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Next Year In… Milwaukee?

Why wasn't Israel included in the Jewish Communities Fair?
Why wasn't Israel included in the Jewish Communities Fair?

Why wasn't Israel included in the Jewish Communities Fair?
Photo Credit: Yishai Fleisher

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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.

OU Flyer

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.

OU Community Fair Chesterfield & Crowd

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.

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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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53 Responses to “Next Year In… Milwaukee?”

  1. So you are saying that everyone that the Orhtodox Union services simply doesn't want to make Aliyah? Besides that this isn't true, it certainly isn't fair to lump all of their audience into that reality. I think Yishai made some extremely good points that should be answered.

  2. Donny Reich says:

    Joseph that is the whole point. The OU is too concerned with growing the American Jewish community. The same can be said for every other Jewish Institution in the US.

    The OU (and the rest) have their priorities backwards. If the OU actually believe in the Torah that they claim to abide by, then they would know that the only place for a Jew to live is Israel.

  3. Donny Reich says:

    If the OU, and other Jewish organizations would encourage Aliyah, over time there would be many more American Olim.

    What a shame that America's Rabbinic leadership have forgotten Eretz Yisrael.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Because they weren't invited to! There is only one side to question.

  5. J.D. Gershan says:

    Yishai – OU represents the so called "Modern" Orthodox. I'm curious – Is this the sector from which most US Aliya originates? Or does most Aliya come from the Orthodox (ie not Modernish)? If most of the aliya is from the Modernish group, then perhaps the OU feels that Aliya opportunities are already well represented and are having an impact. If most Aliya is from the non-Modernish Orthodox, then I would agree with you that perhaps the OU should highlight Israel a bit more.

  6. Donny Reich says:

    JD You are missing the point. If this fair is about relocating to new Jewish communities, what better a Jewish community to relocate to than that of Israel?

    By forgetting Israel, the OU is saying that it is more important to strengthen the Jewish communities of the Mid-west, than it is to strengthen Israel!

  7. Yochi Eisner says:

    I don’t really understand the issue here – it was obvious to me from the "get go", that OU's Jewish Communities Fair was simply repackaging and reselling the American dream to America Jews. We don't need the words 'Jewish community' when we talk about living in Israel. There is nothing "to get" or "understand", OU says it out loud: want a better life move to Louisville (for example). They are not saying "want to live as a Jew amongst Jews?", "want to fulfill your obligation as a religious Jew and ensure your family's legacy?" then move to Israel. OU is galus.
    And as to OU's "celebration of Israel's 65th birthday" it's what I call the "Eretz Yisrioel" –" Eretz Yisrael" dichotomy. For some American Jews, Israel is "Eretz Yisrioel" – it's a state of mind – you can spend a Yontif here every year, visit army bases and heck maybe even buy a house that the "kids" will use when they visit for a year and then will remain empty for the rest of the time. But home, a real place to live, is the golden medina. Eretz Yisrael – is real, it's tough, it's not neat, it's full of us Israelis yelling, pushing and running around; oh yes and building a country. It's not buying jewelry once a year in Mamilla; it's buying challah every Friday in Machne Yehuda.
    Don't fool yourself OU knows exactly what they are doing, as did the "modern orthodox masses" that thronged to the event.

  8. Joshua Grady-Share says:

    I'm under the impression that OU America funds OU Israel, which is incredibly pro-Aliya. Torah Tidbits, very pro-Aliyah, is provided in many communities in 'America'. I don't think Yishai is being whiny, and think that asking a rhetorical question like why no Israeli communities were represented is valid. Perhaps the organizers could respond if they invited someone from the aliyah centre, or NBN, Tehila, or other, or not. If they said, that this wasn't the point of the ceonvention, I would say that is legitimate as well. But bloggers/writers are still allowed to ask questions!!

  9. The writer makes a good point about missing out on the benefits of living in Israel. But, the reason Israel was not at the fair is simple. Israel's real estate and evrything else is quite expensive. If your looking for a bargain place to live that offers a high standard of living, chances are you won't find it in Israel.

  10. Yishai. You cannot shove Aliyah down people's throats. If they don't want to be there or are not ready to live in the holy country- it will not work out. The ou clearly marketed this event to people who want to live in America. Nefesh b'nefesh does a wonderful job I helping people who want to make Aliyah do so!

