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Chaim Y. Botwinick

Time to Return Home? If Not Now, When?

 

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As I was preparing to write this blog for The Times of Israel  I tried desperately to collect and organize my thoughts as I do prior to writing articles, blogs or posts. But, this time it was a bit more difficult; very difficult.

My thoughts were scattered all over the map. To be sure, writing this piece was beyond challenging on many levels. In fact, for the very first time in my professional career as an educator, I was painfully struggling with an inability to clearly and succinctly articulate my feelings, thoughts and emotions following almost four months since the October 7th devastating bloody massacre in Israel.

On that black infamous morning of October 7th, upon hearing about the barbaric Hamas attack in Southern Israel, I together with my brothers and sisters in Israel, in the States and throughout the Jewish world felt the earth shake and tremble beneath our feet. Our feelings and emotions were numb and shattered by the horrific reports and images coming out of Southern Israel. It was the worst tragedy to befall Israel and our Jewish world since the Holocaust.

Never in my life would I have imagined that in the year 2023-24, that State of Israel, our dear and precious homeland, the birthplace of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah would we be fighting an existential war with Hamas in  Southern Israel and with Hezbollah in the North. All this is being felt and realized as an explosive tsunami of violent antisemitic demonstrations and Jew-hatred rallies gain traction around the globe with slogans such as “death to the Jews”, “free Palestine” and “from the river to the sea” are being chanted. These are ugly and disgusting phrases now being fashionably used at anti-Israel and antisemitic rallies and demonstrations by ignorant individuals who have absolutely no sense of history, civility or moral clarity.

Several weeks ago, upon exiting my synagogue on Sabbath morning following Tefilla I overheard a conversation between three middle aged synagogue members.

The conversation focused on the horrific events of October 7th, the war between Israel and Hamas and the resurgence of global antisemitism. The conversation was heart wrenching in light of the fact that two of the men recently lost several close relatives while serving with the IDF in central Gaza and one relative past away while defending a kibbutz and the border in  Southern Israel.

As I slowly walked by the group, I heard one of  gentleman say to the other, “in light of the rapid spread of antisemitism in the United states, maybe now is the best time to make aliyah, before its too late for all of us”.. The other gentleman responded, “what makes you think or believe that we are better off or even safer in Israel?”

This kicked off a very animated conversation, between the three gentleman. Within very short order, I decided to no longer eavesdrop and proceeded on my way. As much as I truly wanted to hear the rest of the conversation, or maybe even participate in it, I was running late for a Shabbat luncheon commitment with my family and needed to move on.

This brief exchange remained in my head throughout the entire Shabbat. It kept on playing over and over in my head. The phrase “maybe its time” was so real and palatable. It engendered a feeling of uncertainly and insecurity. It reinforced everything I have learned as a child. It reinforced the notion that our people and our nation are on a very difficult and arduous Journey, and how truly temporary our homes are while living in Chutz L’Aretz , (outside of our homeland, Israel). I kept  hearing my teachers repeat the phrase “we are all strangers in a strange land”. This biblical phrase was reinforced as a child by my father z”l who would say,  “it can happen here.”

My father z”l of blessed memory, was a Chaplain in the US Army, stationed in Germany during World War II. He helped liberate several Nazi concentration camps and was one of the first Jewish American heroes in the US Army to actually witness first hand the horrendous atrocities of the Shoa upon entering and liberating the camps.

This experience left an indelible impact on my father who throughout his entire rabbinic career fought tooth and nail against antisemitism in Europe and whenever or wherever it raised its ugly head in the United States.

As a young child, his words “it can happen here” were just words, and more often than not rang hollow in my mind, as a 5 year old. But today, it strikes a very real sensitive chord of unimaginable proportion, based on real facts on the ground and an unfortunate new harsh world reality. It was as if my father had a sixth sense that our future in America does not and will not guarantee safety or calm for our Jewish community.

Many of my colleagues, friends and even family members posit that we should never consider making Aliya out of fear or because we are running away from the fire of increased antisemitism in the diaspora. And, then there are others who feel that we should make aliya as soon as possible while we physically still can.

The overarching rational for making aliya now is based on the belief and conviction that Israel is our true Jewish homeland and therefore offers us, our families and our loved ones a place for protection, safe refuge and an opportunity to live, breath and flourish with our own people in our own homeland. This is in addition to the tremendous mitzvah in the Torah for making aliya.

Yes, there are many dangers in Israel. It is surrounded by dangerous and viscous  enemies committed to our complete and total  annihilation. But these dangers, as daunting as they may be, are far less then the dangers we faced while millions of Jewish women, men and children were being herded away in cattle cars and exterminated during the Holocaust.

As long as Israel remains strong and steadfast, we will, with GD’s oversight and protection, never again be herded into gas chambers and crematoria like cattle going to their slaughter; nor we will never ever again experience be crammed into cattle cars on a journey to what was then our final destination –  nazi death camps.

Where was the free world? Where was the outcry and where were the protests against this genocide of our Jewish people?

Just imagine the outcome, if the State of Israel was in existence during World War II. A Jewish State with its own powerful army, air force and an unswerving and unwavering commitment to protect and defend Jews throughout the world. A country that leads the world in scientific research and hi-tech and a country which prides itself as the only democracy in the Middle East. A true undeniable protector and defender of Jews throughout the world.

