I finally went to the Orthodox Union’s annual Jewish Communities Fair. As a long-time pro-Aliyah activist, I had been curious about this event, and so while on tour in America, I joined the hungry Modern-Orthodox masses at Manhattan’s Metropolitan Pavilion as they searched for new communities and a new life in far flung locales like Jacksonville, Florida, Louisville, Kentucky, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin – but not Israel.
I expected to see a moderately attended event. But to my surprise, the venue was packed with over 1,300 people, exploring the forty-one different communities represented. There was so much noise, I had to stand close in order to hear community leaders make their pitches.
You may wonder, as I did, why would Modern-Orthodox Jews want to leave the kosher conveniences of the NY area and move to remote places like Southfield, Michigan. It turns out, that first and foremost, the answer is affordability: cheaper housing, cheaper education, and getting more for your money. A high quality of life at an affordable price. And incentives. Some communities promise incentives like a $20,000 gift for a down-payment on your home, and free tuition from kindergarten through grade 12.
Josh Elbert, who flew in to represent Southfield, shared with me how he had come to this fair a few years ago and was skeptical when the Michigan people approached him. They said to him, “Don’t judge until you see it,” and indeed, when he saw it, he was smitten. “I am a success story of this event. Because of the connections we made here, we were able to provide a terrific opportunity for our family,” he told me. Because of the drop in real estate, he mentioned, one can buy a very large home for $115,000 in Southfield. Someone who makes forty-five thousand dollars a year can live next to a millionaire.
But there are other reasons to move to the American periphery – such as the opportunity to join a tight-knit community and make an impact on a growing shul, or aging congregation seeking new blood.
I spoke with Rabbi Aaron Winter who came to Chesterfield, Missouri twenty two years ago to serve as their rabbi. He explained to me that Chesterfield is part of greater St. Louis, that they have a congregation of 80 Orthodox families, and their own mikvah and Chafetz Chaim Mesivta. He told me that his shul had succeeded in bringing many non-affiliated Jews closer to Torah. As he put it, “we are on the front lines of Orthodox Jewry in St. Louis.” Now, Chesterfield is looking to grow and they are offering up to five families a grant of twenty thousand dollars each towards the purchase of a home. “When you are an out-of-town community, even one family is gold. People appreciate you being here,” Rabbi Winter told me.
So cheaper housing, affordable education, a sense of community, and the promise of a better quality of life, are luring Jews to middle-America.
Understandable, reasonable, and respectable!
But what about the Israel option? Were any of the Modern Orthodox attendees at the OU’s Community Fair considering moving east of New York, to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv? There was no way to really know because there were no tables representing emerging communities in the emerging Jewish state. Had there been a table for, let’s say, Efrat, Modiin, or Maale Adumim, then one could gauge how much action that table saw as compared with Portland. But alas, that option did not exist. The message of the fair was clear enough: If the Orthodox Union is going to help you find a new future – it is going to be in America.
That should come as no surprise. If you go to the OU’s website, you will see lots of pro-Israel links. But if you hover your mouse over the flag of Israel at the top of the site, a text pops up which reads: “Our ‘home away from home’ in Jerusalem, the OU Israel Center, annually welcomes over 100,000 visitors and residents.” The obvious implication is that Israel is a home away from home, but home is America. Another proof of this thinking was laid bare in the ‘Communities Guide’ which was given out at the fair. In it were page after page of US destinations for “Home & Job Relocation” with pictures, contact numbers, and websites. Yet on the back cover the full page glossy called on all to: “Join Us in Celebrating Israel’s 65th Birthday – March with the OU at the Celebrate Israel Parade.” Again, the message is clear: you can celebrate Israel and love Israel with the OU, but if you’re looking to move, consider Cleveland.
And that would be fine if the name of this Jewish real estate agency that is promoting moving to anywhere but Israel, wasn’t the Orthodox Union. Orthodox in this case does not mean Greek Orthodox Christians, but rather Orthodox Jews, those who see themselves as following the Torah, an internationally and historically renowned religious document which enthusiastically promotes the spiritual superiority of the land of Israel. So why doesn’t the OU, an organization which prolifically teaches and publishes Torah, at least put a few emerging Israeli communities at the fair? Why not give Jews a chance to plug into God’s dream and not just the American dream?
The OU went all out for the Communities Fair, renting a beautiful space, printing t-shirts, booklets, creating webpages, and even a series of videos to promote the event. One of the videos humorously derides the spiritual quality of Shabbat in New York City. But the fair which the video seeks to advance, does not offer the holistic experience of Shabbat in Israel as an alternative. Attendees seeking a more serene Jewish Day of Rest are directed toward Scranton, Manalapan, and Southeast Michigan.
The OU’s under-marketing of the Israel option is sad on two levels: it is sad for American Modern Orthodox Jews, whose leadership is not encouraging them to learn about the possibility of life in Israel. Judging by the fair, Modern Orthos have a greater chance of raising their children in Bethlehem, PA than in the original Bethlehem region, Beit Lechem – Gush Etzion. As those children grow up, they will not experience the weekly majesty of Shabbat in Israel, they will not learn to speak Hebrew fluently, and most will not have the privilege of being soldiers in the IDF. Instead, they will attend Liberal Arts colleges just as their Israeli peers enter the army and they will only connect to Israel on sporadic and expensive trips, and hopefully a gap-year study program. They will be taught to love Israel, but most will end up being detached from the real life of a six-million strong Jewish State. Sad for those kids.
And it’s also sad for Israel. Our sweet homeland is yearning to become a first-rate country and it needs precisely those Jews who are being routed to Richmond, VA by the OU. American Jews who choose Israel bring with them a culture of democracy, customer service, transparency, environmentalism, big thinking and much more. American Jews are good for the development of the young Jewish State!
Indeed, Israel is the most exciting project of the Jewish people in two-thousand years, and we need all hands on deck to nurture and direct its way forward. The idea of taking part in the building of our country is exciting and attractive, and more people would embrace that attitude if leading organizations like the OU would publicly preach and teach those values.
I sincerely hope that at next year’s OU Community Fair, Neve Daniel and Ramat Beit Shemesh will be given a chance to compete on a level playing with Southfield and Milwaukee. If Orthodox Jews are already moving out of New York, shouldn’t Eretz Yisrael, which has waited for us for so long, have a chance to win their affection?
About the Author: Yishai Fleisher is the Contributing Editor and PR manager at the JewishPress.com, and Israel's only English language broadcast radio show host (Galey Yisrael 106.5FM). Yishai is an Israeli Paratrooper, a graduate of Cardozo Law School, and the founder of Kumah ("Arise" in Hebrew), an NGO dedicated to promoting Zionism and strengthening Israel's national character. Yishai is married to Malkah, they have two children, and they live on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.
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