Monday, March 30, 2009

A Rabbinic Response - The Last Word?

Getting back to the "Responding to the Economic Crisis" controversy, I heard back from a local rabbi with whom I exchanged a series of emails on the subject. In essence, I made the point that the downturn in the economy has spiritual significance for Jews still in the Diaspora and that it could well be that its purpose is to move Jewish history forward and convince American Jews to finally "get out of Dodge".

I haven't asked his permission to quote him, let alone name him, so I will introduce his points with a few of my own.

1) I very much appreciate the integrity of the rabbi who responded to me.

2) I also appreciate the fact that he took time to think about what I was prodding him to think about and that he took time to respond.

3) His response made me feel sad.

Here were his main points, paraphrased by me (therefore, it would be only right to suspect some bias). I tried to capture the essence of his point without quoting him directly.

I want to emphasize that his actual words were conciliatory, as in, (and this is also a paraphrase even though it looks like a direct quote), "I have a nagging personal feeling that you may ultimately be right, but I/we aren't prepared to act on that possibility at this time."

* There was agreement among the event's planners that, at this time, people need concrete, practical help at least as much, if not more, than spiritual perspective. However, they felt that some spiritual perspective was offered by the keynote speaker.

* When people are suffering, as in the current economic crisis, the correct thing to do is help them concretely, not make them feel guilty for still living in the diaspora. The aliyah message, if it is to be delivered in this context, has to be done with great sensitivity.

* Many, if not most American Jews, let alone most rabbis, don't share the perspective that I and others espouse, namely that the doors are closing on American Jewish life and the time has come to seriously consider getting out while it is still relatively easy to do so.

I don't know if this is the final word on this topic, but his last point is SO hard for me to take in, even though I know he's correctly reflecting reality.

Friday, March 27, 2009

One Bite At A Time

One Bite At A Time: What To Do When You Find Yourself Considering Aliyah

The old joke asks, “How do you eat an elephant?”

“One bite at a time.”

Planning aliyah, even thinking about the possibility of someday, maybe, planning aliyah, can be overwhelming. It’s such a huge undertaking. Where does one begin?

As the Coordinator of the Baltimore Chug Aliyah, I have the opportunity to coach people who are just beginning to think about making aliyah. Often, people are not ready to speak openly to friends and family about the subject, but would like to know what they can do to begin some preliminary research. What follows is a list of things you can do very early in the process, to make progress without making any open declaration or formal commitment.

There’s a lot to learn and it can be overwhelming. Take one bite at a time. Learn about one new resource, make one new contact or study one new website on a daily or weekly basis. In this way, you will eventually accumulate a great deal of information, one bite at a time.

Here are my suggestions for early steps. I’ve tried to present them from least to most complex, but of course, what one person finds complex, another finds easy. There is no magic to the order in which the steps are undertaken. The most important thing is to take that first bite.

And then the second.


Step 1 – Say a prayer.
When a religious Jew considers aliyah, there is likely to be a spiritual reason behind it. On some level, many of us realize that the most complete expression of our Jewish identity is possible only in Israel. Before you begin, it helps to acknowledge your spiritual motivation with tefillah.

You may find something that speaks to you in our existing liturgy. Consider reciting the second paragraph of Shema or the bracha of mekabetz nidchei amo Yisrael (Who gathers the dispersed of His people Israel) with special kavana. Try noticing the number of references to Israel, Tzion and Jerusalem in Birkat HaMazon. You may wish to say Chapter 122 of Tehillim.

Alternately, consider asking Hashem, in your own words, to guide you on your journey. Imagine the pleasure you are giving Hashem when you begin to explore the possibility of coming Home.

Step 2 - Buy a notebook and a couple of file folders.
You are beginning a research project, and you are going to come upon many, many resources, ideas, websites, brochures, flyers and other ephemera. You’ll need a place to keep them all organized.

If you’re comfortable with a computer (there is a huge amount of information available online), you’ll also want to open a document folder. It’s a good idea to also begin a webography (sometimes called a webliography) - a document that lists links to website related to your search. In addition to saving the URL, you’ll want to write a brief comment about what you found useful about each link, just to jog your memory later.

