The High Price of a Free Ticket: Aliyah and the Leadership Gap

An Oleh on a Bike
Two summers ago, the last time that we were in Israel, my wife and I spent a beautiful afternoon with friends of ours who have made Aliyah to Yad Binyamin, a popular (if rustic) new enclave for American Olim. Our friend was still working for Yeshiva University in a long-distance capacity, although he admitted that that was a temporary situation which would probably be solved by finding work of a more domestically Sabra variety. On a tour of the neighborhood as the sun was setting, we happened to chance upon a former high school Chumash teacher of mine, a formerly influential American Jewish communal leader who has also made Aliyah to Yad Binyamin, on his bike returning home for the evening. He recognized me instantly, and shouted, hardly slowing down, “Hey!!! Is this true? You’re moving to Yad Binyamin?!” “NO!” I shouted back. “WHY NOT?!” he countered. To which I threw him a dagger he was not expecting: “BECAUSE OF YOUR ARTICLE!” That threw him for a loop, but he was undeterred: “I WROTE ANOTHER ONE!!!”

The article to which I had referred was In Search of Leaders (link), and even though the author has obviously long since disowned it, I am happy to recommend it because it is a powerful piece of writing that influenced me more than almost any other in my thinking about how – and where – I should spend my life, and because as time passes I agree with it only more. As he himself noted, however, he has also written many fine articles on the importance of Aliyah and on why he ultimately made the choice that he did.

In the style of my Chumash teacher’s opening his original article with the “Bloom” family, an influential Detroit family whom he wished would not make Aliyah, I will start my own analysis of the same topic with the true story of “Elisha.”

The Brief Coming of Elisha
“Elisha” moved here two years ago, after spending six months in a Kollel upon finishing his studies at the University of Maryland. He was nearing engagement when he was recruited to move here, but came and left single. At first glance, his resume was Jewishly uninspiring. Having dropped out of a middling Jewish high school in tenth grade to attend public school and, following graduation, spent his gap year with Young Judea, he had, aside from the six months in Kollel, little enough of any substantial learning that I was moved to express skepticism to my principal about his appointment of Elisha to teach fourth and fifth graders Judaic studies. I could not have been more wrong. Elisha, in a joint program with Azrieli, shined right out of the gate with the skills, common sense, and detached but interested personality of a teacher many years more experienced. He was, quite literally, a star teacher right from the get-go, and as the two years he spent with us continued, his creative projects, school-wide Middot program, and moving guitar playing made it evident that he was in the upper echelon of teachers in the school, a Master Teacher.

We knew our time with Elisha was limited – he was single, and in a mid-size, non-New York community we had little to offer him by way of starting a family. We also knew that he had every right to move to a larger community with more resources if he so chose after his agreement with us and with YU was finished. It’s one of the downers of living between the Coasts – like Off-Broadway, we cultivate talent for larger communities to exploit when they are ready. We’re the D-League of American Orthodoxy.

What surprised me was what Elisha did choose to do after the two years had ended. He made it known that he would return to Israel to learn and get Semicha as he received a stipend serving as a Madrich in an American post-high school Yeshiva. That’s fair. What he did not announce, but which I found out by asking him, is that he is planning to make Aliyah. He’ll be keeping one day of Yom Tov next year. He plans not to return to America, if he can swing it.

I did not know those plans while I was working on a going-away Seudah Shelishit for Elisha. This was a dream affair to plan – one email to about thirty friends of his, and I had the event covered in an hour with extra money to spare. People were complaining later that they hadn’t been asked to contribute – not something you hear every day in the world of fundraising. The Seudah Shelishit featured elegant gifts (an engraved set of Ha’Emek Davar and an airline gift card to expedite his return), moving presentations by his students about what he had taught them, and a beautiful speech by a parent, one not given to easy accolades. The parent, whose son he admitted was not the easiest but who, along with his classmates, had taken to Elisha easily, concluded by half-joking that he would work hard to get Elisha back to our community and soon. When he was finished, I asked him on the side of the room if he was aware that Elisha was making Aliyah. He acknowledged that but said that he felt he could still convince him to come back. “The problem is,” the parent winced, “you can’t argue with Aliyah.”

