Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Windmills of Zionist Apathy

I had a chance to watch Rabbi Joshua Fass' speech at Yeshiva University's recent graduation, and while it was a great honor for him, it made me a little sad. You can hear it in his words, as he speaks about his lonely journey traveling around the United States fighting what he called "Don Quixote battles fighting the Windmills of Zionist apathy." (I'm having trouble getting the link to post to the right part of the video. Watch beginning at 13:17)

These aren't mere words. The statistics justify his frustration.
I remember the excitement around the creation of the organization. Rabbi Fass and Mr. Gelbart began Nefesh B'nefesh in order to solve the puzzle of the lack of Aliyah from North America. At first they thought that people didn't make aliyah due to a lack of money, so he offered grants to those who needed money to help them move.
He also built an incredible organization, which provides a wealth of information about communities in Israel. He hired staff to help immigrants integrate into Israeli society and navigate the sometimes confusing bureaucracy. (Truth be told, it's not nearly as bad as most people think it is, unless you're talking about the Ministry of Education). He built touch screen consoles to make the processing of Aliyah paperless, and ensured that new immigrants received their citizenship papers mere days after arriving in their new country. He created a network which helps people find work. The list goes on and on.
I remember reading about his bold predictions five and seven years ago. While that year the aliyah numbers were in the three-thousand range, he predicted that the numbers would rise to five thousand the following year, and then ten thousand in the years afterwards, numbers that would literally change the face of the Jewish State.
Last year, the Jerusalem Post reported that while,
...NBN’s stated goal is not only to facilitate migration from North America, but to significantly increase it. So far, that seems out of reach.
Proportionately, immigration to Israel from North America remains little more than a trickle. Of the approximately six million Jews in North America...only about 3,512 people, or 0.06%, made aliya in 2011. In comparison, some 0.35% of Jews in France made aliya in 2010 – 1,775 of about 500,000 in the country. Percentages are even higher for places such as Ukraine and Russia.
For all of the innovation introduced by NBN, the number of North American olim has not come close to breaking the 1970 record, when 7,130 people from the US and Canada moved to the Jewish state, basking in the glory of its victory in the Six Day War. It is also far from hitting the target of 10,000 olim a year by 2015 set by Oberman in a 2010 interview with the Post.
Nonetheless, Oberman, who made aliya from Australia in the 1970s, has still not given up on reaching that ambitious goal.
“That figure is still feasible,” he said on Thursday.
He said that while NBN is not satisfied with the number of olim coming from North America, he is confident the figures will grow due to a “snowball effect.”
“Many of those coming now are friends and family of those who already came, so we are looking for higher numbers in the near future,” he said.
And they're still waiting. Just check the numbers.
For the last year available, 3074 people made aliyah from the United States, as opposed to 3,187 the year before (2011), a three percent decrease. This year, the numbers seem to be near the previous two years, meaning that the Aliyah rates from the U.S. have not risen at all over the past few years, despite the inroads that Nefesh B'nefesh has made across America - and a massive recession in the United States that coincided with an economic boom in the Holy Land. If it really was about the money, then the numbers should have mushroomed over the past few years, and they did not.
Even Rabbi Fass, the founder of an organization devoted to Aliyah, when speaking to graduates of Yeshiva felt the need to temper his pro-aliyah talk by saying that his message, "Does not mean that you all have to live in Israel...although that would be magnificent. It means that at least you should all 'Live Israel." Et tu, Rav Yehoshua? Why not say it like it is? Why not say what you really think? Of course you think that they all should move to Israel! Why not say it?
The truth is, we don't say it anymore be people don't want to hear it.
Everyone now knows about Aliyah. They've watched the videos and seen the speeches, and they're still not coming. (The most fascinating aspect of the numbers to me is the breakdown by family. Each year, of the 3,000 olim coming from the United States, almost half of them are young single. This makes sense, I guess. It's much easier to come when you're young and single than when you're older with a family.)
I completely identify with his palpable frustration. I felt precisely the same way after returning home from a month-long visit to the states. Nothing makes you more frustrated about American Jewry's aliyah apathy than a visit to your family - and their desire to talk about anything but aliyah. It's hard enough to be so far away from family. It's even harder knowing that due to tuition expenses and the generally high cost of day school tuition, you aren't going to really be seeing any of them in a meaningful way for years, if not decades.
"But there's Nefesh B'nefesh! And your kids will do fine! And you'll find a job, and be happy!" I say in so many words.
"We know," they answer, in so many words. "So can you please stop bugging us, and just let us enjoy your visit?"
Sure. Fine. Whatever.