Step 3 – Open your notebook or a new document and begin to list all your questions, large and small. What will you need to know? Most working people with children are concerned about three big issues. What community will be right for them? What options are there for employment? Where can their kids go to school? These may be your areas of concern. Or you may need to know about retirement options, financial planning, healthcare services, etc. Do a brain dump. List whatever questions you want to find answers for, no matter how major or minor. Just get them out of your brain and into writing.

Step 4 – Turn the page and begin to list all your concerns, large and small.
Nobody makes aliyah without worries. What are you worried about? What are your concerns? What are your potential stumbling blocks? Get all the stuff that’s rolling around in your head into writing

Step 5 – Read Inspirational Blogs
People who long to make aliyah, are going through the process of making aliyah or who have recently made aliyah, are writing blogs (on-line diaries) to share their experiences with the world. Here are a few suggestions of aliyah-related blogs to get you started:

Adventures of Aliyah
Written by a retired couple who made aliyah from Baltimore without children, this blog includes detailed entries about their daily life in Israel. It’s best to start reading this one from the earliest entries forward.

Ki Yachol Nuchal!
Written by a former Baltimore resident now living in Neve Daniel, this blog is about all the wonderful little things that come with life in Israel.

Kumah
Home of the Aliyah Revolution, this blog is full of aliyah inspiration and is written by 10 regular bloggers and occasional guest bloggers.

What War Zone??? Because the Middle East is Funny
Written by Benji Lovitt, a 30-something single man now living in Jerusalem, this blog is a humorous look at the cultural differences Americans find in Israel.

Step 6 – Join the Baltimore Chug Aliyah Discussion List
The Baltimore Chug Aliyah is a loose association of like-minded people considering aliyah in the long term or already planning aliyah from Baltimore. Any Jew from Baltimore with an interest in aliyah, no matter how tentative, is welcome. The Chug Aliyah is also open to people with an interest in buying a home in Israel as a step toward deepening their connection with Israel. There are open community meetings and an online discussion group where members share aliyah information and inspiration with one another. All services of the Baltimore Chug Aliyah are free of charge.

If you have email, this one is really easy. Just send a blank email to: baltimorechugaliyah-subscribe@yahoogroups.com

Step 7 – Read Inspirational Books
I’ve divided the suggested titles into two categories. Group One includes first-person accounts of the aliyah experience and the experience of life in Israel. Group Two includes more Torah-based content.

Group One
Moving Up: An Aliyah Journal
by Laura Ben-David
Mazo Publishers
Moving Up is an easy-to-read, daily account of a family’s first year in Israel, from the packing up of their American house to the birth of their first child in Israel a year later.

To Dwell In The Palace: Perspectives on Eretz Yisroel
by Tzvia Ehrlich-Klein
Feldheim Publishers
A thought-provoking collection of articles, addressed to religious Jews in the West concerning the mitzvah of aliyah. Do not miss the section called, “Things My Shaliach Never Told Me.

101 Reasons to Visit Israel: And Perhaps Make Aliyah
By Estie Solomon
Written by a former Baltimore resident, this is a lighthearted list of 101 pleasurable aspects of life in Israel, illustrated with full-color photos.

On Busdrivers, Dreidels and Orange Juice
On Cab Drivers, Shopkeepers and Strangers
On Bus Stops, Bakers, and Beggars
by Tzvia Ehrlich-Klein
Feldheim
Three little volumes of brief and inspiring stories of everyday life in Israel.

Group Two
Eretz Yisrael in the Parashah: The Centrality of the Land of Israel in the Torah
by Moshe D. Lichtman
Devora Publishing
Why do so many Jews still choose to live in the Diaspora? To answer this question, the author analyzes every reference to Eretz Yisrael in the 54 Torah portions, demonstrates the overriding importance of Eretz Yisrael and encourages Diaspora Jews to at least consider making aliyah.


Talking About Eretz Yisrael: The Profound And Essential Meaning Of Making Aliyah
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
ShaarNun Productions
This book is a forthright argument meant to encourage Torah-observant Jews to urgently consider making aliyah today.

Eretz Yisrael: The Teachings of HaRav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook (Lights on OROT)
by Rabbi David Samson and Tzvi Fishman
Torat Eretz Yisrael Publications
The rabbinic name most associated with Religious Zionism is HaRav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook, better known as Rav Kook, who lived and taught in pre-State Palestine. This book is an accessible English commentary on Rav Kook's teachings about Eretz Yisrael.