Arguing with Aliyah
The parent might have meant two things by that statement: That Aliyah is a universal religious imperative, or that it is unpopular nowadays to speak a word against the common notion that Aliyah should be everybody’s goal. I certainly cannot argue with the second sentiment – I know how taboo it has become to speak a bad word about Aliyah. After “In Search of Leaders” was published, I read the intense backlash and wondered if the respondents had read a different article than the one I had read. Today the pressure continues in such forums as the guilt-inducing “Don’t Call Me a Zionist – I Don’t Deserve It” that appeared recently. When Dr. Simcha Katz suggested in Jewish Action a year ago that an American Jew can show his support for Israel by joining AIPAC, the strident if myopic faithful of the Aliyah-or-Nothing party came out to, as usual, miss his point entirely.

My problem with Aliyah is not that too many people are doing it, but that the wrong people are doing it. Overall, the numbers on Aliyah from the US are not terribly strong, to put it mildly, with about 1,200 Americans making Aliyah each year (link) out of an overall American Jewish population believed to be around 6,000,000 (link), of whom roughly 10% (about 600,000) are Orthodox (link). But those anemic numbers only exacerbate the problem with Elisha, or my high school Chumash teacher, or my former NCSY Regional Director, or the high number of my Rabbinic friends whom I spent time with in Yeshiva, YU, RIETS, Gruss Kollel, or Azrieli, making Aliyah and leaving behind the masses of American Orthodox Jews. The low numbers of Aliyah overall aggravate the problem that the small number of our youth, the soon-to-be leaders of our community, who spend time in Israel after high school (and don’t kid yourself, that is a vocal but still very small minority of the overall population of young Orthodox Jews) are fed a steady, one-sided diet of Aliyah-centered rhetoric that ignores the need that these young leaders can play in the still-large American Orthodox community or the centuries we have spent in Galut and survived rather nicely.

If there is no proportionality between the number of leaders who make Aliyah and the number of, for lack of a better word, followers who make Aliyah, the appreciable American Orthodox community will before too long be a lawless, ignorant population even more at the mercy than they are now on one-size-fits-all books churned out by a small, zealous, and increasingly busy core of right-wingers in New York. That may sound apocalyptic or hyperbolic, but it is already an increasingly real phenomenon. With so many of my friends having made Aliyah and maintaining no contact with the people who actually need them, the communities where they grew up can choose between the few young and mostly ignorant leaders who are still here – themselves poorly trained because so many of their potentially good teachers made Aliyah, and so the cycle continues – or “The Laws Of” books that conveniently feed generic Torah to tens of thousands at a time. More ironic still, the few firemen who have actually stayed behind to deal with the mess left by our self-righteous “Middle Eastern” friends are actually made to feel bad about our choice. I do feel bad, but not for me.

Leadership and Personal Fulfillment
In a beautiful piece in the back of the fourth volume of his Teshuvot V’Hanhagot, Rav Moshe Sternbuch responds to an unnamed American Yeshiva principal who longs to make Aliyah and live with his family in the Holy Land. Rav Sternbuch minces no words in forbidding the principal from emigrating:

ודע, שכל בית ישראל נקראים צבא ה’ – יש כאלו זוכין לעבוד אותו בפלטרין קדשו, ויש העובדים אותו בפינות העולם. אבל, על כל פנים, מי שנמצא באמצע עבודת הקודש, הלוא מצינו בכהן שאם עזב את העבודה באמצע חייב מיתה, עיין רמב”ם פרק ב דביאת המקדש, הלכה ה’, ובכסף משנה שם, שאסור לו לצאת (אלא ימתין עד שתיגמור העבודה על ידי אחר ואז יצא), ואף כאן, הוא בבחינת “באמצע עבודה,” ואין לו רשות לעזוב, אלא כשבא במקומו אחר, ורואה שמצליח, ויכולים לסמוך עליו, אז יכול לצאת … ואף כאן, שעבודתו היא להרביץ תורה בגולה, וצריכים אותו לכך, אינו יכול לעזוב זאת אפילו כדי ללמוד תורה בהיכל ה’, אלא אם מוצא אחר שראוי להעמידו במקומו.