  11. I will be happy and honored as well. But Yori, please cut back on the condescending tone. I've been in Israel nearly 15 years and prefer to stay, but not everyone is in a position to start over in – yes, a strange, distant place where the living is harder than it is in the US. And many of these people in Buffalo, Scranton, Springfield, and Richmond are making huge differences in their communities, and bringing more people to observance and ultimately connection to Israel. While I'll agree that people contemplating leaving New York for Milwaukee instead of Modiin are missing everything that you described, and the abysmal lack of Hebrew proficiency and knowledge of Israel prevalent in much of the US Orthodox world bother me more with each passing year, sometimes it is simply plain necessity – not comfort or coziness – that dictates decisions to look at “out-of-town” communities at this time. The OU is simply recognizing this fact and trying to help – while still emphasizing that these community alternatives are for those for whom aliyah is not currently an option.

  12. Sigh. As someone who made aliyah after seeing the bigger picture of where Jewish history is going, it makes me sad that so many American Jewish families are still building their futures on the quicksand that is today's America. This event makes me queasy every year.

  13. Yosef Chiger says:

    In the picture is our Rabbi & his wife from Harrisburg. Wonderful people in a dying community. Sad.

  14. Tzadik Vanderhoof says:

    It's a hard cultural adjustment. Israel is very different. Even the Judaism is different.

  15. You and Yishai need to reserve tables next year. At least Yerushalayim and Ma'aleh Adumim can have representation…

  16. Jacob Alperin-Sheriff says:

    Yori Yanover That could happen (G-d forbid) but Israel could also get nuked (G-d forbid) [America could get nuked too but it would take a lot more nukes to take out all the Jews of the US than those of Israel]; until Moshiach comes better not to have all of our eggs in one basket.

  17. I just want to mention, that when I saw adds for this fair I emailed Rabbi Fass from Nefesh Bnefesh to see if they were invited. He replied no. I then emailed the heads of the OU.

    Shalom,

    Why isn't Israel one of the Options for Jewish Relocation?
    Why wasn't Nefesh Bnefesh invited to this event?
    Wouldn't it make sense for the OU to promote relocation to Israel as ONE of the options for American Jews who pray to return to their homeland every day?

    http://nbn.org.il/aliyahpedia/community-a-housing/community-guide-beta-listings.html

    The 2 replies I got were.

    [Weinreb, Tzvi H.

    You are absolutely correct. However, none of the three individuals to whom you addressed your e-mail are responsible for this program. I will forward your e-mail to those who are. THW]

    and

    [Genack, Menachem

    You are right.
    I sent your note to Steve Savitsky who heads that program and is the chairman of the board of the OU].

    There you go.

  18. I just want to mention, that when I saw adds for this fair I emailed Rabbi Fass from Nefesh Bnefesh to see if they were invited. He replied no. I then emailed the heads of the OU.

    Shalom,

    Why isn't Israel one of the Options for Jewish Relocation?
    Why wasn't Nefesh Bnefesh invited to this event?
    Wouldn't it make sense for the OU to promote relocation to Israel as ONE of the options for American Jews who pray to return to their homeland every day?

    http://nbn.org.il/aliyahpedia/community-a-housing/community-guide-beta-listings.html

    The 2 replies I got were.

    [Weinreb, Tzvi H.

    You are absolutely correct. However, none of the three individuals to whom you addressed your e-mail are responsible for this program. I will forward your e-mail to those who are. THW]

    and

    [Genack, Menachem

    You are right.
    I sent your note to Steve Savitsky who heads that program and is the chairman of the board of the OU].

    There you go.

  19. Stuart Feldhamer says:

    How do you know?

  20. Donny Reich says:

    Actually, in previous years, Nefesh B'Nefesh was invited, then uninvited, and told that this even was ONLY for communities in America.

  21. Donny Reich says:

    Tzadik Vanderhoof , Israel's Judaism is NOT different. It's America's Judaism that is!

  22. They are too comfortable in the US! I hope they will be caused to reconsider, and flee to Israel before it is too late!

  23. They are too comfortable in the US! I hope they will be caused to reconsider, and flee to Israel before it is too late!

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