Monday, October 29, 2012

Shabbat Aliyah in Antwerp Part 2: Will the Last Person Out, Please Turn off the Lights


In 2004, I wrote an article for the OU’s Jewish Action Magazine called, “In Search of Leaders,” lamenting the toll that aliyah was taking on my attempt to build a committed Modern Orthodox Jewish community. All assumed (incorrectly) that I was decrying aliyah; some applauded the article while others openly defended life in Chutz L’aretz. Yet, the principle thesis of the article – that aliyah was emptying American Modern Orthodoxy of many of its strongest leaders – both lay and professional – remained sound.
I didn’t really know how sound until this past Shabbat, which I spent as a representative of the Jewish Agency speaking about Aliyah over what they called, “Shabbat Lech Lecha.”
Each year, the Jewish Agency (and other sub-groups whose logos must legally appear in this blog post) sends representatives to cities around the world to strengthen ties between the community and Israel and encourage Aliyah. It just so happens that a young man who shares a bench with me in shul spent two years in Antwerp several years ago as a Shaliach Bnei Akiva, and he remains close with many of the community members. He also has ties to the Jewish Agency, so when he heard about this program, he asked me whether I’d go to Antwerp for Shabbat, mostly to speak to the kids in Bnei Akiva. I agreed, and that’s how I ended up in Antwerp for Shabbat Lech Lecha.
Several things strike you (or at least me) immediately upon visiting Antwerp. The Jewish community (at least the Orthodox community) is situated in an extremely small area in the most congested downtown location of the city; kind of like living in Manhattan – except with smaller buildings, most only six or seven stories. This is because the community settled in very close proximity to the Diamond Exchange, which is within walking (or biking – everyone bikes in Antwerp) distance.
All Belgians they speak at least three languages: Flemish, French and English. Most, if not all Jews, even Chareidim, speak Hebrew, a fourth language, and many Jews speak Hebrew as their primary language. In fact, in both Jewish Day schools where I spoke, I spoke to the children in Hebrew which they understood perfectly. Their Hebrew is probably better than mine.
It’s amazing to me how communities around the world suffer from similar problems. Like Detroit, which had a smaller, more Orthodox Religious Zionist day school (Akiva) and a wealthier, less religious, better attended high school (the Jewish Academy), Antwerp had two schools: Yavneh (150 students across all grades) and Tachkemoni (600-700 students). While the bulk of Tachkemoni’s students are not religious, Yavneh is squarely Religious Zionist, with separate boys and girls schools (in the same building, separated by the Rosh Yeshiva’s office). That’s right: 150 total students; separate boys’ and girls’ studies beginning in seventh grade. The high school classes that I saw numbered in the small single digits. If you’re wondering how they possibly can afford to keep the school afloat, in Belgium private schools receive money from the state. That probably helps quite a bit.
Here’s the most surprising aspect of Yavneh by far: one hundred percent of its graduates make Aliyah. That’s right: all of them. I wasn’t there to convince them to make Aliyah; they’re all going to do that anyway, something they openly admitted. Rather, I was there to strengthen their sense of Jewish identity, and to offer them words of encouragement and chizzuk, a mission I feel that I accomplished. Their parents actively encourage them to go learn in Yeshiva in Israel and then either join the army or study in university in Israel and then make aliyah. Not one family that I met did not have at least one child, if not more, who already lives in Israel.
This slow migration is clearly having a devastating effect on the Religious Zionist Community of Antwerp. While the Chareidi chadarim and yeshivot continue to grow, the one true RZ shul, Mizrachi, boasts a regular Shabbat minyan of approximately fifty to sixty men. (I couldn’t see the women’s section), a number which, I was told by more than one person, used to be more than double that. While most children daven at B’nei Akiva (the Snif is actually a huge building complex), the average age at shul could not have been less than fifty. Simply put, the community is aging, and there are no young people who are moving in to pick up the slack. The entire experience was very surreal. One mother I spoke to talked proudly of her children leaving Antwerp, never to return permanently, telling me, “There’s nothing for them here.”
This fact was most striking during the dinner the Shlichim coordinated for college-age students (and those working as well). We put out the word on Facebook, and while a couple (literally two) didn’t join us, there were seven young people at the Shabbat table. That’s it. The rest are long gone.
While the Jewish Agency (in Israel) doesn’t play an outwardly prominent role in Jewish life in Antwerp, the role it plays behind the scenes is crucial. Many of the Judaic Studies teachers are or were Shelichim, sent from Israel for a limited period of time. The Rosh Yeshiva (Rav Herschkovitz) who also serves as the rabbi of the Yavneh shul is serving his second year of Shlichut. Bnei Akiva is coordinated by Shlichim – and the Bnei Akiva clearly plays a critical communal role; many kids daven at the Snif every Shabbat, and they all attend Snif on Shabbat afternoon, where the high school kids coordinate programming for the younger children. Without the Sochnut, Antwerp’s RZ community would have long ago turned to more Chareidi-oriented educators and leaders, ultimately changing the very nature of their own community.
Clearly Antwerp is a unique, unusual community. I’ve traveled to schools across North America and cannot think of a school where you could speak Hebrew to the entire student body and they would not only understand, but converse with you in Hebrew as well. (It made the American notion of Ivrit B’ivrit seem pathetic.) As I spoke with the kids about Jewish identity and how Americans often struggle with a dual sense of fidelity to America and Judaism and the possible conflict between the two (as in, are you an American Jew or a Jewish American), while the Belgian kids found the topic fascinating they simply couldn’t relate. They have no sense of pride in being citizens of Belgium. (They claim that most Belgians don’t either) It seemed clear to me that this lack of pride in being Belgian (Belsh?) had a great deal to do with their willingness to leave their country for Israel. After all, if you don’t identify with where you live, why stay?
I wonder how long the community will be able to sustain itself, keeping the school open and the Bnei Akiva active. At what point are there just not enough kids? At what point does it no longer make sense to run an entire school? Antwerp used to be flush with profits from the diamond industry, but numerous people made it clear that the good old days are long gone, and that many of the community’s wealthiest, most influential members had left, taking their assets with them to…you guessed it: Israel.
Commenting on this phenomenon, most of the Israelis I spoke with had a single response: “Baruch Hashem.” Indeed, who can complain about the fact that a community’s children are slowly but surely settling in the Jewish State. After all, it’s where they belong.
But I wonder about an Orthodox community without a Modern Orthodox element. Are we truly unnecessary to the greater frum community and they’ll do fine without us, or do we play a larger communal role that will be missed when there’s no significant RZ community, shul or school to speak of? I doubt that anyone in the Chareidi community will admit it, but I wonder how Orthodoxy in Antwerp will change when the last person at the Mizrachi Shul turns out the lights.