The very first time I visited Israel, I was overwhelmed, thank G-d, with the crystal clear recognition that if I seriously wanted to live a Jewish life and get close to G-d, Israel was the place to be. This awareness was so powerful and obvious, there was no room for speculation or doubt. The people were all Jewish, Hebrew was the language, the highway signs were in Hebrew, advertisements were in Hebrew, the radio news was in Hebrew, it was the land of the Bible, with Jerusalem, the Old City, Shilo, Hevron, the Dead Sea, Tiberias, Safed, the gravesites of our holy Forefathers, Prophets, and Sages, a Jewish government, a Jewish army, Kosher food everywhere, and more yeshivot and synagogues than anywhere else in the world combined. The list goes on and on. In addition, everything was holy. The people, the buses, the hillsides, the buildings, the air, everything was saturated with an aura of holiness with the feeling that G-d is watching every minute.
In contrast, when I returned to New York, I crashed. There was no holiness there at all. Everything was gentile. The people, the language, the architecture, the culture, the television programs and politics were all gentile. For the first time in America, after having stepped foot in the Jewish homeland, I felt like a stranger in a strange land. Even the air was missing. There was no holiness in it at all. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. And the feeling that I had experienced in Israel, that G-d was every present, simply did not exist.
As days passed, the feeling of emptiness and strangeness grew stronger, as if I were extra terrestrial E.T. stranded down on earth.
Desperate to feel something Jewish, I went to a Woody Allen movie. I listened to Carlebach tapes. I walked through Little Italy and Chinatown to the Lower East Side to get a kosher meal at Shmulka Bernstein’s Deli. Finally, I decided to take a subway ride to Crown Heights in Brooklyn, figuring that for sure I’d find holiness there. But when I walked up the stairs of the underground station to the street, I found myself in a Black neighborhood like any other. Here too, there was absolutely no holiness in the air. Even as I walked into the nearby Lubavitch neighborhood, my Geiger counter picked up no crackling of holiness, as if the battery were dead. Suddenly, there were a lot of religious Jews on the street, but there was no holiness in air. Compared to the towering holiness of the Holy Land, the Chabad shtetl was like the empty back lot of a Hollywood set. Only when I saw the Rebbe, did a feeling of holiness return. A holiness exuded from him like a laser, sanctifying everything it touched. But the neighborhood itself, with all of its Hasidim and Jewish life, couldn’t compare with The Land of Israel at all.
The point is, if a Jew really wants to get closer to G-d and to live a full Jewish life, Israel is the one and only place. Anywhere else, even in the most Ultra Orthodox ghetto in New York, it’s a make-believe world, a pantomime going through the motions, a Purim masquerade. For two thousand years, before we had the State of Israel, there was nothing we could do, so we had to make the best out of the exile, and the Jews who clung to Judaism were true heroes and champions of faith. But now that we have our own thriving Jewish country, for any Jew who can make aliyah to Israel, it is like adultery not to come. When we prefer gentile lands to the Land of Israel, when we prefer a world of make believe to the real thing, that is the greatest, most tragic exile of all.