Eim Habanim Semeichah: On Eretz Yisrael, Redemption, and Unity
by Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal
Urim Publications
Rabbi Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal was an Eastern European scholar living during the Holocaust. While hiding from the Nazis in Budapest in 1943, he wrote this lengthy argument on behalf of the establishment of Jewish dominion over Israel, a position that he had previously opposed.

Step 8 – Spend time on the Nefesh b’Nefesh website
You are probably already aware that Nefesh b’Nefesh is the place to turn for specific aliyah-related information. Indeed, the Nefesh b’Nefesh website is a major source of current information about all aspects of making aliyah. So much so that it can be overwhelming.

NBN advisors recommend that you make an appointment with yourself and spend an hour a week on their website – every Tuesday night from 7-8 PM, for example. I recommend that you start with the AliyahPedia section of their website. In this section alone, there are hundreds of articles on subjects such as housing, employment basics, financial planning, resources for disabilities, aliyah rights, obtaining an Israeli driver’s license and dozens of other topics.

Step 9 – Request guidebooks
Nefesh b’Nefesh publishes the Nefesh B'Nefesh Aliyah Planner -- a workbook and guide designed to help you organize the details of the Aliyah process. Contact the New York office of NBN for your copy - 1-866-4-ALIYAH or 212 734-2111 or email nbnusa@nbn.org.il

Kehillot Tehilla publishes Bayit Neeman B’Yisrael, -- a booklet that includes research on Israeli communities where North Americans tend to settle. The 9th edition contains highlights of new communities with a special section called "Off the Beaten Track," which identifies upcoming communities and neighborhoods where prices are more affordable. Copies are available locally through the Baltimore Chug Aliyah (see Step 6) or contact Paysi Golomb of Kehillot Tehilla - 443 957 4591 or paysi@tehilla.com.

Step 10 - Begin attending local programs
The Israel Aliyah and Programs Center, Nefesh b’Nefesh and the Baltimore Chug Aliyah all sponsor free, local programs about various aspects of making aliyah. Members of the Baltimore Chug Aliyah (see Step 6) receive notices about all aliyah-related programs. Many are announced on luach.com, on the BaltimoreAchdus list (to subscribe, send a blank email to: BaltimoreAchdus-subscribe@yahoogroups.com)and in local shul bulletins. The larger programs are also advertised in the Where What When and other local publications.

Step 11 - Get rid of stuff
Nobody takes every single possession from America with them to Israel. While there are large, beautiful private homes in Israel, most people in Israel live in smaller quarters than they did in America.

If you enter the term “decluttering” into a Goggle search, you will get over 500,000 hits, full of tips on ways to declutter. There are businesses devoted to helping people declutter their homes. When you declutter with an eye toward making aliyah someday, your efforts will benefit you in the spiritual world as well as in the physical world.

Step 12 – Learn some more Hebrew
I’ve saved this for last because it is often the toughest advice to take. You may think that you need to enroll in a class to learn Hebrew. While face-to-face classes do exist in Baltimore, the options locally are quite limited. But today, there are dozens of other options for improving one’s conversational Hebrew level: tapes and CDs, Internet sites, online classes, workbooks, easy-Hebrew newspapers and computer software, all designed for adult use. There are also private tutors. For a complete list of Hebrew learning options for adults, please contact the Baltimore Chug Aliyah (See Step 6).

Kol hatchalot kashot. All beginnings are difficult. But with the steps outlined here, you can take it one bite at a time. If you’ve read all the way to this point, you’re already one step closer to learning more about aliyah.

May Hashem reward all our efforts to return Home.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

More on Responding to the Economic Crisis

What follows is a recent letter, written by a brilliant friend of mine. The letter writer is a deeply committed, unusually well-educated Jew who made aliyah from Baltimore and is passionate about the need for Jews to live in Israel. She wrote this letter to her former rabbi from Baltimore, seeking advice on how to deal with the frustration she feels with American Jews who will not consider making aliyah. With her permission, I am sharing her letter here, having edited out all personal references.

