Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb was interviewed by Israel National Radio’s Aliyah Revolution show on the balance the Orthodox Union strikes between encouraging Aliyah and strengthening the Diaspora.
Host Go’el Jasper focused on an upcoming event organized by the OU showcasing “emerging” Jewish communities across North America. The OU has been advertising the event thusly: “Pursue your dream of a professionally enriching, religiously and personally rewarding life in a community with affordable homes in a friendly, supportive neighborhood, where you can be a key person, helping to bolster the Torah environment.”
Showcased communities include: San Francisco, California; Charleston, South Carolina; Columbus, Ohio; Dallas, Texas; Denver, Colorado; Edmonton, Alberta, Canada; Houston, Texas; Indianapolis, Indiana; Memphis, Tennessee; New Orleans, Louisiana; Omaha, Nebraska; San Diego, California; Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, BC, Canada. Jasper and his co-host discussed their misgivings and suggestions with Rabbi Weinreb, the OU’s Executive Vice President.
Go’el: The OU characterizes these 14 communities as “emerging Jewish communities.” At the same time, the number of Jews in the US is going down – whether due to assimilation or those few making Aliyah. There is no doubting that the Jewish community in the US is on the decline. Why not focus the OU’s energies - in terms of its role in setting the agenda for the non-hareidi Orthodox world - on helping Jews move to where the future of the Jewish people is: in Israel. In other words: do you believe the future of the Jewish people is in Israel, or in places like Charleston, South Carolina or Dallas, Texas?
Rabbi Weinreb: I think it’s a matter of discriminating between the ideal and the real. In spite of the fact that we might not like – neither you nor I – the real, I think we have to deal with it. Ideally, the future of the Jewish community – Orthodox, Hareidi, or any – is in Eretz Yisroel [the Land of Israel]. No question about that. However, the reality is that even if there has been an improvement in North American Aliyah in the past few years – largely through the effort of Nefesh B’Nefesh – the total Aliyah was several thousand a year and the great majority of Americans – rightly or wrongly – are choosing to remain in the golus [exile].
Go’el: But you are not trying to encourage Jews from really tiny towns in North America to pick up and go to these places like Denver or whatever. It’s a New York event. These are New York Jews already in a strong Jewish community and you are asking them, in essence to strengthen communities that are basically not so strong. You call them “emerging,” I would argue “dying.”
Rabbi Weinreb: The demographics clearly show that the general Jewish population is declining in the US. But the demographics are also clear that the Orthodox population in the US is growing - and growing dramatically. And the Orthodox Union – though it is doing a lot of work in Eretz Yisrael, our primary raison d’etre is as a union of Orthodox congregations in the US. Therefore we have to do what we can to strengthen those communities. The communities that were chosen are communities that are growing. Usually they fit the profile of a Memphis or a Milwaukee or an Indianapolis – where there were at one point rather large Orthodox communities – not large by New York standards, but large enough – and have been in decline. But in the last ten years or so, for a variety of reasons have started to re-grow.
Co-host Dovid Gantshar: If you are going so far as to put on a conference and you are going to be talking about these communities – why not include in that conference a few Israeli towns? Why not include a few places here in Israel – a moshav, a yishuv, a city – and talk about the merits of living in Israel.
Rabbi Weinreb: We see this conference as really a pilot in a much more extensive program. One of the conferences which is in planning now is a conference of this sort, but for communities in Israel. We’ve already been in discussion with the Jewish Agency to help us work on this subsequent conference. I think that you and your listenership need to understand that this program is one in a large array of programs that we do. We had a conference fostering Aliyah, which we did in conjunction with Nefesh B’Nefesh, and we plan, immediately after this conference, to have another one similar, but encouraging the growth of communities in Eretz Yisrael. Obviously we will pre-select the communities that are most appealing to our constituency – namely which will provide for the religious, educational and vocational needs of our constituency that are considering Aliyah.
Go’el: That will take place this year?
Rabbi Weinreb: That will take place within three or four months of this conference. We want to learn from this conference so we can learn from it and improve on it.
Go’el: Why not have an Israel booth at this one?
Rabbi Weinreb: We service, in the US alone, several hundred communities. We wanted to focus on those communities which had a lot in common in terms of their attractiveness to a specific sub-constituency of ours. And that is why we focused just on these 13 and not, for example on Los Angeles and Chicago – which is a whole other type of thing. Not with communities in Eretz Yisrael – which represents a whole other set of issues. Not communities in Canada even [sic] – for this reason. But this is a focused intervention that we are trying to do in response to these communities we are in daily touch with. I think it is wrong for you to misperceive this as being in any way anti-Aliyah or anti-Israel. It is one program among many and it is serving a definite need.
