Sunday, July 19, 2015

An Israeli Reporter Makes Aliyah with Nefesh B'nefesh, and Why I Can't See an American-Style Rabbinate in Israel for the Foreseeable Future

Yedidya Meir
Nefesh B'nefesh invited popular chardal media personality Yedidya Meir to join the latest Aliyah flight. Meir, who is a gifted writer whose column appears weekly in B'sheva, the free newspaper strewn across Israel, wrote a wonderful piece about his short Shabbat in Manhattan, his views of America, and a bit about aliyah. He posted the piece on his Facebook page, and if you can follow the Hebrew, it's worth reading. If you can't, I'll share a few choice sections:
ובכן, האמריקאים, ואני לא יודע איך לומר זאת אחרת, האמריקאים הם מאוד אמריקאים. אתם מכירים את זה שאתם הולכים במרכז ירושלים, ברחוב בן יהודה, נגיד, ופתאום נשמעת צווחה חדה שמפלחת את האוויר? יש רק שתי אפשרויות במצב הזה: או שמדובר חלילה בניסיון פיגוע וחייבים להזעיק את הימ"מ, או שמדובר בשתי נערות אמריקאיות נרגשות שלא נפגשו מאז אתמול וכעת ראו זו את זו ברחוב.
אז וולקאם טו אמריקה. הכול בגדול, בענק, בחזק. הכול מתוק מדי, צועק מדי, פלסטיקי מדי. נכון שבעולם הדתי אמריקה היא תמיד דימוי למשהו מאוד חומרני? נכון תמיד הדוגמאות של המשגיח בישיבה או של הרב בדרשה יהיו אנטי אמריקאיות, כאילו אמריקה היא יוון של ימינו? אז זהו, שבגדול הם די צודקים. כוס השתייה שבחרתי בקופה כי חשבתי שהיא הגדולה ביותר במלאי, התבררה כהכי קטנה. אחריה היו עוד אחת בינונית (כלומר, ענקית) ועוד אחת גדולה (כלומר, לפילים ומעלה). ואחרי שגמרו למלא לי אותה בקולה הוסיפו כמובן קרח. המון קרח. כמה שיותר. בקוביות גדולות.
And so, Americans - and I don't know any other way to say this - Americans are very American. You know when you walking in the center of Jerusalem on Ben Yehudah Street, say, and suddenly you hear a scream that splits the air? There are only two possibilities in this situation: Either it's an attempted attack God forbid and we need to call emergency services, or we're talking about two American teenage girls who haven't seen each other since yesterday, and just bumped into each other on the street.
So "Welcome to America". Everything is big, giant, strong. Everything is too sweet, too loud, to plasticky. You know how in the religious world "America" is always the image of something very materialistic? You know how the examples of the mashgiach in yeshiva or the rabbi in his drashah would always be anti-American, as if America is a modern-day Greece? Well, yeah - generally they're totally correct. It turns out that the drinking cup I picked at the checkout counter because I thought that it was the largest available was in fact the smallest. There was also a "medium" (i.e. giant) and yet another larger one (i.e., for elephants and larger). And after they finished filling the cup with cola, they of course added ice. A ton of ice. As much as possible. Large ice cubes.
I never noticed that Israelis don't like drinks with ice. I always order a cup of ice with my drink in a restaurant. I'm so American.
What I love about this piece is its honesty.
Meir isn't being nasty or mean, and many of his comments about America ring true. Yet, he doesn't only point out negative aspects of American life. He also writes about a number of positive aspects of Jewish (Orthodox) life in the United States, including very strong community life and the strong sense of devotion and dedication that people have to their shuls.
One paragraph struck me, and highlighted why, at least for now, there won't be any widespread form of a rabbinate, at least in the American sense. He writes,
הדרשה הייתה גם היא זרה ואחרת, ומעוררת מחשבה. הרב שניגש לדרשת שבת שגרתית נתן את נאום חייו. מעניין אם גם בשבת הבאה הוא ייתן את נאום חייו. כנראה שכן. זה היה שואו מהוקצע, כתוב ומוכן מראש, עם התחלה מסקרנת, שיאים רגשיים, רעיונות מקוריים וסיום שכרך את הכול ביחד. שיעור ברטוריקה. זה היה יפה. יפה מדי. בקיצור, אמריקאי.
The drashah was also strange, different - worthy of consideration. The rabbi that rose to speak on a regular Shabbat gave the talk of his life. I wonder if next week he'll also give the talk of his life. Apparently so. It was a professional show: written and prepared in advance, with an engaging introduction, emotional heights, original ideas and a conclusion that wrapped everything together. A lesson in public speaking. It was nice. Too nice. In a word, American.
For whatever reason, Israelis like things the way they're used to them. Many (but not all) Americans like their drashot they way they know them - in the style of the American rabbi: articulate, well-prepared, with a clear beginning and end, and an actual point. But, for whatever reason, to Israelis, that's too good - too sweet, too easy, too American.

I met recently with a young American rabbi considering making Aliyah. While I encouraged him to do it, I quickly disavowed him of any notion that there will be an American style rabbinate in Israel anytime soon. Israelis don't "get" American rabbis (they're just too American - as we see here), and most Anglo shuls pick an Israeli to be their rabbi. At least that's happened in nearly every shul that I know of, from Modiin to Yad Binyamin to Beit Shemesh to Raanana. American rabbis have found shuls, but usually they're for retirees, or they literally started the shul themselves (which is not impossible, but just very challenging). Still, I told him, there's an incredible amount that you can do here - the sky really is the limit - as long as you don't need your rabbinic life to support your family. Even as Israeli shuls are hiring communal rabbis, and Israelis are trying to develop the idea of the community rabbi through training programs, it won't be what Americans are used to. The Israeli rabbinate might borrow some parts of it, but it won't be the same. It will be Israeli, catered to the needs of a different community with vastly different expectations and needs.