Sunday, June 28, 2009

Contemplating Aliyah

Towards the end of December, I noticed a article in one of the Israeli papers that gave me pause for thoughts, and occasioned some strangely mixed emotions in me. I thought I would share some of that with you today, and invite you to consider these issues for yourself and, perhaps, even to open a dialogue at Shelter Rock about the issue.

In the paper, I read that 2007 saw the lowest number of Jewish immigrants going on aliyah to Israel in twenty years. The number of people who made the decision to throw their lot in with the people of Israel was exactly 19,700, which, no matter how positive a spin you try to put on it, is not a lot of people. In terms of the Jewish world, it's a drop in the bucket. Even in terms of Israel society, it isn't much. In terms of the population of Israel's Arab neighbors, it's even more minuscule. About a third came from countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union, but, even at a third of the whole, immigration from the FSU was down about 15% from the previous year. Immigration from France, which had been rising for several years, also fell. Partially, of course, this is all good news: the Jews of the former Soviet Union are, apparently, feeling less oppressed and more secure, thus less likely to leave the only country almost all of them have ever known for a new place (and a new culture and a new language, etc.) The Jews of France are also feeling more secure now that France has a president with a Jewish grandfather, and a foreign minister with a Jewish father. Depending on how you look at it, that's either silly—are the Jews of France really any more safe from anti-Semitism because Nicolas Sarkozy had a Jewish grandfather or because Bernard Kouchner's father was Jewish?—or else it isn't, but the bottom line is that it takes a lot to leave the world you were born into, the country you've lived in for your entire life, and a culture that you are totally familiar with and at home in, and set off for a different place. People who talk about aliyah as though it were a simple thing anyone possessed of a modicum of Jewish consciousness could (and should) easily undertake, are missing the point, some of them almost entirely.

I certainly know how it feels to be torn about the issue. I don't think of myself as a hyphenated American, but as a normal citizen of our great country, not unlike other citizens who profess other faiths. I don't feel that I have mastered American culture, but simply that it is my culture. I was born into this world, after all. And for all the years Joan and I lived abroad (one in Israel, two in Germany and thirteen in Canada), I never stopped thinking of myself as an American, and a proud American at that! So no one has to explain to me what it means for someone to feel at home in his or her own place, nor should anyone have to. And yet...that story in the paper awakened all the deepest emotions in me. Immigration is falling off because Jews are thriving in other places...but what of the Zionist ideal itself, what of the dream of countless generations to live as a free people in our own land, to re-establish a Jewish state in the Land of Israel? The cynic in me laughs at the rest of me, possibly reasonably, when I express that idea. Sure, my inner cynic says, you are in favor of aliyah. You are in favor of other people going on aliyah. In fact, you feel depressed because not enough of those other people are going. Your solution, of course, is not to go yourself, but to feel regretful about the fallings other words, to do nothing at all other than ruminate on the matter briefly, then, after having enjoyed a few moments of noble melancholy, turn to other, more pressing business. In all that, I suppose I am your typical American Jew.

Does it have to be this way? Without succumbing to cynicism, can we talk about aliyah? Do we do enough to present living in Israel as a viable, wonderful option for young people planning out the rest of their lives? Do we promote travel to Israel strenuously enough among those young people, or among older people who are looking for a new direction in life, for a new place to start a new chapter in life? I wrote the other week about my oldest son's adventures as a staff person on the Birthright trip. (It turned out very well. He finished yesterday and pronounced the whole thing a huge success. He'll stay for another week in Tel Aviv, then come home.) Have we acted forcefully enough as a community to make sure that there is not a single Jewish young person between the ages of 18 and 26 known to us who could go on Birthright but who has somehow never heard of it, and who, as a result, has not gone? When we counsel our own children and grandchildren about possible directions to take in life, do we shy away from mentioning Israel...or do we speak forcefully and passionately about how proud we all would be for someone from our community to make the decision to settle in the Jewish homeland and make a life there.

I always feel a bit sheepish when this topic comes up for discussion. After all, I live here. Joan and I only own one home in the world, and even though it's in Jerusalem, we still live here. We like it here. We're comfortable here. I can hardly preach aliyah to others when we've made our life here. And yet...a drop of 6% in a single year in immigration to Israel is meaningful. If that trend continues, we'll be seeing 25% fewer olim in only four years. And Israel needs its immigrants, a fact we all know, myself included, but prefer to ignore. So I find myself on the horns of a dilemma, an unpleasant place to be. But why should I suffer alone? Let's talk about this as a community. How can we foster aliyah to Israel? I suppose we can start by fostering tourism, by providing more intense support for Merkaz, the Zionist wing of the Conservative movement, by making sure Israel is part of our lives. I'll be there next February for the Rabbinical Assembly convention, but I'm hoping to go again next summer with my family. My oldest son, the one I mentioned earlier, was born in Israel, so I'm at least the father of a sabra. My ties to Israel are deep and real, as is my sense of myself as an American, but that combination of identities only makes it odder and slightly more painful for me to think carefully about the dropping numbers in that story. Welcome to my world! Let's talk about aliyah.... (January 11, 2008)

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