Several months after making aliyah, I woke up one morning and found I could not walk. My back was infected and I needed to be hospitalized. That night I questioned why this was happening to me, especially so soon after my dream of aliyah had finally been realized. Fortunately, I was able to conclude that same night that “gam zu letovah” – that there was also some good embedded in my situation that would in time become revealed, as indeed it was.
The text for that conclusion was a passage from Psalm 118: “Odcha ki anisani vatehiy li liyeshuah.” The standard translation is “I will praise you as you answered me and were my salvation.” But Midrash Tehillim offers another version: “I will praise you for the anguish you caused me as that was my salvation.”
Confined to the hospital and my home, I had abundant time and motivation to review important decisions in my life, including making aliyah at a very advanced age. HaRav Kook wisely pointed out that negative and positive elements are always embedded together in the same ball of wax that constitutes our human experience.
In the course of my review I was able to reconstruct three components that led to my aliyah – components linked to my religious, professional, and family experiences –one of which can be defined, in the words of chazal, as “yerida shehi tzorech aliyah,” a negative factor that leads to positive results, while another came as an unexpected revelation to me.
The first component began taking shape more than sixty-eight years ago when, as was my custom, I joined my father at Shabbat morning services in his synagogue on New York’s Lower East Side. Shiya Elizer Fogel, an American-style haredi and a marvelous ba’al tefillah, was leading the service there as usual. But that Shabbat was very special. The state of Israel had been declared that week and Shiya’s rendition of the tefillot was beautiful, especially the Kedushah: “When will you reign again in Zion? Hopefully soon in our lifetime.”
Almost a lifetime later I can still vividly recollect that deeply stirring moment, periodically revived in different contexts and occasions in my life. I was thirteen years of age, and it remains my earliest recollection of a powerful connection to Eretz Yisrael.
The community from which I moved to Israel should be noted for its role in our aliyah. The Lower East Side was the major area of first settlement for Jewish immigrants who arrived in the United States from Eastern Europe and has retained one of its most unique attributes – the spirit of the Eastern European shtetl.
My aliyah from the Lower East Side was largely due to the presence there of what I would call “closet” classic Zionist individuals. They are were and are leaders and members of a wide variety of synagogues – Modern Orthodox, Agudah, haredi, chassidic, and landsmenshaftn. A good example is the aforementioned Shiya Fogel, the haredi chazzan in my father’s synagogue, many of whose grandchildren and great-grandchildren made aliyah. Their Zionism was rooted in their intense and extensive religious identification and commitments.
We all knew of each other and in diverse fashion supported each other. For example, Rabbi Stern, a young Talmudic scholar, said to me when we ran into each other on the street just prior to my aliyah, “It’s about time, Jerry. What took you so long?” And then there were all those who organized a catered communitywide melaveh malkah for our friends and neighbors in support of our decision to make aliyah.
The first component was strengthened immeasurably by the first visit my wife and I made to Israel, on our honeymoon. It was a marvelous experience for both of us, hearing Hebrew and absorbing the land’s beauty. But the real, long-term impact of our visit came from my first exposure to the teachings of HaRav Kook. I don’t think I’d ever heard his name raised or his teachings recognized during my many years of extensive Jewish schooling. After that visit to Israel, I began studying some of his major works, which are prophetic visions uniquely applicable to the revival and renaissance of Jewish life in the contemporary world, especially in Israel.
Particularly relevant to me was his addition of two categories of mitzvot – between man and his nation or homeland and between man and himself – to the traditional categories of man’s relationship to God and man’s relationship to his fellow man. They added significant depth to our understanding and efforts, individually and collectively, to the achievement of the liberation of Eretz Yisrael and the Jewish people. His writings were a vital component driving my determination to one day make aliyah.
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My entire professional career was spent working in the Jewish community. The wide range of that experience was the second component of my decision to make aliyah because it offered me ample opportunity to formulate what I believe are sound judgments about the future of the Diaspora.
During the time I was teaching sociology at Yeshiva University, I was also engaged in both working on and closely following various sociological studies of the Jewish community at that time. They were hardly encouraging.
Those surveys clearly documented a growing and dangerous increase in the rate of intermarriage. Jewish communal leaders were shocked when one such study indicated that the intermarriage rate had climbed to 25 percent. That figure underrepresented the actual number at the time because it included the intermarriages of still-living couples from earlier generations, when Jews intermarried at a very low rate. By the early 1970s, the intermarriage rate among young Jews had begun a steady climb that, nearly half a century later, only continues to accelerate.
The pertinent question, of course, is whether any serious attempts at ameliorating the situation were planned or implemented in the half century since those studies were published.
My next position was as a consultant in the field of community relations at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council (known today as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs), an organization comprised of Jewish community councils across the U.S. This career change provided me the opportunity to work directly with Jewish communal bodies and foundations. In the four years I spent there l was deeply impressed with the quality of the leadership, lay and professional, of that agency as well as the agencies and communities it served.
What was nonetheless disturbing was that many in key leadership positions in Jewish life at the time lacked serious Jewish learning, and therefore evinced no strong commitment to and passion for intensifying the levels of Jewish education and culture in their communities.
This was clear from the priorities and policies of some of the major Jewish communal bodies. The Orthodox community was virtually at war with the Federations, which saw no pressing reason to increase their allocations to Jewish education via day schools. All the research even then demonstrated the effectiveness of Jewish education, especially the day schools, not only in reducing intermarriage but also in creating healthy Jewish personalities.
I would apply the Vilna Gaon’s formulation to some of American Jewry’s major agencies in those years. The Vilna Gaon questions what the rabbis meant in alerting us in Pirkei Avos to the din and cheshbon we will be responsible to report at the end of our days. What, he asks, differentiates din from cheshbon? He explains that din refers to what we accomplished in this life while cheshbon refers to what we could have accomplished. American Jewish institutions and leadership may have been doing well at that time – but they could have done much more.