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The Zionist Elephant in the Room

By Michael Freund
4/22/2010, 12:00 AM

Aliyah is the Zionist elephant in the room, a painfully obvious subject which Diaspora Jews are aware of but few wish to touch, because it raises so many awkward and uncomfortable questions about the future
Amid all the fanfare this week as Jews worldwide celebrated the State of Israel's 62nd birthday, there was one central item that was prominently and conspicuously missing from the agenda. And that, oddly enough, was aliyah.
As I suggest in the column below, one of the greatest sources of frustration and failure when it comes to encouraging Jews to move to Israel is the silence of rabbis on this critical point.
Diaspora rabbis can and should do more to advance and promote aliyah, especially among the more committed and observant, and I suggest a number of simple steps they can take in this regard. 

Indeed, it is time for the intense longing for Zion embodied in our daily and Sabbath prayers to be translated into a concrete plan of action for North American Jews, and this is where rabbis can step up and make a difference.

 

The Zionist Elephant in the Room

By Michael Freund

Jews around the world this week commemorated the 62nd anniversary of the momentous rebirth of the Jewish state in the land of Israel with all the pomp and ceremony warranted by such a meaningful day on the calendar.

Across North America, Federations and Jewish community centers held lectures and celebrations, youth movements convened a range of special activities, and synagogues played host to festive services of prayer and thanksgiving.

Participants waved blue and white flags with pride and downed falafel with abandon as they expressed their love and admiration, albeit from afar, for the historic undertaking known as the State of Israel.

And this, of course, is at it should be. The return of the Jewish people to our land and the restoration of Jewish sovereignty are the two greatest miracles of the modern era, so it is only natural that Diaspora Jews would see fit to venerate this turn of events.

As the late Rabbi Ben-Zion Uziel, who served as Israel's first Sephardic Chief Rabbi from 1948 to 1954, wrote in his last will and testament, "Our generation has been granted a great and wonderful privilege in the revelation of the hand of the L-rd, hidden and mighty, on behalf of His chosen people, gathering our exiles and bringing them to their patrimony till we have become a people dwelling in its own land".

Indeed, if that isn't worth celebrating, then what is?

But amid all the revelry and excitement this past Tuesday in places such as New York, Toronto and Los Angeles, there is one central item that was prominently and conspicuously missing from the agenda. And that, oddly enough, was aliyah.

It is, so to speak, the Zionist elephant in the room, a painfully obvious subject which Diaspora Jews are aware of but few wish to touch, because it raises so many awkward and uncomfortable questions about the future.

And while immigration to Israel from North America has been steadily on the rise, thanks in part to the admirable work of the Nefesh B'Nefesh organization, the few thousand brave souls who make the move each year still represent just a fraction of a portion of a small sliver of the Canadian and American Jewish communities.

There are surely many reasons for this, and it is easy to point the finger at causes such as a lack of basic Zionist and Jewish education or the misplaced priorities of various national Jewish groups.

But I'd like to direct attention in an entirely different direction, to what I see as perhaps one of the greatest sources of frustration and failure when it comes to encouraging Jews to make aliyah, and that is the silence of rabbis on this critical point.

Sure, communal rabbis have their hands full already. Just keeping their congregants Jewishly-involved and motivated presents a great challenge for many in the free societies of the West.

But as the spiritual and educational leaders of their communities, Diaspora rabbis can and should do more to advance and promote aliyah, especially among the more committed and observant.  

It is time for the intense longing for Zion embodied in our daily and Sabbath prayers to be translated into a concrete plan of action for North American Jews and this is where rabbis can step up and make a difference.

By taking a few simple steps, rabbis can help raise the aliyah consciousness of increasing numbers of Diaspora Jews.

These could include establishing a Rabbinical Aliyah Council, which would coordinate aliyah-centered programming and initiatives at synagogues across America.

By coming together in such a forum, rabbis would be sending an important message to their congregants underlining the centrality of aliyah and placing it squarely on the national Jewish agenda.

It would also serve as an impetus and a reminder to rabbis that they need to tackle this crucial issue.

Synagogues around the country should also devote a special Sabbath each year to the theme of aliyah. A fortuitous time to do so is when the weekly Torah portion of Lech Lecha from the book of Genesis is read in which our father Abraham became the first Jew to move to Israel.

That can be the launching point for sermons, discussions and panel sessions on the history, theology and ideology behind going home to Zion.

Synagogues could also establish an Aliyah Wall of Honor, highlighting members of the local congregation and community who have made the move. This would underline communal respect and admiration for those who make aliyah, and project a sense of aspiration and purpose to members of the younger generation.

There is of course a need for more materials to be written in English on the religious and Zionist reasons for moving to Israel, and for bonds to be strengthened between immigrants and the communities they left behind.

This will serve to strengthen the position of aliyah in the mindset of more Jews, and lend further legitimacy to the idea of considering it as an option.

Rabbis have a central role to play in making this happen, and they would do well to learn from the example in the Talmud of Rabbi Zeira.

One of the Amoraim, Rabbi Zeira was born in Babylonia but longed for the Land of Israel. Prior to moving, he spent a hundred days fasting to forget the methodology of study he learned in the Exile in order to make a fresh start once in Israel (Tractate Berachot 57a).

And when he reached the Jordan River, Rabbi Zeira was so eager to enter the land that he crossed through the water without bothering to remove his clothes.

When a passerby mocked him, Rabbi Zeira replied, "Why shouldn't I be impatient when I am pursuing a blessing which was denied even to Moses and Aaron"? (Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Shevuot 35).

If only we saw a similar level of impatience among the rabbis of North America and the West.

Nonetheless, centuries later, the blessing of which Rabbi Zeira spoke is still here, awaiting us all, in the Land of Israel. Now is the time for the rabbis to encourage Jews to pursue it.