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Where are the Rest of the Diaspora’s Jews?

By Tzvi Fishman
7/25/2007, 12:00 AM

First, a big yasher koach to the Nefesh B’Nefesh organization for its wonderful work in helping Jews make aliyah to Israel. In addition to helping people carry out the supreme mitzvah of living In the Land of Israel, which our Sages say is equal in weight to all the commandments in the Torah, they are raising the spirit of the nation. Who doesn’t get teary-eyed seeing hundreds of new olim happily descend down the ramp way of El Al jets to begin a new life in Israel? May Hashem grant all of the newcomers success and everlasting joy in their exalted religious endeavor.
I am not a mathematician, but any statistician will tell you that with the low Jewish birthrate and with the steady rise in assimilation, Diaspora Jewry is on a drastic decline.

Having stated our unreserved praise for these brave, idealistic olim and the assistance that Nefesh B’Nefesh provides, we have to ask – where are the rest of the Diaspora’s Jews?

I have never been much of a mathematician, but I punched a few numbers into my calculator and came out with an eye-opening figure. To make the calculation simple, let’s say that 3000 Jews are making aliyah this year from North America. Out of the 5 million Jews still living there, that comes to .006 percent.

Those jumbo El Al jets look really big, and they are really impressive rolling down the runway toward a welcoming crowd waving a sea of blue and white Israeli flags. The pictures and publicity are great. But wait a minute! Where are the rest of the North Anerican Jews? 

Stranded in Outer Space

If the NASA space program succeeded in returning only .006 percent of its astronauts from outer space, you could be sure a lot of heads would roll. And if a hospital reported that only .006 percent of surgery patients survived their operations, the hospital’s director would soon be out of work. Or if only .006 percent of students graduated from a certain college, the Dean would be out of a job.

The point is that something is very wrong with Jewish education in North America if only .006 of its Jews are making aliyah per year. Why are we waving flags? Instead, we should be crying.

As we mentioned in a recent blog, the goal of Judaism if for the Jewish People to live a life of Torah in Eretz Yisrael. It is through this national sanctification of Hashem that the light of G-d is brought into the world and His Kingship is established over all of the earth, as the verse says, “From Zion will go forth Torah, and the word of G-d from Jerusalem.”

In his book, “Orot,” Rabbi Kook writes: “The concept of Judaism in the Diaspora will only find true strength through the depth of its involvement in Eretz Yisrael. Only through its longing for Eretz Yisrael will Diaspora Judaism consistently receive its inherent qualities. The yearning for Salvation gives the Judaism of the Diaspora its power of stamina; whereas the Judaism of Eretz Yisrael is the Salvation itself" (Orot, 1:1. To read the full essay, click here). 

This means that the goal of Jewish education in the exile must not be the strengthening of Jewish life in the exile, but rather strengthening the Jew’s connection to Eretz Yisrael. The goal of Jewish education in the exile must be to increase the yearning to be saved from the exile, not to prolong it. The goal of Jewish education in the Diaspora must be to yearn for Salvation, which means salvation from the Diaspora itself. What is this Salvation? Rabbi Kook tells us – the Judaism of Eretz Yisrael.  

The reason that the aliyah rate from North America is a dismal .006 percent is because the Jewish education there fosters the strengthening of Judaism in America and Canada. In a past blog, I already gave two clear examples of this, which I will repeat here.

Once, when visiting my parents in Florida before they moved to Israel, I noticed a flyer on the bulletin board of the local Orthodox shul. Its headline invited the congregation to come on a trip with the rabbi to “our nation’s capital.” The photograph on the flyer was the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., and not Jerusalem. Since when, I wondered, had Washington become the capital of the Jewish People?

On another occasion, I had to be in Toronto to raise funds for a yeshiva. While I was waiting to speak in one of the large Orthodox synagogues, I glanced at the weekly Jewish journal. On the front page was a photo of the Toronto landmark skyscraper that looks like a needle. The caption read: “Looking Forward to the Next Decade of Jewish Life in Toronto.”

"If I Forget Thee O Toronto"

I was startled. After all, a Jew is supposed to yearn for the next decade of Jewish life in Jerusalem. This is what we pray for three times a day. And, “Next Year in Jerusalem” is what we all say at the conclusion of the Passover Seder and our Yom Kippur prayers. Are we supposed to mean it, or are we just mouthing the words? 

At the risk of upsetting the whole of establishment Jewry, a word about “Birthright,” the program that brings Jewish college students on a free visit to Israel to strengthen their feelings of Jewish identity. Certainly there are many praiseworthy things that can be said about this endeavor. Nonetheless, let me point out a matter that coincides with what we have been saying. The youthful participants in the Birthright program are not brought to Judea and Samaria during their tours. This is something that the United States Department of State considers a travel risk, causing insurance companies to balk. Now if the organizers of this program adhere to what the State Department advises in order to show that they are faithful Americans, and thus bypass visiting Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in Hevron, why should any of these young people embrace their Jewishness as their first and foremost identity? If they are full-fledged, faithful Americans, then it follows that it is perfectly OK to marry fellow Americans, even if they aren’t Jews. After all, what’s the difference? Americans are Americans, and all Americans are equal, whether they be Eskimos, Afro-Americans, Catholics, or Jews.

The point is that without educating these kids that the Land of Israel is not just a cool place to visit, but rather their true homeland as Jews, in the long run, after the ten-day fix fades away, their identity as Americans is sure to win out in the end.

As long as Jewish education in the Diaspora emphasizes the strengthening of Jewish life and Jewish identity in the Diaspora, it is bound to fail. It is education toward extinction. Whether through assimilation or persecution, the future of Diaspora Judaism is doomed. Jewish educators in the Diaspora have to stop sticking their heads in the sand and face this reality.  Education that strives to build Jewish life in galut is blind to the future.

Blind to the Future

As I said, I am not a mathematician, but any statistician will tell you that with the low Jewish birthrate and with the steady rise in assimilation, Diaspora Jewry is on a drastic decline. In thirty years, fifty years, one hundred years, it is destined to disappear. This is how it should be. This is a good thing. The exile is not meant to last forever. This is what we yearn for in our prayers:

“Sound the great shofar for our freedom (from the Diaspora) and lift up the banner to bring our exiles together (in Israel) and assemble us together from the four corners of the earth to our Land. Blessed art Thou, O L-rd, who gathers the dispersed of Thy people Israel (to the Land of Israel).”