Ziona Greenwald
Ziona Greenwald

Breaking the Aliyah Taboo

In a campaign of moral suasion unseen since perhaps the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, a small but growing circle of noted Orthodox leaders are appearing in a series of short videos urging Jews in the Diaspora to come home to Israel. The “Bring Them Home Project” features Anglo rabbis and one rebbetzin – all olim themselves – each delivering a heartfelt, Torah-based message about aliyah.

The project is the brainchild, and labor of love, of Israeli-by-choice Josh Wander, who has noted that he’s been shocked to learn on speaking tours to the U.S. that most American Jews don’t know that making aliyah is one of the 613 commandments.

The esteemed participants have also lent their signatures to a cogent joint letter on the subject. After emphasizing the halachic imperative of settling the land, the text (originally written in Hebrew) continues: “[A]t this time, we issue a sacred call to you, those who live abroad, to arouse yourselves, to hasten and examine every possibility you have of immigrating to the Land of Israel. And also to educate your sons and daughters on the virtue of living in the Holy Land and to assist them with whatever you can to immigrate and live in the Holy Land.”

This is a big deal.

These religious personalities, including names well-known in the American Jewish community and beyond, have opened the door to a conversation that until now no one has wanted to start.

Verbal and physical expressions of Jew-hatred continue to crack the surface of carefully paved thoroughfares across the U.S., including just this week in Jersey City.  Yet mentioning aliyah as an answer to the problem is still viewed by many as heretical – ungrateful to the paragon of freedom that, at least until recently, felt very much like a refuge. From this all too pervasive mindset, hightailing it to Israel amounts to giving up on the Jewish American Dream.

This is one of the reasons that Israel’s relationship with the stateside Diaspora has grown increasingly rocky, with each side accusing the other of not understanding the issues most important to them. Indeed, since Isaac Herzog took over as head of the Jewish Agency for Israel last year, he has further shifted the organization’s priorities from encouraging aliyah first and foremost to focusing at least equally on fighting anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, ensuring the security of Jewish communities globally, and mending rifts within our people, especially between Israeli and American Jewry.

In the religious community in the U.S., unfortunately, aliyah is barely a blip on the radar screen. Yeshivas teach next to nothing not only about the founding of modern Israel, but also about the centrality of the Holy Land to the observance of Torah. I attended such a school during my early years, as did my kids before we made aliyah. Thankfully, like myself, they got a healthy dose of Israel appreciation at home. But for the thousands who don’t, Israel is at best a vacation destination, at worst a completely blank screen.

This is the place that grounds our faith and connects us to our past, present, and future. Yet among most Orthodox Jews in America? Let’s just say there’s no Wi-Fi signal.

What is so refreshingly bold about the Bring Them Home initiative is that it calls out to exactly those Jews. Not the ones who have already contacted Nefesh B’Nefesh and are researching their options. Not the ones whose hearts swell and ache at news from six thousand miles away. The slumberers, the spiritually complacent, those who pray every day without noticing how many times the land of Israel is mentioned. It’s a different kind of outreach, directed toward those already fervently observant.

Wander plans to continue expanding the series, including adding videos in other languages. (You can view the current library of clips at https://www.bringthemhome.org.il/ or https://www.facebook.com/bringthemhometoday/.) What unites the messages in this campaign and distinguishes it from other voices for aliyah advocacy is its biblical focus: Do it because it’s a mitzvah. Precisely the message that Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora need to hear.

For those of us living here, the contours of our role as aliyah ambassadors remain complicated. As the Bring Them Home videos land one after the other my email inbox, I find my finger hovering over the touchscreen, itching to click “Forward.” I think of the family and friends back in the U.S. with whom I’d love to share these powerful clips. But I hesitate, and stop myself, just as I often do during our long-distance texts and phone calls. Don’t push. Get off your high horse – don’t be preachy.

Rabbis and rebbetzins can preach, though – it’s their job. The more who join the campaign, the louder the message will ring out from Zion, until no Jew in the world will be able to tune it out.

About the Author
Ziona Greenwald, J.D., a contributing editor for The Jewish Press, is a writer and editor and the author of two children's books, Kalman's Big Questions and Tzippi Inside/Out. She lives with her family in Jerusalem.
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