Six Weeks in North America

I have just returned from six weeks in North America visiting my family to cold, rainy Jerusalem. It was good being with family members and seeing some close friends. It was my first visit since my Aliyah in June 2019. In some ways it felt like home since I have spent most of my life in those surroundings, and, in other ways, I felt like a visitor. I was there over the Christmas/Hannukah season which, of course, highlights the difference between being in the majority or in the minority in the land in which you live.

In the six months that I have been absent from North America there have been some changes. The major one is the outbreak of anti-Semitic incidents all around the continent. These include shootings and knifings in synagogues, campus rhetoric, social media diatribes, political statements, manifestations of Nazi images and the singling out of a kosher supermarket for mayhem. In all my years of living in North America I do not recall a string of these types of episodes in such a short period of time, with the loss of life, property and Jewish confidence. It has shaken up the Canadian and American Jewish communities in ways that I don’t recall. There is much concern and it is warranted. No one knows exactly where this is headed. Is North America, which was seen as a totally safe haven for Jews for at least the last 50 years, changing? Are we beginning a new era where Jewish safety is of the uppermost concern? There are many questions and worries. Meetings and seminars are being convened, money is being dispensed, and security precautions are being displayed in many places where they were not present beforehand. Most assuredly it is not as bad as places in Western Europe but for North American Jewry this is something new. When I was growing up in Canada and serving communities in the United States it was felt that anti-Semitism was a thing of the past on the North American continent.

I am a product of the age of the Soviet Jewry movement. I visited refuseniks in the Soviet Union in 1983, was present at the Washington March in 1987, and received a great boost in my understanding of Jewish peoplehood and the concept of “Kol Yisrael Arevim ze be’ze” from the great bravery of those refuseniks and the involvement of the world Jewish community in working for their release from captivity. Not since that time have I have seen the North American community so united in purposeful marches and pride programs. That is, not until 25,000 people marched in New York City on Sunday January 5 claiming “No Hate, No Fear,” and the AJC initiated a program on the following day asking Jews to display their pride in their Jewishness through public manifestations. It is indeed a new period in the history of North American Jewry. I am not concerned for the future of these great communities because of the recent manifestations of anti-Semitism and yet it is a shame and somewhat of a surprise that money, time and purposeful programs have to be spent on this issue.

As I return to Israel I am asked what is happening in North America. Is it safe for Jews? This in a place surrounded by enemies who are set on destroying the Jewish state, a time when the International Court of Justice is looking into purported Israeli war crimes, and a country where terrorism can rear its ugly head at any time. Have the tables turned? Do Israeli Jews feel safer than North American Jews? What does the future dictate? More North Americans will not be making Aliyah because of the fear of living in their land. They will only come if they are enticed by a model Israeli society and the promise of living a life with Jewish purpose and meaning. Yet North American Jewry wants to know that world Jewry understands its needs.  Does Israel have a place in helping the North American Diaspora feel safe in their surroundings? Yes and no. Security training is critical and no place understands that more than Israel but North Americans themselves must solve the problem for only they understand the issues and the solutions, if there are any.

It will be a challenging time for both communities and only if they understand one another, appreciate one another, and talk with one another can they move forward together to create a Jewish world which is safer and more meaningful for all. Having lived most of my life in North America and now establishing my future life in the State of Israel I know it is possible to bridge the gaps between the communities, which do exist, to create a stronger, safer and more united Jewish world in the future.

About the Author
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz served 2 Conservative congregations in the Chicago area, the last one an 1100 family congregation for 31 years. He is past president of the international Rabbinical Assembly, MERCAZ USA and MERCAZ Olami, and a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish People Policy Institute. He is also past president of the American Zionist Movement and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute. He is the author of Encountering Torah - Reflections on the Weekly Portion. He and his wife Bryna made Aliyah in June 2019.
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