After the initial burst of enthusiasm over the newly born State of Israel, American support for Zionism during the 50s was lukewarm, at best; totally absent, at worst. American Jews were very busy trying to become Jewish Americans. This was to change in the 60’s for a number of reasons, but, personally, I wasn’t on board until the Six Day War. I hope, Dear Reader, that you can wait for next week for my observations about the Six Day War.
The biggest reason for the increased influence of Israel on American Jewry came from a totally unexpected cause: tourism.
For two paragraphs, ignore Israel, and look at general trends.
According to the World Tourism Organization, in 1950 25 million people traveled to a foreign country. By 1960 that number was 69 million. In the 60’s those trends continued: 1965: 113 million and 1970: 166 million. In other words, the world began to travel, and, therefore, so did the Jews. If you’re going to see the world, why not the Holy Land?
Factor number 2 was air travel. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics:
The output of the industry increased by 648 percent, or 10.6 percent per year, from 1958 to 1978. A closer look shows that growth was concentrated in the earlier part of the period and slowed to a 6.0-percent rate in the 10 years ending in 1978. From 1978 to 1996, output increased by 5.5 percent per year. From 1986 to 1996, output gained a further decelerated 5.0 percent per year.10 Some, but not all, of the deceleration is attributable to reduced growth in the business sector as a whole.
In other words, air travel was (if I can use this expression) really taking off in the late 50’s early 60s.
We Jews were part of that new reality.
Two of my interviewees made the trek to Israel in the 50’s, before it was common. One was Rav Shalom Gold:
IN those days, nobody came to learn in Eretz Yisrael but me. I came in 1955, and stayed into 1956. I really came for the summer of ‘55, but in the fall, I decided to stay. I split the year and a half in two different yeshivot. At first, I was at Yehivat Chevron which was in Geula then, then I went to Ponovitch in B’nei Brak. The Rosh Yeshiva (Rav Ruderman, New Yisrael) didn’t want me to go. I told him that I was only going for the summer, but when I came back over a year later. I came into the Beit Medrash and the Rosh Yeshiva kicked me out. I told him that he’d have to call the police, because I’m going to my old dorm room. He didn’t want bochrim to go. And he was right! Because they didn’t want to come back. He knew the Yeshivot in Eretz Yisrael were a real competition for the good bochrim. In those days, there weren’t so many Yeshivot in Israel. You could count them on your hands, maybe you’d need a toe or two. In those days there weren’t so many of us from America maybe half a dozen. It was a revolution! And for the good, learning in Eretz Yisrael.
My other source was the great Jewish sociologist, Prof Chaim Waxman:
Personally, I went to Kerem B’Yavne in 1958 (KBY was the first Hesder yeshiva, founded in 1954, that was the first year of the Overseas Program). I would have gone to Africa. I didn’t care. I just wanted to travel. I came by boat, the SS United States to France and then the jewel of Zim Lines, the Theodore Herzl to Israel with a stopover in Greece. It took 3 weeks. I loved every minute. I didn’t want to leave. But I was weak then, and I listened to my parents and came back to America. I didn’t have a Modern Orthodox background (I went to Toras Emes in Brooklyn and then Telz in Cleveland). I started getting it from scratch at YU, but Eretz Yisrael got me ready.
Rabbi Heshie Billet pointed out to me how great the gap year experience was. However, he missed it. Rav Billet graduated from Yeshiva University High School for Boys, Brooklyn (BTA) in 1967, and not one graduate came to Israel for the gap year. That was the last year no one came from YU high schools. He went on to say:
Now they go in great numbers and the level of Jewish education and knowledge has become very solid. There is a thirst for knowledge.
Many of my interviewees talked about the great advantages of the gap year in Israel, but none specified the one change I noticed: night seder.
When I came to YU in 1968, the main Beit Medrash was empty most nights. I studied there because there were two Semicha students who were always willing to help this rookie understand my assignments. Many nights we had to send someone across Amsterdam Avenue to the dorm for reinforcements to make a minyan for Ma’ariv. I tell this to people, and they don’t believe me.
By the mid-70s there wasn’t an empty seat most evenings in the Beit Medrash. The gap year introduced Modern Orthodox High School graduates to the concept of night seder. The change is overwhelming. When I asked what happened, the answer was unequivocal, the Gap year gave importance to Torah Lishma.
But the benefits of the gap year weren’t obvious to everyone, as we noticed with Rav Ruderman at Ner Yisrael. It was fascinating to me when I saw this:
Alvin Schiff in his book ‘Mentor to a Generation’, described Rabbi Soloveitchik as being against the Gap year. He recorded that the opposition was because it alienated children from their parents. The gap year undermines parents. It brought an intensity to learning, to Jewish living. It encouraged davening three times a day with a minyan. It also tended to minimize the intrinsic value of secular education. It bothered the Rav that the students spent three years in college rather than four. It transferred loyalty to the Rosh Yeshiva and then the Rabbi over the parents.
Most Jewish educators knew that would happen, but we didn’t care. It’s often a fine line between encouraging the students and disappointing the parents. But I’ll leave that story for when we discuss youth groups.
Eventually, Prof Waxman and Rabbi Gold made Aliya. That gap year experience changed their lives. However, Rabbi Gold told me: Prof. Waxman described an Oleh as a ‘voluntary migrant of a creative nature’ I would have said a Meshugana!
Actually, we all went crazy for Eretz Yisrael in 1967, but I’ll leave that part of my story for next week.