Rav Sternbuch uses a Rambam as the basis for his assertion that it is forbidden for a useful communal leader to abandon his post for the personal pleasures of a spiritually bucolic life in the Holy Land. The nature of our obligation in the world is not to massage our own spirituality at the expense of those around us, but לשמוע, ללמוד, וללמד, לשמור ולעשות – to pass along to others as we account for ourselves. Somehow this message is not getting through to the new American Rabbinic class, which sees itself as Israel-bound and with no responsibility to the community which raised it and needs it. I was quite surprised (as was YU President Richard Joel when he visited) to see how many of my colleagues in YU’s RIETS Israel Kollel, where my wife and I spent two years, planned to (and did) remain in Israel indefinitely or who made Aliyah while still in the Kollel. Surprised in part because of the irony that they were using YU’s dime to continue studying for many years after officially receiving Semicha and without any plans to utilize their Semicha to benefit the American community, but also surprised that YU had not managed to create any deterrent for that kind of self-serving behavior.

I am unclear if YU or the OU yet realize how severe the problem is. It might surprise a layman to know that not only is there no clause in YU’s tuition-free Semicha program that the recipient will give back to the American community for some period of time, but there is not even a clause that the recipient will have to work in any Rabbinic capacity whatsoever. Or that he will have to reimburse a dime of the Semicha he was handed if he does not do either of those things. Those who find more satisfaction taking their Semicha and working on Wall Street may do so, guilt-free. So who can feign surprise when the best-trained and most indoctrinated among the young Orthodox community, trained for free by RIETS or in another of the great American Yeshivot, jump ship and buy their Olam Haba in an instant as they sign their Aliyah forms?

Maybe RIETS could work in a clause that its Musmachim first have to explain their Aliyah decision to a representative classroom of religiously-vulnerable American schoolchildren who will instead be taught by the local Chabad Shaliach whose Mesirat Nefesh we can all emulate but whose philosophy differs from the students’ own, or by the barely-English-speaking Israeli in town for a year because her husband is interning in the local hospital, while another bright, talented young leader feels equally fulfilled “doing Night Seder” twice a week with three or four post-high school American kids who are already well on the path to remaining frum but otherwise maintaining no contact at all with the community that needs him most. I am amazed speaking to my Olah friends as they describe their life at age 30 or 35 – a night Seder here, maybe an hour a week in a Seminary there – a life that sounds like the one I’d like to live someday when I retire. The extent of their overall impact on the Jewish people is secondary to the fact of their living in Israel. Some element of the frum Establishment has convinced them that the very fact of their presence in the Holy Land completes their God-given mission on earth.

So I staged my own mini-rebellion. The tradition developed at the Gruss Kollel that when someone officially “earned” their Israeli Aliyah, he would receive an Aliyah at the next Torah reading, followed by dancing around the room to the Carlebach “V’Shavu Banim Li’Gevulam.” They may not have understood why I stood quietly, stone-faced, at my seat, but they could not make me participate either. If they had asked, I would have told them that the shocked faces of innocent American schoolchildren searing in my mind would not let me sing or dance. With the anonymity of the 6,000 mile journey, the new Olim may not have felt the need to explain their behavior to those children. But they were studying my reaction to their abandonment by yet another qualified teacher more interested in his own spiritual growth than their own. And as far as I was concerned, there was no reason to celebrate.

Tugging at the Sleeve of History
We knew they disagreed plenty, our two Rabbinic influences in the YU Israel Kollel, but I only heard them argue face to face once, during a Friday night Q&A Panel during a Shabbaton at a hotel in the north of the country. The question posed to the panel was how one could know whether to remain in Israel or whether to return to America. The Rosh Kollel, always a fierce advocate of Aliyah to anyone who would listen, said that everyone should spend at least two years in Israel – and if they can’t make it work, they could always return to America. I saw the younger Rebbe sitting next to him, who himself had made Aliyah just two years before to the Gush area but who often disagreed privately with his boss about this issue, could not contain himself. “With all due respect, I must disagree. Just the opposite is true! Everybody here should spend two years in America – and if you don’t feel you’re making an impact or you feel that your spirituality is too greatly sacrificed – you can always come back to Israel.” He went on (with his colleague one seat to the left clearly miffed) about the desperate need for Rabbis and teachers in America, particularly “west of the Hudson,” and about the impact anyone in that room could have by returning to America.

