Often, upon returning home to Israel after a speaking tour in North America, I am asked by Israeli friends, “Nu, did you get people to make aliyah?”
I explain that I prefer not to talk too much about aliyah while abroad. I try to get Jews to renew their love for the homeland, connect with life in Israel. I find the issue of aliyah often distances my audience. Though I am a firm believer in the ingathering of the exiles, when I speak to Jews around the world I am trying to bridge worlds, not drive them apart.
Indeed, the biggest schism among Jews today is the great Atlantic Divide. Six million Jews live in North America and six million live in Israel. Israeli Jews and North American Jews live worlds apart and grow up with a completely different set of circumstances and experiences. One group goes to liberal arts colleges, the other the army; one speaks English, the other Hebrew; they read different books and watch different programs on TV.
It was not always like that. Early on in Israel’s history, American Jews saw Israelis as brothers and establishing, defending and building the Jewish state as a common project. By 2012, however, American Jews have grown to see Israelis as slightly annoying distant relatives with bad manners and strange political choices.
This is why my Israeli friends ask whether I made any aliyah converts: deep down, Israelis are worried about their North American Jewish brothers and sisters. They are afraid to lose them to assimilation, and they are also afraid of growing apart. No doubt, North American Jews are also concerned about it and have taken real steps to bridge the divide with one-year Israeli yeshivas, gap year studies, internship programs, and, of course, the Birthright-Taglit program, an amazing project that has bridged the Atlantic Divide for tens of thousands of young Jews.
Still, it’s not enough. Eighty percent of North American Jews have never been to Israel, and most Israelis have no connection to American Jewish life. To feel again as one family, our people need one vision to rally around, a star to guide us, so that we can navigate our lives toward one goal that will eventually bring us together. What is this vision?
The vision of a rebuilt Jerusalem is one our people have shared ever since we were dispossessed of our land 2,000 years ago. From Addis Ababa to Los Angeles, from Kabul to Vienna, our people have always proclaimed “Next Year in a Rebuilt Jerusalem!” No matter where we are on the globe, we have one homeland and one capital to which our heart belongs.
To foster that vision, and to make it current and applicable in our lives, we need to get behind the idea of mass aliyah.
But wait – didn’t I you just tell you I don’t preach aliyah because it’s divisive?
Let me explain: There is the grand ideal of “making aliyah,” moving to Israel. But the word “aliyah” in modern Hebrew also means “the process of going up.” If we define aliyah as a process of going up, there are many steps in the staircase before you get to the landing. And that is exactly what we have to do – take steps toward our united goal, with each step being a mini-aliyah.
Those steps can be big or small, but they are steps nonetheless. Deciding to drink only Israeli wine on Shabbat is a type of aliyah. Putting up a poster of Jerusalem in your house is a type of aliyah. Sending your kids to Israel on Birthright or to a yeshiva or for gap year is certainly a step in the right direction. Buying real estate in Israel is definitely an aliyah. Under this rubric, “mass aliyah” means that we, as a nation, take steps toward Jewish unity by recognizing the centrality of Israel in our national life any way we can.
And here’s a very important aliyah: If you have the budget to go away for Passover, you certainly have many wonderful alternatives to choose from around the world, from Italy to Mexico to Arizona to Florida – great places, no doubt. However, Passover is also an opportunity make a mini-aliyah and come to the international Passover hub – Jerusalem.
The term aliyah is also applied to the act of going up to Jerusalem three times a year during the Festivals, so coming to Israel on Passover is definitely an aliyah. Isn’t Passover supposed to be about educating our children? What could be more enriching for a young Jew than coming to Jerusalem for Passover?
Nothing shows our values as a nation more than the way we celebrate the Holiday of Freedom. When we choose Jerusalem over other destinations, we strengthen the bond of brotherhood among the Jewish nation, our core values shine through, and our children imbibe it. The world, too, notices when we put Jerusalem ahead of other destinations and it strengthens our nation’s claim to the land.