Jewish Identity: All Roads Lead to, or From, Israel

For well over a century, one of the most sizzling topics – and there have been many – in religious Jewish circles has been that of Aliyah to Israel. Intense discussions have centered around the extent to which it is a Biblical commandment; the degree to which it might hover above and/or facilitate all others; the difficulties it presents; Israel's importance to the Jewish People and its future – these and many more have long been issues that we attempt to resolve around our Shabbat tables, in symposiums, and elsewhere time and again, with relative lack of success.

In the circles of singles and newlyweds in which I traveled in my youth, Aliyah was certainly "on the table," and many insisted they were only x months or years away from doing it. Rare were those who admitted, "Living in Israel is just not on my agenda."

But there was one close friend – intelligent and committed to Judaism and the Jewish People – who really startled me. Intent on justifying his intention to remain in New York, he declared: "Don't you see that the United States is the center of Judaism today? This is where it's happening – not in Israel!"

This was, say, around 1980, 1985. I had heard many claims and counter-claims on the topic, and I'd thought that nothing could surprise me. Israel not the center of Judaism?! Let's see: What was going on at the time in Israel? Just this:

The continuing build-up of the largest array of Torah study in history… A Knesset law, for the first time in nearly two millennia, stating that "united and complete Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, [and the] seat of the President of the State of Israel, the Knesset, the Government and the Supreme Court" … Worldwide export of Torah and Judaism teachers to Jewish communities… First-time Jewish visitors here rediscovering their roots… Destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor… A first-ever peace treaty with the largest of Israel's enemies, Egypt, leading to destruction of Jewish towns and searing introspection in terms of the historic Jewish return … Dramatic IDF rescue of 100 hostages in Entebbe… Mass rescue and Aliyah of Ethiopian Jewry and its reattachment to the Jewish Nation after 2,500 years … Export of Jewish agricultural and other know-how to underdeveloped countries… Inventions and technologies that affect the entire world …

No expert on Jewish life in New York, I am confident nevertheless that whatever fascinating and profound issues of Jewish thought and life were occupying several thousand Jews there at the time were of but ephemeral value in comparison to the dynamic Ingathering of the Exiles and their rebuilding of the modern State of Israel in G-d's Holy Land.

What significance does this disagreement hold for us, 30 years later?

Question and Answers
I recently asked several religious Jews living in the United States: "Why do American Jews not live in Israel?"

One said that it is too hard to give up one's community and comfort zone. Another largely agreed and elaborated: "The answer is 'comfort.'  [We have] sufficient means to travel to Israel often enough to feel connected to Israel and feed our neshama [soul] when we are in Israel." A third answered defensively: "Because Israeli society is too polarized, and forces me to make choices I do not have to make when living here."

The question reached some people who had made Aliyah, and one answered, "Religious Jews are part of a galut (Exile) thousands of years old, which has planted within them justification for living where they live. When economic conditions and religious freedom are available at an all-time high, as in the present galut, it is nearly impossible to uproot them…"

This non-representative sampling indicates a distinct pattern – and, all things being equal, the situation does not appear likely to change any time soon.

In France, for instance, where Jews face objective dangers, many have responded by moving to the Promised Land – but many times more have not. Israel's offers of material benefits to new Olim have also not made a big difference. Appealing to either extreme – danger and "new immigrant benefit-baskets" – is not the solution.

What, then, can help rectify the absurd situation in which the Knesset's third-largest party is the United Arab List, with 13 MKs, while religious Jews who could vote into the Knesset a similar amount of MKs remain rooted in the Diaspora?

Two More Ingredients
Let us concentrate on two additional aspects that must be tallied up in the broader picture: Jewish identity abroad, and assimilation in Israel.

Back in 2010, the Knesset Research and Information Center publicized the following shocking statistic: In close to 92,000 families in Israel, out of a total nearing two million, one of the parents is not Jewish. This large number is still minuscule compared to the rest of the world. Removing Arab families from the equation, some 3% of married Jews are married to non-Jews. But in France, England, and South America, the rate is 35-45%, and in the U.S., it's 55%! The reasons for the phenomenon both here and there are similar, according to the Yad L'Achim anti-assimilation organization: "Gaps in knowledge of Jewish tradition and history, and weak Jewish identity."

It is thus reasonably believed that education and fortification of Jewish identity could slow down assimilation. Would this also help increase Aliyah?

The Assimilation/Aliyah Equation
Several years ago, Jewish Agency head Natan Sharansky made a first-of-its-kind announcement: "The Jewish Agency's main priority is no longer to bring Jews on Aliyah, but rather to help preserve Jewish identity worldwide." He explained that Jewry's "main challenge in Russia, Ukraine, Argentina and elsewhere is how to bring more kids to informal Jewish education."

The WZO's David Breakstone elaborated at the time: "There won't be any Aliyah of choice without Jewish education… The best way to [achieve Aliyah is] by increasing budgets for Jewish education… The centrality of Israel is an inviolable principle, [and Israel] needs to be concerned with enriching Jewish life everywhere and not only attracting Jews to it."

Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein agrees: "We have to maintain the [approach of] strengthening Jewish identity and the bond with Israel. That does not mean we should neglect Aliyah; quite the opposite… The decision to make Aliyah should not be made because of terror attacks or pogroms, but out of a sense of conviction, Jewish identity…"

The RAJE Model
One example of a successful Jewish identity program in the U.S. that also focuses on Israel is RAJE: Russian American Jewish Experience. Its specific target audience is the 18-30 age group of Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants to the US, and attempts to upgrade their sense of Jewish identity and involvement. It can be adapted to suit other Jewish populations.

How is this measured, and how is it accomplished? It is fascinating to note that it is accomplished via Israel, but measured mostly not in terms of Israel.

RAJE Director and founder Rabbi Mordechai Tokarsky came up with four basic standards by which to gauge Jewish identity and behavior. The organization asked two-year RAJE veterans if they were now more likely to: Establish a Jewish household? Affiliate with and be involved in Jewish communal life? Fulfill spiritual needs through the study and practice of Judaism? Develop a strong connection to the State of Israel?

The RAJE semester-long program consists of 250 hours of high-level Jewish educational programming, featuring a two-week trip to Israel, 45 hours of sessions, two weekend retreats, and more. By all accounts, RAJE has been successful – cutting down intermarriage among its participants to only 6%! In addition, 82% gave charity to a Jewish organization, 52% read a Jewish book over the past year, and 78% lit Hanukkah candles.

Note that though making Aliyah was not a goal, nor was there any apparent arousal to do so, the highlight of the program was a two-week trip to Israel – and this was arguably where much of the inspiration came into play.


There are no quick fixes for either the Aliyah or assimilation problem, but the two are intertwined. Strengthening Jewish identity is critical, but a strong Israel anchor seems instrumental in doing so – and can then lead to Aliyah.


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