Dear Rabbi,

I’m writing mainly because a close friend and I are seeking some perspective on an issue that continues to trouble us greatly. First, a little background: Baruch Hashem, our families have been blessed with the near-constant appreciation of just what a remarkable gift Am Yisrael has been given in our generation. Our special friendship is built on a mutual understanding of how we must never take this gift for granted and on encouraging each other to constantly acknowledge how profoundly fortunate we are to share this daily miracle: the flourishing of Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael. We can look at each other with complete and shared sincerity: Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu u’mah yafeh yerushateinu!

As much as we rejoice in our fortune, though, we are truly vexed by an issue that is quickly becoming a michshol in our quest for Ahavat Yisrael. The longer we live here and are absorbed into the holiness and essence of Eretz Yisrael, the more difficult it becomes for us to relate at all to Jews who choose to live in America. We mean specifically those Jews who are Torah-observant, who received Jewish educations akin to the ones we both received in Bais Yaakov, and who are committed to raising growth-oriented, frum Jewish families. It’s becoming increasingly more challenging for us to understand why Jews would invest in Jewish infrastructure (schools, shuls, mosdot) in America as opposed to focusing all of their energies and attention in determining how to make their lives here. We mean specifically those young families whose roots are not yet sunk deeply enough in Chutz la’Aretz that uprooting and planting elsewhere would not cause serious trauma to their children.

Why aren’t they with us? Why are they committed to being stretched to the breaking point just to remain in Chu”l? Why are they deciding on how large their families should be based on the tuition factor alone?

The most apt mashal that we can think of, which closely aligns with our experiences, is that of a single person who remains in that state solely due to fear of commitment, of change and of leaving his comfort zone. He has chances to marry and to change his reality, but that would require taking a leap into the unknown. He is told, though, by married couples, that their metziyut (though at times challenging) is profoundly more rewarding than when they were single. Yet he refuses to taste of what Hashem has intended for him, preferring to tread water in his reliable daled amot rather than “leave his birthplace for the Land Hashem shall show him.“

We continually try to think of appropriate shidduchim for our single friends, knowing that they too wish to change their metziyut and commit to someone in their lifetimes. It’s hard for us to enjoy the rewards of a loving relationship and the joy of raising children knowing that there are others who are still looking for that fulfillment in life. But for those who shun opportunities due to fear of commitment or change, all the while believing that they belong somewhere else…well, what kind of a life is that?

I am not, chalilah, intending to cause you any personal hurt. We are still inspired by the drashot and shiurim that we were privileged to hear from you during our stint in Baltimore, and we are truly humbled by your clear love and care for Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael. Halevai that we could love so deeply! We understand the need for wonderful rabbanim to remain in Chutz La’Aretz for the time being to encourage their kehillot on towards vibrant, committed lives in Eretz Yisrael.

We are basically seeking eitzah as to how to relate to this segment of Am Yisrael in a healthy and productive way. Right now, it is hard for us not to feel pity for the frum community in America. And overwhelming frustration with the widening gaps in basic hashkafot within the olam Torani. And, in all honesty, anger at what we feel is a basic failure of the chinuch given to young people in chutz la’Aretz in this generation. Why is Am Yisrael so utterly unfazed by the tremendous gift that Hashem has charged us with?! It is NOT acceptable in the 21st century for a young frum Jew to think it’s ok to strike roots and stay in America.

Neither of us wants to pity wonderful people, greater than us in their Torah learning and pure lifestyles. It doesn’t seem right. We are not arrogant people, and we know that we have many faults. But we can’t seem to square our concern for the future of Am Yisrael with the ongoing lethargy of a diaspora Jewry who are turning their backs on this Divine opportunity.

Rambam, Ramban, R’ Yehuda HaLevi, Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, R’ Yehuda haChassid, the Vilna Gaon – they all attempted to move here or sent their disciples to live here, when the situation in E”Y was almost impossible. Now we have such an easy time of it relative to the hardships of our preceding generations. What is wrong with us as a nation? Kol Dodi dofek v’dofek v’dofek…and we here are very worried that He’s given up on knocking at our door, in our time, because we just can’t collectively get ourselves out of bed to answer the call.

At the community meeting tonight to address issues of economic straits and strategies to weather these times, will anyone be raising the possibility that maybe this is another knock on the door, and that we should flood E”Y as soon as possible with a mass aliyah of committed Jews? Will this be considered as a “practical initiative?”

