When family gatherings start to get a bit tiresome, there is no better way to liven them up than by raising a provocative subject. If you really want to ensure an energetic and even vocal get-together, especially when there are Jews visiting from the Diaspora seated at the table, then few subjects are likely to prove as effective as that of the need to live in Israel.

So it was that when a recent family meal came perilously close to discussing various kosher cookbooks, I got up the nerve to go on the offensive, suddenly changing the subject away from matters of the stomach to matters of the mind. With several of my wife?s cousins from abroad present, all of whom are studying at haredi yeshivot in Jerusalem, my timing could not have been any more fortuitous. It was not the first time we engaged in an animated debate of the issue of living in Israel and it is unlikely to be the last, either. While I will spare you the details of our little chat, if only because I do not want this column to start resembling a home-movie, there is something about the conversation that continues to disturb me greatly.

My debating partners made several cogent arguments, asserting that there are plenty of legitimate reasons why many religious Jews in the Diaspora do not move to Israel, such as family, health or financial considerations. Each person, they said, must examine his own situation, consult a rabbinical authority and then reach a decision on whether aliyah is for him. Broadly speaking, such an approach sounds eminently reasonable, for it takes into account that the question of making aliyah is at least a question that needs to be asked. Whatever the answer may be, it is a matter that must be grappled with by the person who does the asking.

Upon further reflection, however, I realized that the problem with this approach is that it is not always put into practice. Most Diaspora Jews, religious or not, do not seem particularly troubled by the issue of aliyah and I doubt whether there are many losing sleep over the dilemma it poses. Instead, it appears that the idea of not living in Israel has taken on a life of its own. It has become a philosophy unto itself, one in which the value of living in Israel is inevitably reduced, if not negated altogether. The proof of this lies in the fact that there is only a small trickle of religious Jews making aliyah every year from the West. While these brave souls may represent the lion?s share of overall arrivals from the West, the numbers are still regrettably small. If, as my lunch companions suggested, living in Israel is an ideal for which every religious Jew must strive, then why have so many thus far failed to fulfill this elevated goal?

Worse still is that this communal failure feeds on itself, creating a vicious circle that proves impenetrable to logic or persuasion. Some religious Jews do not want to live here because they say Israel is not traditional enough. Yet, in reality, the reason it may not be traditional enough is precisely because they do not live here. In other words, they are confusing cause and effect. If more chose to do so, if hundreds of thousands of observant Jews were to suddenly come on aliyah to Israel, it would dramatically change the country, just as the arrival of masses of Russians did over the past decade. Imagine the impact it would have on Israel?s religious and cultural life if the observant Jews of New York, London and Paris were to transplant themselves to Israel. It would not only revolutionize the religious world, but it would also bolster the centrality of Judaism in Israel?s day-to-day national life. Because observant Jews in the Diaspora would bring with them their experience in having to juggle between religious commitments and the demands of the secular world, they would serve as a valuable role model for various elements of Israeli society.

Obviously, not every person is ready to make aliyah and it requires a great deal of personal commitment and sacrifice to do so. Yet if Orthodox Jewry in America and elsewhere were true to itself and to the values it espouses, it would be doing much more to promote the value of living in Israel. This applies to both the haredi and modern Orthodox communities. Other than Rabbi Shlomo Riskin of Efrat, Rabbi Jay Marcus of Beit Shemesh and a handful of others, how many Diaspora rabbis have picked themselves up and brought their communities with them on aliyah? How many congregations actively encourage their young people to make the move and back up their words with tangible forms of support for those who do?

Yes, Israel plays a central role in the lives of many observant Jews in America. They visit more often than their non-religious counterparts, send their children to study in Israeli institutions for a year after high school and intimately follow the twists and turns of Israeli politics. However, that, quite simply, is not enough.

Israel needs more Jews. It needs more religious Jews. It may sound slightly risqu?, perhaps even inappropriate, but I will say it nonetheless: we need your bodies and we need them now.


Originally published in the Jerusalem Post. Posted with permission of the author.

The writer, an Orthodox Jew, served as Deputy Director of Communications & Policy Planning in the Prime Minister?s Office from 1996 to 1999.