nothing human do I consider alien], “Nil Judaica a me alienum puto,” nothing relating to the Jewish world do I consider alien to me. Perhaps if the world is a village, then the Jewish world is a shtetl.
In the last few months I have had the opportunity to visit diverse countries such as Ukraine, southern France and Italy as well as examine our programs in Israel. The problems in each locale are unique to them (but share much in common). Venice, Italy, for example, has but 450 Jews remaining, yet it is important to realize that during its heyday in the 18th century the number of Jews who lived there was around the 2,000. Like Florence, with only 1,000 Jews today, Venice has no religious role models for the young, other than the rabbi. There is an absence of day schools and kosher food is not easy to obtain. Young people move out because economic opportunities are not easily available and shidduch possibilities are few, if any. Florence recently had its first Jewish wedding in a long time. The summer months see an influx of tourists at the same time that natives head for cooler places. Along with the tourists come the Messianists who are flooding the streets with young people offering to place tefillin on visitors, but who are not helpful in building the local community. The large signs of “Welcome King Moshiach” with the Rebbe’s picture represent a disturbing trend.
The absence of teaching material (such as our own Pardes Project or Torah tapes) in French, Italian, Russian or Ukrainian is a hindrance to the leadership of these communities. The rabbis are wary that their own children are growing up in a community without a Torah school or a Torah life. This places an additional burden on their personal lives. In addition, they are concerned about their lack of professional advancement as Torah scholars and as leaders. Post-rabbinic courses are available only in the United States and Israel and are expensive.
The former Soviet Union on the other hand has huge Jewish populations but, unlike France with its kehillah (the Consistoire), Orthodox groups there are saving one Jewish life at a time (even as an estimated 200,000 of the Russians who emigrated to Israel are not halachic Jews and present an extreme problem that will impact on the destiny of the Jewish nation for generations to come). In its five years of existence, the Orthodox Union’s Kharkov center has proven that young Ukrainians never exposed to Torah can be educated and reach high levels of Torah observance, learning and mastery of the Hebrew language — to the extent that when they make aliyah it is difficult to differentiate them from sabras born into a dati leumi lifestyle.
But whereas Jewish life in France and Italy emanate from within the community, the Torah efforts in the Ukraine, for example, require the financial help and individual efforts of American and Israeli organizations and institutions.
Israeli society, too, has been subject to a changing world nurtured by the telecommunications revolution. The failure of the Israeli educational system to inculcate Jewish values and culture has resulted in a situation where Israelis know nothing of their Judaism. An incident recounted recently at the Unity Committee of the Jewish Agency tells it all. It involves a group of Israeli students, post-army, from what was described as a Meretz-type background who visited Zimbabwe. The Jewish community there was very excitedly to meet them and proudly invited them for Shabbat services and meals. However, the community was shocked to find that the group of Israeli youths was totally ignorant of Jewish culture and indeed had never even been in a synagogue before.
The reader may wonder at this point why I am presenting a travelogue: I believe there is a common thread that unites the Orthodox Union’s mission with the contemporary problems of world Jewry. It is true that the Union does not have the resources, financial or human, to be the central address for each and every world problem. However, it is equally true that the resources and staff of the Union are in a class of their own and by applying them in specific areas we can, with minimal effort and expenses, have a major worldwide impact.
Two of the most successful programs the Union sponsors are the IPA summer internship for college students and the kashruth internship for semichah students. Our kashruth internship should reach out to additional communities around the world. (We included a number of rabbis from Eastern and Western Europe this past summer.) If necessary, we should start a second course in the winter in order to accommodate the needs of world Jewry.
I believe that we have the ability to create two new programs: (1)Organize a senior NCSY summer tour of several West European countries, of perhaps ten days to two weeks in each country. This would allow our youth leadership to interact with the local communities, run seminars, Shabbatonim, and meet and instruct local leadership. I have spoken to some local Jewish leaders in Europe and they would be extremely receptive and supportive of such a program, for even a short visit would give them great chizuk. [We have already started this summer by developing an Israel NCSY program which sends young Israelis for the summer to Kharkov. Rabbi Moti Alon, a noted rosh yeshivah, is teaching this group.] (2) Create an NCSY internship for youth leaders from foreign countries which would include a formal, hands-on program of current techniques of outreach and seminars on the practical aspects of the intricacies of youth work. In addition, we should invite youth directors and madrichim from various countries to come to America for our NCSY regional conventions to observe and benefit from our vast experience.
Another service we can provide the global Jewish community would be to give each city in the world with any significant Jewish population a separate page on our web site allowing them to publicize their synagogue activities, times of prayer, mikvaot, classes, restaurants, Jewish activities and the availability of kosher food for travelers. Of course, we would not take responsibility for the kashrut of any of these activities or food establishments, and a disclaimer to that effect would appear on the page.
The Union should encourage the translation of Torah material that we now possess to allow foreign communities to make maximum use of them. And we should encourage European companies who are exporting to the United States to make their foods available to the Jewish communities of Europe. In addition, we should try to encourage American food wholesalers to develop relationships with major European countries in order to supply the Jewish communities there.
Obviously the situation in Israel is a little different. Israel NCSY is a major challenge for us. Forty years ago, when the Union started NCSY in the States, there were those who felt it was money and energy wasted. Today we face similar concerns in Israel. I firmly believe that we are on the right track in Israel. Not every program will be a total success, but I would like to describe one example of our work there that demonstrates our potential. The religious girls elementary school in Lod, which accepts students from neighboring Ramlah, has 11 classes in each grade. Normally, these children from poor homes choose not to continue their religious education in high school, but go on to a secular school. Thus the girls yeshivah high school only has 2-3 classes in each grade. As a result of only ten months of NCSY activity in Lod (our group there consists of 80 young women, 40% Ethiopian and 40% Russian), the new semester will see an additional 2-3 classes in the religious high school. It is only a beginning – yet we see that NCSY can make a wonderfully positive impact, not only on Lod, but on the entire Israeli scene, if allowed to grow.
The world today is a small, interconnected area. Our actions can influence much more than we ever thought possible — not only here at home, but throughout the world. What is needed is imagination, leadership and concern for our fellow Jews.