Live Israel: Engagement and Zionism

Rabbi Fass delivering YU keynote address
Rabbi Fass delivering YU keynote address

The following is an excerpt of the well-received keynote address at Yeshiva University’s 82nd Commencement by Yeshiva University alumnus and executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh, Rabbi Joshua Fass.

Rabbi Fass delivering YU keynote address
Rabbi Fass delivering YU keynote address

Yeshiva University students come from diverse upbringings and backgrounds. At the time of my graduation, and, I would venture, that it is similar today, as it was in my father’s time at YU, there are actually three types of YU graduates.

There are some who look back at their YU days with the emphasis on the yeshiva component of the Yeshiva University experience. They look back at the university curriculum as an excuse, or an opportunity they had to garner parental permission to continue their focus on Torah learning – the true source of their passion. The university classes in their eyes were merely pre-requisites that filled their time between shiur and seder.

Yeshiva University 2013 Commencement Keynote Address

There are graduates who look back at YU with a completely opposite viewpoint. They came to YU to attend university, and university they attended. They took the necessary coursework so that they could continue onwards to their graduate schools of choice, and eventually lead successful careers. The yeshiva components of their YU experience could have easily been replaced with any other educational pursuit and their notes on Tanach, Gemara, Torah sheba’al peh and Halacha eventually find a cozy nook in some storage facility.

I actually feel that it’s truly extraordinary and commendable that both types of students feel at home at YU.

But the third type of YU student is perhaps the very ideal of what the institution represents.

Our generation sadly, did not experience having Rav Joseph B. Soleveitchik in our midst, of witnessing first hand this Gadol B’Torah who maneuvered effortlessly between a Ktzot and Kierkegaard, and it puts us at a tremendous disadvantage of grappling with the inimitable philosophy of this institution.  But heroically, and astonishingly, 20 years later, YU still transmits a unique and noble approach, a ‘derech hachaim’,  a mesorah that resonates this extraordinary synergy.

Now call the “synergy” what you wish: Yeshiva University, Torah Umada, Torah Im Derech Eretz, Shleimut.  We are all so used to these terms that we often forget that  this is a unique approach, a very challenging but ultimate pursuit, an ideal that actually may need to be stated and clarified from time to time, and not be taken as a given tenet of the student population.

So, twenty years after I graduated from Yeshiva University I can tell you, in personal retrospect, what I’ve taken from my Yeshiva University experience and what the remarkable synergy can offer.
This philosophy, the synergy, doesn’t deny for a moment that Torah is all encompassing.

The synergy should not be misunderstood or reinterpreted so that the accent is placed on the last words of “University” or “Mada”.
As Rav Shimon Shwab so eloquently voiced: the philosophy stresses the Torah’s conquest of life and not the Torah’s flight from life. It stresses the Torah’s casting a light into the darkness rather than hiding from the darkness. It means applying Torah to the earth and not divorcing it from the earth.

This approach expects us to open our eyes to the world around us, propelling us as Torah Jews to impact, inspire and affect our surroundings.  It underscores that education and leadership cannot function in a vacuum.   It also compels us to take our Torah values and bring it to our academic pursuits, scientific training, literary and artistic skills, to our careers and work environments.  It is the belief that when we engage our surroundings not only will the world, so desperately in need of inspiration, benefit from our actions. But we will also be enhanced by the experience.

Over the last eleven years, I have been witness to some of the most extraordinarily inspiring stories.   There’s one which sticks out, which perhaps can help drive this point home.

A few months back, I was meeting an Israeli, in my office in Jerusalem, regarding a small project. Throughout the meeting, the person across my desk, was completely lost and preoccupied in his own thoughts.  I was just about to confront him and draw him back into our discussion, when he looked back at me with tears in his eyes and stated rather bluntly. My son is an incredible human being.

Before I had the chance to respond, he continued: My son is 20 years old. He is currently serving in a special elite unit in the IDF. He spends days on end, over enemy lines, camouflaged, sometimes as a rock, a bush, a pile of mud – you name it.  And every three weeks or so he comes home for Shabbat exhausted, with those beautiful blue eyes and a pile of laundry.

He continued telling me that that very morning before he left his home to come to our meeting, his wife was doing the laundry and had to actually hose down their son’s uniform, before washing it, to remove all of the caked on mud.  And then she discovered something remarkable in the pants pocket.  There was a Gemara, with the hard cover removed so that it could be easily slipped into the army pants, and a tiny LED light holding the place of the Daf.

Both parents confronted their son to ask about the Gemara. The son explained that indeed during the wee hours of the night – (camouflaged as a rock, a bush, or a pile of mud –   he would make sure that he maintained his steady learning schedule.) He would use the tiniest of lights so that he would not, God forbid, alert the enemy’s attention to his position.

The stunned parents asked how long had he kept up this practice, in response to which the young man retrieved a couple of other volumes, both missing their hardcover’s with the folios stained in mud.
This exceptional soldier, although beyond the boundaries of his beit midrash, and in truth actually beyond the borders of our country, was anchored and ensconced in his Torah study.

I tell this particular story because I feel it personifies what each YU graduate knows. What he or she can do  –  can be.

Let’s not exaggerate here. Not all of us can be camouflaged snipers who learn daf yomi at three in the morning.

But YU has instilled in many of us – whether we are soldiers, doctors, therapists, lawyers, accountants even rabbis an ideological drive, the conviction, the passion, the  care and concern.

We have been taught to open our eyes and see the myriad number of concerns that need to be addressed and repaired in our community and beyond, and have the fortitude and courage to embark on making those changes, while all the while being grounded securely in Torah and Halacha. This notable institution has taught us to approach the greater world by neither dismissing with contempt, nor embracing without reservations. But rather by being both critical and respectful. But most of all being involved and engaged.

