The Diaspora in crisis: Instead of preaching, embrace

Show genuine interest in welfare of our brothers across the sea. Offer attractive options for comfortably acculturating to life in Israel.

Rabbi Yoni Lavi ,

Rabbi Yoni Lavi
Rabbi Yoni Lavi
Sigal Badelov

When an Israeli Jew looks towards a Jew who lives in the Diaspora, he is generally looking down. He feels a sense of self-righteousness, or perhaps even contempt. “These people are so immersed in the Diaspora that they have forgotten that a Jew really belongs in the land of Israel. For two-thousand years, we have been murdered and persecuted, and yet they still have not internalized that there is nothing for us there”.

It was not always like this. In the early days of the State of Israel, Israeli Jews were primarily jealous of the Jews who lived abroad. “We are here, risking our lives and draining swamps, while they are ‘sitting by the fleshpot’ and enjoying the good life".

Since then, much water has passed through the Jordan River. The State of Israel has transformed into a prosperous superpower and one of the best places to live in the world. Malaria has been replaced by the high-tech industry. Instead of mosquitoes, we now have iPhones. These days, we are not jealous of Diaspora Jewry, as much as infuriated by them. “How is it possible that millions of Jews choose to remain scattered across the four-corners of the earth, rather than taking the obvious step of returning home to the land of their forefathers”?!

Two Iron Curtains

Yet, there are two important things that we do not appreciate. Firstly, it is extremely difficult to leave your hometown and all that is familiar to you. Man, by his very nature, lays down roots and connects to his surroundings. The act of separating from one’s natural environment is similar to severing a limb from the body. We love to retell the inspiring story of our national exodus from Egypt, and we tend to gloss over the inconceivable fact that most of the Jews actually preferred to stay there. According to our Sages, only one-fifth of the nation left Egypt (see Rashi’s commentary to the verse “and they left the land of Egypt hamushim”). Just to make it perfectly clear, even though the Egyptian exodus rescued the nation from the nightmare of forced labor and infanticide, the majority of Jews still has a difficult time leaving the place that was familiar to them.

Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to acclimate to a new place. Aliya is not simply a “cut and paste” operation. Every relocation demands complete restructuring and rebuilding. Not for naught is the prophet Yirmiyahu amazed at the nation’s willingness to follow God to a new land: “I accounted to your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride” (Yirmiyahu 2:2). Moving to a new place often means starting again, from the very beginning. As an unfortunate case in point, consider the large-scale aliya of the Russian community and the Ethiopian community in the 1990’s. In those days, if you encountered a street cleaner or a security guard who worked from morning until night and earned an abysmal salary, chances are that he was a new immigrant. People who had previously worked as hospital directors, scientists and respected businessmen were relegated to the lowest point on the food chain and struggled for their daily survival. The children of Ethiopian immigrants were also enamored by the secular lifestyle and abandoned the Jewish heritage of their fathers.

There are many ways to rationalize and explain the absorption difficulties experienced by new immigrants. It was not easy for a young state that lacked financial and social resources to multiply its population by tenfold (!) in just sixty years. Yet, the bottom line remains: The agonizing absorption experiences of previous immigrants do not serve as much of an impetus for a Jew in Florida, Paris or Melbourne to follow in their footsteps.

Where Did Everyone Disappear?

These two mitigating factors are compounded by one critical fact. While it is true that it is hard to leave the Diaspora and acclimate to a new and different place, we do not have a choice. The Diaspora is a ticking time bomb. If we do not hurry and extricate the Jewish community from the Diaspora, the day will yet come, God forbid, when there will be nobody left to take out. Moshe Rabbenu formulated this point harshly: “The land of your enemies shall consume you” (Vayikra 26:38). Modern researchers refer to this phenomenon as “the silent Holocaust”. The loss of Jewish identity and assimilation is the real plague that threatens Diaspora Jewry. Compared to this plague, Covid19 is really just child’s play. At the end of World War II, there were five million Jews in the United States. Seventy-five years have passed since then. Based on natural population growth trends, there should have been tens of millions of Jews living between New York and California. In actuality, there are only five million Jews. Where did tens of millions of our brothers disappear?! The dismal answer is: They are all still there. But they have forgotten what it means to be Jews and they have become estranged from the Jewish nation.

Prayer Alone is Not Sufficient

Traditional anti-Semitism has been stimulated and aroused by the violent demonstrations, vandalism and looting that has erupted throughout the United States in recent days. The steep price paid by the Jewish community in the recent spread of Covid19 has also led to poignant introspection. Our job, the Jewish community that lives within the land of Israel, is not to cluck our tongues and rebuke our brothers in the Diaspora: “See, we told you so, a Jew belongs in the land of Israel”. Statements like these are demeaning and push people away. It is our responsibility to express ourselves now through action:

  • Show genuine interest in the welfare of our brothers across the sea. Write to them, embrace them from a distance. These conversations fortify them with strength and endow them with a feeling of belonging to the Jewish nation and connectedness to the land of Israel.
  • Offer attractive options for making aliya and quickly and comfortably acculturating to life in Israel. We must not let the absorption difficulties that marked the Russian aliya and the Ethiopian aliya be repeated.

The tenth blessing that we recite in Shemoneh Esrei discusses kibbutz galiyot (the ingathering of the exiles): “Raise the banner to gather our exiles and gather us together from the four corners of the earth”. This daily recitation might generate the mistaken assumption that kibbutz galiyot is dependent on God alone, and our job is simply to encourage Him with heartfelt prayer. This is incorrect. We have a decisive role to play in this process. It is up to us to determine if kibbutz galiyot will be a prophecy that will be realized in the distant future, or if it will appear in the headlines of tomorrow’s paper.

Rabbi Yoni Lavi is the Rabbi of Tzeirei Hadar Ganim Congregation in Petach Tikva and graduate of the Barkai Center for Practical Rabbinics and Community Development in Modiin