Friday, August 31, 2007

Fish Out Of Water

So now we’ve been back from Israel for two weeks. Everyone asks, “How was it?” or “Did you have a nice time?”

I haven’t a clue how to answer those questions.

How do I explain that I am feeling completely out of my element here? It gets more intense with each trip. I don't need every Jew in America to see things the way I do, but I am tired of explaining, justifying the centrality of Israel in my world view to people who don't care or who argue that you can be "just as a good a Jew" in America as you can in Israel.

When I'm IN Israel, people get it, so I feel like I am among my own. And on this most recent trip, we spent time greeting and visiting with the newest group of friends to make aliyah from Baltimore. My husband really captured how I was feeling toward the end of the trip when he said, “You’re sad because they all get to stay here.”

Friday, August 10, 2007

Premium Judaism

Every time I refer to Jewish observance in America as ersatz, someone takes issue with it. So let me explain further.

I don’t mean to suggest that Jewish observance in America, or anywhere outside of Israel, is completely valueless. But neither is it the ultimate Jewish expression.

Can a person feel close to Hashem in chutz l’aretz? Can s/he do mitzvot? Can s/he make Jewish choices? Of course.

But if one imagines that because the neighborhood is Jewish, the grocery store is kosher, the shul is nearby, the friends are Orthodox, the school teaches Torah and the mikvah is within walking distance on Friday nights, that the lifestyle is completely kosher, therein lies the problem.

If one thinks Judaism is comprised of Torah observance and loving Hashem, life in an intensely Jewish neighborhood in America can seem complete.

But if you understand that you are part of Am Yisrael which has a mission that can only be realized in Eretz Yisrael, all your brachot and tefillot and Torah learning in chutz l’aretz is simply not enough. It’s not nothing, but it’s not premium Judaism either.

And if you think you live in an American community that has “everything you need to be fully Jewish”, you’re missing something pretty fundamental. In that sense, mitzvah observance outside the Land of Israel is ersatz. It’s artificial. It’s outside its natural habitat. And it’s terribly misleading.

Every bentching, every Shemonei Esrei, every parsha leads us to the mitzvah of returning to Israel. So, either you mean it and put yourself on an aliyah track (no matter how long it takes), or you don’t mean it, and you live an ersatz Judaism in chutz l’aretz, convincing yourself all the time of what a good Jew you are.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Real Deal

Many years ago, fresh out of graduate school, I was offered a job at an historically black university. Working at an historically black institution was eye-opening in much the same way international travel is. You begin to see the world through the eyes of others and you see that ordinary things can look very different, depending on your perspective.

As a white person growing up in America in the 1970s, race barely registered on my radar screen. As a white person on a college campus where virtually everyone else was black, I came to regard my race differently.

I spent all day working with, surrounded by, people of color. And it began to appear to me as if white people were missing something. As if white skin was a deficient form in the range of human color.

Every time I come to Israel, I see that Judaism outside of Israel is similarly deficient. It’s missing something – something essential. I once stated that Jewish practice outside of Israel was ersatz. Some American Jews didn’t like that characterization very much. But I still think it’s true.

Jewish practice outside of Israel can only approximate the real deal.

There was a ceremony last night at the religious kibbutz of Ein Tzurim, which is the temporary location of approximately 40 families who were “disengaged” from their homes in Netzer Hazani in Gush Katif. The ceremony marked two years since the Israeli government tore them out of their homes, destroyed their communities and turned the land over to the Arabs who have been shelling the now-border city of Sderot ever since.

But this rumination isn’t really about politics. It’s about the authenticity of the Jewish spirit in certain parts of Israel.

This community, living in temporary housing, financially crushed by the disengagement and unable to work in the fields for which they were trained, got together last night, not to mourn the destruction of their whole communal life, but to celebrate the 30-year history of Netzer Hazani. There was a photo exhibit detailing the early years of the community, honoring the memories of those among them who died, and celebrating what they had built on the empty dunes of Gaza.

There were songs and choreographed group dances performed by elementary-aged girls. And, most stirring of all, there was a PowerPoint presentation of all the smachot – births, britot milah, marriages, bnei mitzvot, that the community had celebrated since the destruction of their former lives.

What gives them this kind of strength, to honor what can be celebrated in the face of communal crisis?

Their commitment to Hashem, to the Torah, to the Land of Israel.

As we sat in plastic chairs, on a gorgeous August night, watching the program, watching a community celebrating its own strength in the face of adversity, I whispered to my husband, “It doesn’t get any more authentic than this.”

Torah Jews in Israel are The Real Deal.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Just Like Living In Israel

Yesterday, I had an experience that made me feel like I am actually living in Israel.

Our daughter and her friend traveled with us from America to Israel two weeks ago. They both wanted to return sooner than my husband and I did, so I made arrangements for them to have an earlier departure date.

Yesterday, we took them to the airport to fly back to JFK. We parked in the regular short-term parking lot at Ben Gurion airport. We took the elevator to the third floor, stayed with them through the check-in process, bought them ice coffees (which, in Israel, are more like coffee slushees) and sat with them until it was time to go through security and on to their gate.

I was a little sad, saying goodbye to our daughter, but only a little, because I expect to see her again in 10 days. If Moshiach comes in the interim, she’ll be back here; if not, we’ll be together again in Baltimore.

We waved and threw kisses through the glass that separated us, and then, when we couldn’t see them anymore, we left the airport, drove to Modi’in and had a lovely dinner with friends.

Exactly as we will, Gd-willing, do in the future, when we actually live here.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Vatikim

We are 12 days into a three-week visit to the Holy Land. Each time we come, I tend to notice a theme in the messages that make their way into my consciousness.

This time, I’m hearing a lot of weariness and disillusionment from vatikim (veteran immigrants). It’s true that I spend a lot of my time among people who are excited about Israel, excited about the prospect of making aliyah and living in the Land Gd set aside for the Jewish people. And I do whatever I can to encourage that line of thinking.

So it’s painful for me to hear how worn out, battle fatigued and cynical some vatikim are. They seem to have forgotten the sense of honor and privilege of being able to sustain their families in Israel. They seem to have lost their connection to the religious motivation that brought them to Israel in the first place.

Instead, they buzz on about how hard life is here and how naïve and starry-eyed olim chadashim (new immigrants) are.

I don’t blame them. Goodness knows, I respect what they have accomplished and pray to be among them in years to come.

But I hope I never lose my enthusiasm.

And it makes it even more important to increase the numbers of olim, not just for the sake of the olim themselves, although they are obviously the primary beneficiaries. But olim chadashim also breathe new energy into this country and, at least in potential, can reinvigorate those vatikim who seem to have forgotten why they came.