Whenever President Joel visited the Kollel, he spoke to us about the urgent need in America for teachers and Rabbis “just like you,” and how we should all return and work for the American community for which our training had made us uniquely suited. But he was much too late. Like the adversarial Rebbe on the Q&A panel, President Joel was speaking to a room filled with people who either had already made Aliyah or who had made up their minds to do so. They were speaking to a room full of people into whose minds the opposite message – אין לי ארץ אחרת – had been seared since they were children. And our childhood classmates never bought into the same Aliyah message, so there are still communities full of Jews who planned to stay in America, many of whom have gone on to produce another new generation of recalcitrant little American people, while the room full of potential American leaders, the only ones who actually believed the Aliyah message, planned to stay in Israel.

Aliyah today, despite the relatively small numbers of all but the typical post-Rabbinical student, is still considered a fait accompli for the Rabbinic elite and our best young scholars, and anyone who doesn’t take the no-longer-proverbial free ticket is supposed to at least feel really bad about it. Rav Moshe, the great genius, “just didn’t understand” when he wrote that living in Israel is a מצוה קיומית but not a מצוה חיובית. Rav Yaakov, who asked to be buried in America so his children could visit him, “just didn’t get it.” If only Rav Soloveitchik or the Lubavitcher Rebbe or Rav Aharon Kotler or Rav Avigdor Miller had known what my friends know now.

A Brief Alternative History of Religious Zionism
These issues are difficult ones to discuss with Sixth Graders, but you can’t blame a man for trying. As we put the finishing touches on a great year of Chumash learning last week, we came upon the difficult Pasuk in Parshat Masei (32:53) which makes some sort of guarantee about the Jews’ passing into the Land of Israel:

במדבר פרק לג:נ-נו
(נ) וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל מֹשֶׁה בְּעַרְבֹת מוֹאָב עַל יַרְדֵּן יְרֵחוֹ לֵאמֹר: (נא) דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם כִּי אַתֶּם עֹבְרִים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּן אֶל אֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן: (נב) וְהוֹרַשְׁתֶּם אֶת כָּל יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ מִפְּנֵיכֶם וְאִבַּדְתֶּם אֵת כָּל מַשְׂכִּיֹּתָם וְאֵת כָּל צַלְמֵי מַסֵּכֹתָם תְּאַבֵּדוּ וְאֵת כָּל בָּמֹתָם תַּשְׁמִידוּ: (נג) וְהוֹרַשְׁתֶּם אֶת הָאָרֶץ וִישַׁבְתֶּם בָּהּ כִּי לָכֶם נָתַתִּי אֶת הָאָרֶץ לָרֶשֶׁת אֹתָהּ: (נד) וְהִתְנַחַלְתֶּם אֶת הָאָרֶץ בְּגוֹרָל לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתֵיכֶם לָרַב תַּרְבּוּ אֶת נַחֲלָתוֹ וְלַמְעַט תַּמְעִיט אֶת נַחֲלָתוֹ אֶל אֲשֶׁר יֵצֵא לוֹ שָׁמָּה הַגּוֹרָל לוֹ יִהְיֶה לְמַטּוֹת אֲבֹתֵיכֶם תִּתְנֶחָלוּ: (נה) וְאִם לֹא תוֹרִישׁוּ אֶת יֹשְׁבֵי הָאָרֶץ מִפְּנֵיכֶם וְהָיָה אֲשֶׁר תּוֹתִירוּ מֵהֶם לְשִׂכִּים בְּעֵינֵיכֶם וְלִצְנִינִם בְּצִדֵּיכֶם וְצָרֲרוּ אֶתְכֶם עַל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתֶּם יֹשְׁבִים בָּהּ: (נו) וְהָיָה כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּמִּיתִי לַעֲשׂוֹת לָהֶם אֶעֱשֶׂה לָכֶם:

Ramban famously reads these words to indicate a constant Mitzvah of living in Israel. Rashi, however, as we read him in class, sees a cause-effect relationship devoid of any full-fledged obligation:

רש”י במדבר פרק לג
(נג) “והורשתם את הארץ” – והורשתם אותה מיושביה – ואז “וישבתם בה” תוכלו להתקיים בה, ואם לאו, לא תוכלו להתקיים בה:

We noticed that to Rashi, וְהוֹרַשְׁתֶּם does not come from the root ירש,  inherit, but גרש, drive out. That is the end of the obligation. (We did also notice that Rashi struggles with the third use of the same root, לרשת אותה, at the end of the same Pasuk.) But it was the students who picked up on a pattern in Rashi, because this is actually the second time this year that Rashi has forced a similarly apparently anti-Zionist sentiment.