I guess I shouldn't be that surprised. After all, Moshe Rabbeinu himself alludes to the phenomenon of Aliyah Apathy - at least according to Rashi. I'll explain.
Moshe Rabbeinu tells us that in the end, after all the suffering of the Tochecha, we'll finally "return to our hearts," repent, and wish to return to God. When that happens, Moshe promises,
וְשָׁב ה' אֱלֹקיךָ אֶת-שְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ; וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ ה' אֱלֹקיךָ, שָׁמָּה.
that then the LORD thy God will turn thy captivity, and have compassion upon thee, and will return and gather thee from all the peoples, whither the LORD thy God hath scattered thee.
Rashi and the Midrash wonder: היה לו לכתוב והשיב את שבותך - "It should have written "and [God will] bring back [those in] captivity..." Instead the verse seems to imply that God Himself will return with us from the exile to the Promised Land. God doesn't exist in physical space, and if He did, would it not make sense to assume that even though we were exiled, God remained in the Holy Land?
No, Rashi says. That would not be a safe assumption.
רבותינו למדו מכאן שהשכינה כביכול שרויה עם ישראל בצרת גלותם, וכשנגאלין הכתיב גאולה לעצמו, שהוא ישוב עימהם.
From here our Sages derived that it is as if the Shechinah dwells with Israel in the anguish of their exile. And when they are redeemed, God wrote in redemption for Himself, for He dwells with them...
Rashi's first answer conveys the beautiful notion that when God exiled us from His Land, he exiled Himself as well. It is as if God's presence in the Land of Israel cannot be complete and whole without His chosen nation dwelling in the Land together with him.
Rashi adds a second answer:
ועוד יש לומר, שגדול יום קבוץ גליות ובקושי, כאלו הוא עצמו צריך להיות אוחז בידיו ממש איש איש ממקומו, כענין שנאמר (ישעיה כז, יב) ואתם תלקטו לאחד אחד בני ישראל
One can also answer, that great is the day of the ingathering of the exiles - and difficult, as if God Himself must literally hold the hand of each individual person in his place, as it is written, "And you will gather one by one the Children of Israel." 
Rereading Rashi's comments, it dawned on me: There's no one big "day of the ingathering of the exiles." It doesn't happen as a group on one day. Each individual person has his day.
After spending over a month in the United States over the summer, I experienced an interesting emotion. Someone asked me whether I missed living in America, and I cannot say that I did - or do. But I do remember feeling, "I can't believe I actually picked my family up and moved halfway around the world." It's such a huge thing.
Don't misunderstand me. I am overjoyed that we made aliyah. It's the best thing that we ever did for ourselves and our family (and for the Jewish people as well). But it was by no means easy, and looking now from the other side, five years later, gives me a sense that it really was a big deal.
Aliyah is hard. The touchscreens, websites and seminars and red-tape-cutting certainly do lighten the burden. But they cannot change the essence of the act.
This, I think, is what Rashi refers to when he says that God will hold the hand of each and every Oleh. That's pretty much what it takes. And, as every Oleh will tell you, He does indeed take your hand and guide you.
All you need to do is reach out to Him, and you'll find yourself led in the right direction. I guess it's that first step that's the most difficult.