A direct consequence of this principle of engagement is YU’s staunch support, love and connectivity to the State of Israel and our firm belief of our resolute conviction in religious Zionism.  Because even if you don’t subscribe to the belief that the State of Israel is a manifest miracle or that the Zionist Movement is the redemption promised by the prophecies, you need to be quite reasonably disengaged to NOT acknowledge the miraculous times we live in.

Yes, our generation (I speak about the graduates and myself) has perhaps a seemingly more challenging charge. While our grandparents experienced May 14  1948 firsthand listening to the crackling sounds over the radio:

Anu machrizim b’zot al hakamat Medinat Yisrael b’Eretz Yisrael, hi Medinat Yisrael  / We declare the establishment of the Jewish state in Israel.

And our parents lived through the astonishing moments of 1967, and witnessed Rav Goren dancing with our soldiers at the recapture of the Kotel and the reunification of Yerushalyim.

We don’t have memories of a world without the State of Israel or of a State of Israel without a unified Yerushalayim.

And it may be easy, so easy, to fall victim to the axiom of Ein ba’al hanes maker b’niso.

That the recipient of a miracle is often unaware of the miracles bestowed upon him.

So we may need to just open our eyes a bit wider and take in this sensational sight and recognize and be cognizant of the fact that the  ‘ingathering of the exiles’ that has occurred and is occurring is miraculous.

That we have our own Jewish army is nothing short of a miracle.
That the development, innovation, technological advancement and economic stability, are all simply miracles. That the amount of Torah learning taking place in Israel today has not been rivaled since the times of the second Beit Hamikdash. That we can actually pass legislation in our ridiculous / interesting Knesset is beyond miraculous.

These are facts. Undisputable facts.

We live in a time when miracles are daily headlines That we see and witness firsthand.

I am not naïve .. Of course miracles are not without their own complicated realities; they are by no means simple or one dimensional, they never have been. But Israel is indeed a miracle.

The only question, the only challenge that is presented to us is that while we saw the awe, the wonder, the marvel in our  parents and grandparents eyes, we have to ask ourselves what will we bequeath to our children and grandchildren?

What is our personal connection to the State of Israel that constitutes our religious, emotional, & spiritual estate?

Yes, it is natural to look back at the experiences of previous generations wistfully, to feel that significant history and significant drama is a thing of times past.

However, the truth is that each generation has its own, new dramas and creates its own history. The question is: What is our story? What role are we going to play in future history?  What is the unique contribution that each of us can make?

Over the last 11 years Tony Gelbart and I have canvassed communities throughout North America, sharing our narrative and trying to inspire others to connect to Israel. And I must admit that it has been a long and often lonely journey for us and for our families who have stood by our side as we fought our Don Quixote battles against the windmills of Zionist apathy.

Zionist Apathy? The blindness of the Jewish community, to the miracle that is modern Israel.

There is a Hebrew song which I’m sure you are all familiar with.
The words actually come from a Midrash cited in Yalkut Shimoni which (I think) perhaps best describe the times we live in.

B’sha’ah shemelech haMoshiach bah omed al gag Beit Hamikdash / Mashiach will come and he will be standing on the roof of the Beit Hamikdash.

You can’t get a more impressive visual than that.
And he will declare to Israel saying …

Oh modest ones – humble ones – the time for your geulah has arrived

And if you don’t believe… Just open your eyes to the radiance that is upon you. How can it be that a person could miss what’s happening? How could one not notice the astonishing times we live in?
Too many, way too many, are unengaged, unaware, uninformed, unconscious of this radiance.

Sadly there are less people making Aliyah from North America annually than the number of people sitting in this arena today.
Now this is where you come in.

You have the ability to stop this trend …

You have the capacity to recalibrate our national compass.

You have the talent, conviction, passion, ideological drive to script the future story of our people. It doesn’t mean that you all have to live in Israel, although that would be magnificent. It means that you should all at least live Israel.


Have your hearts, thoughts, tefillot directed to Artzeinu – our land.

Support, defend, protect and advocate, for Artzeinu.

Stand proud, be strong and lead for Artzeinu, our land.

And raise your children to be in awe and marvel and want to move themselves to Artzeinu.

There’s a lot riding on you and I’m sorry for adding all this extra stressful responsibility. As the graduates of YU of 2013, you are uniquely positioned to make a difference.  You are bright, you are capable, you are educated, you are motivated, you are engaged in Jewish life and you have your future ahead of you.

As you step out of these walls, you will be making important personal choices in the coming months and years.

And that is why I give you this message of empowerment and responsibility, of engagement and Zionism, on your special day.

I have one quote that hangs over my desk in Yerushalayim
which states: “What we need is more people who specialize in the impossible.”

The tasks at hand may seem impossible, but you are all up to the challenge.

The world awaits your talent and conviction.

Our people need your optimism and principles.

And our land requires your hope and promise.

You are our future.

Mazal Tov.

About the Author
Rabbi Yehoshua Fass is Co-Founder of Nefesh B’Nefesh and has served as the organization’s Executive Director since 2002; In 1995, Rabbi Fass assumed the position of Associate Rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue of Florida and served as a member of the Beit Din of the Orthodox Rabbinical Council; During his tenure, he received the UJC 2000 Rabbinical Award for his exemplary community service and leadership; In addition, Rabbi Fass has been an educational director for the March of the Living and has served on several Jewish organizational boards, including the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA), and was just awarded an honorary doctorate from Yeshiva University.