Since then and even more recently, we have learned several harsh lessons. ….namely, that American Jews cannot and must not rely solely on other countries for our security and protection; for at the end of the day, we only have ourselves to depend upon, to trust and to protect us.

Just witness the level of benign neglect being exhibited by government authorities who have turned a blind eye on domestic acts of antisemitism including violent  demonstrations and rallies and the like. We hear people talking a good game, but very little action – especially during an election year. Support for Israel following October 7th was strong. But almost four months following this catastrophe, it is running thin. Very thin….especially with all of the new demands now being forced on the government of Israel.

As we know, there are many members of our Jewish community who are confused, undecided, frustrated and tormented by their inability to make a decisions, regarding their aliya to Israel against a backdrop of increased antisemitism. This is especially the case for those who have a yearning to make aliya yet do not have relatives or close friends living in Israel which would help them socially in their transition. As a result, they continue to remain strongly supportive of Israel financially and politically and are very strong advocates for Israel’s well being and welfare in the States.

Its important to note that there is no right or wrong when it comes to making Aliya.

Although I am a bit too young to have directly experienced the horrible ravages of the Shoa directly, I do have family members who have either experienced and survived the Holocaust or who perished at the hands of Nazis in Eastern Europe. I have also been blessed to meet and work closely personally and professionally with many survivors throughout my career. They are true heroes and tzaddikim who against all odds, have committed themselves to transforming their lives and the lives of others into a positive and meaningful optimistic experience and reason for being.

Virtually every survivor I speak with today, and unfortunately they are becoming fewer in number, repeat real life stories about how today’s events including the antisemitic fires now raging in our own back yards are sadly reminiscent of what they and their families and communities experienced in Nazi Europe. But, nevertheless, they remain optimistic and have an amazing level of emunah and bitachon in HaShem.

For many American Jews, we continuously yearn and romanticize about our love affair with Israel. Whether it be a familiar location for vacation, Yom Tovim, a family simcha, a son or daughter learning in a seminary or yeshiva, a relative  proudly serving in the IDF, we are each connected to Israel in some fashion. This kesher (connection) is anchored in our historical birthright, beautiful legacy and mesorah  and splendor of Eretz Yisrael …as well as its centrality to our lives living in the diaspora.

My friends, colleagues and select relatives inform me that to live, understand and truly appreciate the centrality of Eretz Yisrael, one needs to eat, drink, sleep, learn and live in the country.

Every time I daven (pray) at the Kotel, I ask myself the question – where do we really belong? Where do our families really belong? and Where would I feel more comfortable and and welcome? And finally, I ask the question – what is my true destiny as a Jew living in the diaspora.

Following these questions, I then pose the ultimate question….These feelings may be real, but are they real enough to consider making Aliya a a reality? Are they in fact realistic?

The question of “is it realistic” currently plagues and haunts many of us who yearn to make this ultimate move.

Could it be that we are so entrenched in our diaspora comfort zones  that making aliya, to Israel is just too much of a leap of faith (excuse the pun), irrespective of increased antisemitism and Jew hatred in the states throughout the United States.

Bottom line, there is absolutely no escaping this harsh reality.

As we know, it is far easier for me to write this blog while sitting in the comfort  zone (for now) of my home in the States. But, I and others must continuously ask the question – for how much longer do we have a choice?  Could time be running out? Only HaShem knows.

With family, children and grandchildren living in the States, we ask the question….how and when to make Aliya? And, if not now when?

Returning back to the discussion of those three men following Shabbat tefilla, I can vividly recall one of them asking the question ….What makes us think or believe that its safer in Israel than in the streets and neighborhoods of New York, Florida or Chicago.

As one of the gentlemen responded “just look at what happened on October 7th….it can very easily happen here GD forbid.”

At the end of the day, for many of us, there is a significant gap between our deep yearning and desire to make Aliya to Israel and the pragmatic realities which are preventing the move from happening,

As indicated, there are no right or wrong responses.

Many of us feel we can contribute to Israel’s viability and strength by advocating our positions from the States. Yet, there are others who feel that the only way to truly support Israel is through actual Aliya.

Putting physical safety and survival to aside, there are many who sincerely believe that we can do more for Israel from the States…..especially those of us who are approaching retirement age.

Sure it would have been easier to make Aliya when our children and family were very young and adaptable. But as we know, many of us at that time required  greater assurances and financial security in order to make this life changing decision for ourselves and families.

As the war rages on in Israel, as we pray for the safety of our soldiers and release of innocent  hostages, and as we continue to experience global antisemitism, let us hope and pray to HaShem that we are all granted the opportunity to chose to make aliya at the right time for us.

What and when that “right time” is  remains totally unknown and remains to be seen and experienced.

But, when it does happen, I am certain we will definitely feel it and  know it.

Am Yisrael Chai.

About the Author
Dr. Chaim Botwinick is a senior executive coach and an organizational consultant . He served as president and CEO of the central agency for Jewish education in Baltimore and in Miami; in addition to head of school and principal for several Jewish day schools and yeshivot. He has published and lectured extensively on topics relating to education, resource development, strategic planing and leadership development. Dr. Botwinick is Author of “Think Excellence: Harnessing Your Power to Succeed Beyond Greatness”, Brown Books, 2011
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