Shifting Sands

Many years ago, my mother-in-law and father-in-law both passed away – just 12 days apart…both from the same incurable disease that had hit them just a year before. We never were able to know why they both got brain cancer…though at one point, their immediate post-Holocaust experiences together were mentioned.

Up until their deaths, the family center was most clearly the home they had built. There we gathered each year for Passover, often for Sukkot and Rosh Hashana as well. Two of my sons were welcomed into the Covenant of Avraham…with their brit milah…in my in-laws’ synagogue.

One of the things I noticed after they had passed away, was that the family center seemed to shift in many ways to my home. At the time, my husband was the only sibling who was married; we had three small children…and we had moved to Israel weeks before we found out about my father-in-law’s illness, a few months before my mother-in-law was diagnosed.

For many years, each Sukkot and Passover, my brothers-in-law and sister-in-law came to us and as a family, we celebrated with so many of the foods, tastes, and traditions that had been in my in-laws’ home. And somewhere, during those years, as my children grew and we celebrated the holidays, I knew that the family center was, in many ways, in Israel.

When I left America, my father-in-law had just been hospitalized. They thought it was a minor stroke. My husband had already left for Israel and the job he had secured on a pilot trip. I was to follow with the children after packing and shipping our things. In fact, the ship had already sailed when my father-in-law was taken to the hospital.

I asked him what I should do; if I should call my husband back to America. I knew in those seconds that I would lose my dream but I would have done it. He told me that I should go to my husband, and that he would come to us for Passover the following year. He didn’t make it.

We went to visit him with the children and my husband flew back first to see his mother and sit shiva in the States when she died…and then after being sent home…he turned around two days later and flew back to the States to the funeral and shiva of his father.

The next Passover…the family came to us…and did for many years…and sometimes still do.

I thought of this as the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations comes to Israel this week. I know that this is a tradition; that every 5 years they come here. Maybe it is my projecting, my feelings that make me feel that something fundamental has changed in light of the Pew Research survey.

The message seems to be clear – something is missing. We are losing ourselves and we need to deal with it…and some of the sessions do. One that will be starting soon: It’s Different Here: Is Jewish Identity in Israel Distinct from Diaspora Jewish Identity? will most likely address the differences between how Israelis and how American Jews view religion. And some start from the defensive position of denial: Responding to Pew: How Federations are Successfully Engaging the Next Generation. Are Jewish Federations successfully engaging the next generation?…I guess we’ll have to listen and see because so far, to be honest, I’m not convinced.

More, I find it interesting that more sessions deal with “problems” in Israel than they do with problems in the US Jewish community. Though I have no doubt intermarriage is popping up directly in many sessions, the term doesn’t make it into the titles of any sessions, nor do I get the feeling that the Federations and Jewish leaders in America know how to sustain Jewish life there.

With organizations like Nefesh b’Nefesh, many American Jews are beginning to realize the ship is boarding, homeward bound. I accepted that we had lost our roots when my mother-in-law and father-in-law passed away and now we had to rebuild. My husband and I walked my brother-in-law down the aisle at his request…and I felt his parents with me and wished with all my heart that they were there rather than me.

I look at this great gathering of thousands of American Jews in Israel and want them to understand…they need to rebuild and it won’t happen in America. Now, before they lose another generation. Israel is proof that you can plant in the desert and make something bloom…certainly in a physical sense, but in a spiritual one as well. But you have to accept that the winds and the climate will always work against you. You will fight, or you will perish.


In 2013, what we learn, is that America has become the desert, not Israel. Here there is water to feed the Jewish soul, sunshine to make our children grow strong and tall and proud. I feel the need to go up to every delegate at the GA and beg them to come home, to not even go back there.

Perhaps if I listen, I will hear something different…perhaps if I close my eyes, I will not see that something is so deeply wrong. Years ago, I attended a GA in Los Angeles…the Israelis who came were the foreigners, the outsiders who came to us. Now, on the other side of the divide, I feel the desperate need to give. Thirty plus years ago, the Jewish community in America was strong and gave its support to Israel in money and political leveraging.

The tides have turned – it would be best for the American Jews to spend that money sending their children here. Birthright has become a desperate lifeline for saving Jews, giving them something to focus on, be proud of…and as for political leverage…that dwindles with each passing year.

Once, many years ago, I took a trip into the Sinai…Israel was about to return it to Egypt in the hopes of building a lasting, warm, peace. On the tour was an American Jewish Federation leader. I remember I was 22 years old. Someone in the group asked how old everyone was…I was the youngest but I wanted to see the Sinai while it was still in our hands. The Federation leader heard my age and told me this was his 22nd trip to Israel.

I was so surprised. He liked that I was surprised…until I explained my reaction…”Twenty-second trip…that means you’ve left Israel 21 times? How did you do that?” It was breaking my heart to know I’d have to leave, and it was only my second trip…third if you count the years I lived here with my parents as a baby.

How can you leave this land? That’s what I want the Federation delegates to take with them…here is where the center of our family is…long ago, more than 65 years ago, there was a great shift. Once it was Europe…once, perhaps, it was America…today it is Israel.

With all the sessions and all the discussions, the one missing is “Aliyah – the Ultimate Solution.”


About the Author
Paula R. Stern is CEO of WritePoint Ltd., a leading technical writing company in Israel. Her personal blog, A Soldier's Mother, has been running for more than 5 years. She lives in Maale Adumim with her husband and children, a dog, too many birds, and a desire to write her thoughts and dream of a trip to Italy, Scotland, and beyond.
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