Dear Future Great-Grandchild,
I wonder if you can picture the scene on this September 2017 morning. Your great-grandmother and I are sitting on the living room floor of our home in Englewood, N.J. We are sifting through and packing more than 40 years of accumulated “life” into boxes as we prepare to make aliyah.
We believe that the time has come for us to make our homeland our home. The decision is not an easy one. We are fortunate enough to have led fulfilling lives in the United States, a country that has afforded us with unparalleled opportunity and freedom. We will be leaving behind beloved family members and friends (including your grandparents). Nonetheless, we feel the strong pull of history. For centuries, our people have prayed for a return to Israel, for the chance to create a self-governing Jewish state. Given the opportunity to participate in the fulfillment of that dream in our lifetime, how can we pass it up?
I can’t help but wonder, though: How deep is your bond to the Jewish State?
The seeds of my concern actually emerge from my own time, rather than yours. You see, many of my rabbinic colleagues and I have felt for a while now that even in our Zionistic communities, Zionism is losing its steam. Don’t get me wrong. We still jump into gear when political action is needed to support Israel and its citizens. On a daily basis, however, much of the passion seems to have gone out of the diaspora community’s relationship with Israel.
The signs are clearly evident. Synagogues fill to the rafters for annual Yom HaShoah commemorations, but struggle during the following weeks to get crowds on Yom Ha’Atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim. Israel-related events that once garnered excitement, such as the Israeli day parade here, now feel as if they’re on autopilot. And support of Israel has become progressively more conditional in some circles, as individuals find themselves at odds with specific political, social or religious policies adopted by the Jewish state.
For others, Israel has effectively become a destination for special events and family vacations; a sort of “Jewish Disneyland,” perfect for bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, weddings, holidays. Nearly gone, however, is the enduring sense of amazement, the recognition of Israel’s formation as a turning point in Jewish history. The single greatest miracle in centuries of Jewish history, the fulfillment of a dream for which we have prayed for centuries, is met with a collective shrug.
All this is a far cry from the heady exuberance that your Savta and I remember from our earlier years when the miracle of Israel’s birth after the Holocaust and the victory of the Six-Day War were foundational pieces in the development of our own personal Jewish identities.
Why the dramatic shift?
First, passion for any cause is hard to maintain. As the years passed, Jews worldwide found their relationship with Israel growing increasingly complex. For the early years, it could do no wrong. As the state matured and grew in strength, however, its imperfections began to emerge as well. Suddenly, many within the committed diaspora community found themselves wondering whether their automatic support of Israel was as warranted as it once had been.
Most importantly, human beings are naturally averse to dissonance and discomfort. And such discomfort is unavoidable for anyone who is truly honest about his or her choice to continue living in an “exile of choice.” By now, however, three generations into Israel’s existence, excuses are harder to come by. If the existence of the State of Israel is truly a phenomenon of historical importance, diaspora Jews find themselves subconsciously asking, if the center of Jewish life is shifting to Israel, if I really belong there, then what am I doing here? How can I claim to be a Zionist if I choose to remain in exile?
Which brings me back to my concerns for you. If my contemporaries and I are already witnessing these phenomena in our time, what will your connection to Israel be in yours? Is there a future for a committed, passionate diaspora Zionist community?
My colleagues and I have come to recognize that the answers depend on us. We can no longer ignore the drift within our communities but must intentionally combat it. Israel has never needed us more, and we have never needed Israel more.
That is why, even as Savta and I set our sights towards our new home in Jerusalem, much of my own attention will be directed back to the diaspora. I am honored to have been asked to serve as a senior scholar with Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization acclaimed for its work on behalf of aliyah. In this role, I hope to partner with leaders throughout the Jewish community as we work to revitalize and invigorate Zionism in communities across North America.
We must reshape a diaspora Zionism that answers the fundamental questions: “What does it mean to be a Zionist, yet live in an exile of choice? How will the existence of a Jewish homeland affect me in my daily life, wherever I may live?”
If we are successful, then the seeds that we plant today, at this critical juncture in the Israel-diaspora relationship, will bear their full fruit not in our time, but in yours.
If you are reading this letter, I pray that means that we were indeed successful, and that your relationship with Israel is healthy, vibrant and strong.
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, a former president of the Rabbinical Council of America, has served as spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood, N.J., for more than 33 years. He and his wife, Barbara, made aliyah last month. The full version of this article is available under Opinion at thejewishweek.com