Doesn’t the rabbinic leadership have a responsibility at this critical juncture to promote aliyah to young families?

Or will all talk tonight be of salvaging and sustaining the diaspora?

With tremendous respect and anxiety that I might have caused offense,

But with a stronger anxiety that Am Yisrael is missing the boat,

Yours truly,

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

And Now, For Something Entirely Different...

THE SET UP

In my copious spare time (ha!), I moderate a list called Geula Watch, in which list members share dvrei Torah, blog entries, links to shiurim and other Torah-based information on the subjects of Moshiach, geula and kibbutz galuyot (the Ingathering of the Exiles).

A few days ago, I shared a link to a shiur by Rabbi Pinchas Winston, who is making his mark in the Torah world by teaching about the significance of the time period of Jewish history in which we find ourselves. Rabbi Winston is a prolific speaker and writer and a great influence on my thinking about these matters.

In this shiur, given live in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Israel on Sunday night, March 22 and posted to the Internet within hours, Rabbi Winston basically makes the case that the purpose of the current financial crisis is to separate Jews from the Diaspora, because kibbutz galuyot is the final stage of Jewish history. Additionally, he hypothesizes that America may well recover from the financial crisis, but only after the Jews who will be part of the Redemption have left. He argues that, for the economy to recover and for American Jews to go back to "normal" life would only prolong the exile and would be counterproductive to the goals of Jewish history.

AND NOW, FOR SOMETHING ENTIRELY DIFFERENT...

Last night in Baltimore, the Vaad HaRabbonim Rabbinical Council of Greater Baltimore held a community gathering called, "Responding to the Economic Crisis: An Evening of Tefillah, Chizuk and Practical Initiatives."

In essence, the program last night communicated this theme, "Times are tough, but if we stick together and help each other, we can get through it and our local institutions, particularly our day schools, can be even stronger than they were before the global economic crisis hit."

There was an emphasis on practical ways to help - reallocating our tzedaka dollars so at least 51% of them stay in the Baltimore community, reporting all possible job openings to a central location, using existing community programs if one's family is in crisis, getting financial counseling if needed, etc.

Clearly, no one involved with the program has been listening to Rabbi Winston. There was absolutely no acknowledgment of the historical context of this financial crisis and what it might mean for Jews of the Diaspora specifically.

There were many good and well-meaning people involved in last night's program. Much chesed. However, there was not a single mention of the spiritual and historical significance of current events. The overriding conclusion attendees were meant to leave with, it seems to me, is that it's just a matter of buckling down until the economy improves around here and things go back to normal for the holy congregation of Baltimore.

Oy.

I do have to say that, even with separate seating, the room was divided down the middle, instead of front-to-back, so I was able to be seated in a b'kavod manner and was able to see and hear everything. I don't take that for granted.

Monday, March 23, 2009

"This isn't the same America you left," my son.


On the one hand, I'm watching what's going on and, like the neilah service of Yom Kippur, I see the gates closing on American Jews. I believe that this worldwide financial crisis is a tool of Gd's to get the Jewish people to separate themselves from their material success in the Diaspora and to come back home to Israel.

While shopping for vegetables on the local kosher market last week, I ran into a friend whose son, a second year yeshiva student in Israel, just arrived back for his Pesach break. She reported that he was looking for a job for a few weeks to make some money before he returns to Israel. "Just remember," she reports saying to him, "This isn't the same America you left."

To feel obligated to communicate that to a 19 year-old son. Now that's dramatic.

I watched a Holocaust movie a few weeks ago. What struck me most was the story of what happened to Jews in Vienna just before things got really bad. Changes that had taken months to implement in Germany were implemented much more quickly after the Nazi invasion of Austria. Seemingly overnight, life for the Jews in Vienna changed dramatically for the worst.

Was September 11 not a foreshadowing of this for the current generation.? How rapidly so many of the systems we depend upon could disappear!

On the other hand, I am beginning an entirely new business venture. True, I've built it so it has the potential to provide income from Israel as well. But it's somewhat like building on quicksand. Sometimes, I ask myself what I'm doing, establishing something new exactly when I feel that I should be closing down everything old.

But, if I have to be here for awhile longer, I have to be productive. I can't sit around wringing my hands indefinitely.