I understand where there is a strong opinion. And I might be inclined to agree with it: that every Jew in the Diaspora should be headed to Aliyah. But if we would take that approach we would be ignoring the very real fact – the sad fact – that a growing number of Orthodox Jews are choosing to stay in the Diaspora. And frankly, quite a few Israelis have moved to the US, still want to live in Orthodox communities, and this is a service we have to provide for them. We can’t be the ones to say “Hey, you don’t belong here.”
Go’el: I know [you] will say that it’s part of the OU’s job to strengthen all Jewish communities, but I see this as basically a green light from the OU that Jews anywhere – even those that right now are living in Israel, or have lived their whole lives in Israel – can feel they have the endorsement from the OU to move to places like Indianapolis and Memphis. Even more, that things like laptops and watches are incentives for making your decision on where you should live your Jewish life [a laptop computer is being raffled off, as well as hourly watch drawings to those who attend the emerging communities conference –ed.].
Rabbi Weinreb: All that we are giving a green light to is for Jews in the Greater New York City area – who are not considering Aliyah – to consider Memphis or Milwaukee rather than Teaneck or the Five Towns.
Go’el: You said earlier that ideally, every Jew should be growing on a path toward living in Eretz Yisrael. Is it the OU’s position that all Jews should be on a clear path toward making Aliyah. I imagine it has to be, because that is what Jewish law tells us to do. But if that is the case, is there going to be any discussion of moving to Memphis with the idea in mind that ultimately you are going to be moving to Israel.
Rabbi Weinreb: We have as an organization, and I make sure to make it a part of every public presentation I do. I emphasize the importance of living in Eretz Yisrael, the importance of Aliyah. The importance of – if you are not ready for Aliyah for whatever reason – that you visit Israel, send your children for the year to Israel, etc, etc. That is certainly part of our message and our mission. We have worked in the past very closely with Nefesh B’Nefesh. I personally participated in almost every initial sendoff every summer with Nefesh B’Nefesh. And we talk it up. I heard you say that [the mention of Aliyah application] is on the way bottom of our web site – and I will correct that. The web site is not the full indication of where our priorities are and it is easily corrected [The position of the Aliyah link has not yet been adjusted since the interview two weeks ago -ed.].
We are now involved in an initiative with the Jewish Agency who approached us for our help with their Aliyah efforts. So in terms of Aliyah – for sure. In terms of the halachot [Jewish laws] of the importance of settling Eretz Yisrael – for sure. And I would wager that in OU shuls [synagogues] you would be more likely to hear a message of Aliyah than other shuls not affiliated with the OU. Do we have improvements to make? Of course.
Go’el: When I lived in Baltimore. I heard that message Shabbos after Shabbos, from Rabbi Weinrebs who were not walking the walk. I know the argument that someone has to stay on to turn off the lights when everybody’s gone. But when a Rabbi Weinreb tells you to keep kosher – he keeps kosher too. When he tells you not to speak lashon hara [slander or malicious talk –ed.] – he also doesn’t speak lashon hara. But when a Rabbi Weinreb tells you to make Aliyah – that’s a much tougher sell. How can we resolve that and make Aliyah into something that is not just a dream?
Rabbi Weinreb: My experience has been – certainly at my pulpit – that I did talk the talk and quite a few people from my shul did make Aliyah. Sometimes with great personal sacrifice. But nevertheless, it was obvious that I was not personally, yet, walking the walk. I think every Rabbi Weinreb who is serious about this has his own reasons, as do many people living in chutz la’Aretz [outside Israel]. The reasons may be rationalizations, excuses – I won’t hide from that. But at this point, we are faced with hundreds of thousands of Jews who need guidance, leadership, etc. So there has to be a balance. In reality. Ideally, obviously we would all pick up this afternoon and move to Eretz Yisrael. But we are dealing with reality. The realities are that there are a growing number of young families in the New York metropolitan area who are not considering Aliyah, who are faced with impossibly high housing costs, with the difficulties of raising their children religiously in New York.
Go’el: But that is the perfect reason why there should be a table or booth at this program. All these things that you listed work for Israel too. And if it’s a pilot, Israel can be one of the cities in the pilot.
Rabbi Weinreb: Again, you are highlighting this event, which is just a small part in a much larger program. And in the larger program we certainly convey that for all these logistical reasons – putting aside the religious reason – Eretz Yisrael represents the preferable option.
Go’el: Thank you Rabbi Weinreb for your time and for all the OU’s initiatives.