The first time came in Navi class, Shmuel I, when Dovid complains to Shaul that Shaul has forced Dovid to “worship other gods:”

שמואל א פרק כו
(יט) וְעַתָּה יִשְׁמַע נָא אֲדֹנִי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵת דִּבְרֵי עַבְדּוֹ אִם יְקֹוָק הֱסִיתְךָ בִי יָרַח מִנְחָה וְאִם בְּנֵי הָאָדָם אֲרוּרִים הֵם לִפְנֵי ה’ כִּי גֵרְשׁוּנִי הַיּוֹם מֵהִסְתַּפֵּחַ בְּנַחֲלַת ה’ לֵאמֹר לֵךְ עֲבֹד אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים:

Rashi infers that this is a euphemism for Shaul’s having driven Dovid from Israel but in the process, Rashi editorializes. Look at Rashi carefully.

רש”י שמואל א פרק כו
היוצא מארץ ישראל לחוץ לארץ בזמן הבית כאלו עובד עבודה זרה.

Now take a look at the source of Rashi’s comment, a famous Gemara at the end of Ketuvot, and see if you can spot Rashi’s editorial decision:

כתובות קי:ב
תנו רבנן: לעולם ידור אדם בארץ ישראל, אפילו בעיר שרובה עובדי כוכבים, ואל ידור בחוץ לארץ, ואפילו בעיר שרובה ישראל. שכל הדר בארץ ישראל – דומה כמי שיש לו אלוה, וכל הדר בחוצה לארץ – דומה כמי שאין לו אלוה, שנאמר (ויקרא כ”ה), “לתת לכם את ארץ כנען להיות לכם לאלהים.” וכל שאינו דר בארץ, אין לו אלוה?! אלא לומר לך: כל הדר בחוץ לארץ, כאילו עובד עבודת כוכבים; וכן בדוד הוא אומר: (שמואל א’ כ”ו), “כי גרשוני היום מהסתפח בנחלת ה’, לאמר ‘לך עבוד אלהים אחרים.’ וכי מי אמר לו לדוד, ‘לך עבוד אלהים אחרים?!’ אלא, לומר לך: כל הדר בחוץ לארץ – כאילו עובד עבודת כוכבים.

Did you spot it? See what Rashi did there? He added two words – בזמן הבית. The Gemara did not specify that this axiom applies only when there is a Beit Hamikdash (which, for that matter, there was not in Dovid’s time). Rashi editorializes to presume that the prohibition of living outside Israel is only in effect when there is a Beit Hamikdash, against the most obvious reading of the Gemara.

By the time we had seen both of these Rashi’s, a student asked, “Rabbi Zalesch, is Rashi not Zionist?!” I said that this requires further study, that perhaps it is worth exploring Rashi’s overall Zionist ideology. But the truth is, the student’s question presupposes a view of Zionism which, while very popular today, might not be correct – that being Zionist, loving the Land of Israel, necessitates that one live there in every circumstance. But as Reuven and Gad explained to Moshe, who himself was highly skeptical before their explanation, there can be very valid reasons not to live in Israel while still supporting the Land from afar.

Reuven and Gad were Zionist. So was the Megillat Esther, the commentary on Rambam, who famously assumes that there is no Mitzvah (but instead a prohibition) to live in Israel in a post-conquest world (a view unfortunately tainted to many by its adoption in more recent centuries by religious extremists such as Satmar and Neturei Karta but which, on the face of it, is not illogical given the Pesukim we read above). So were the Ba’alei HaTosafot, who write on the same page of Ketuvot we saw before that there is no longer any obligation to live in Israel. So were the centuries of exiles, many of whom had the option to live in Israel, including the recent generations of Torah leaders who created vibrant communities and Yeshivot in America, England, and other places in the Diaspora. In fact, it has only recently become popular to see the אין לי ארץ אחרת philosophy as a fundamentally exclusive way of life, and only now because adherents to that philosophy have a captive audience in post-high school students at an age vulnerable to brash decision-making and vulnerable in their distance from family or anyone else who can offer a dissenting worldview. And as the post-high school phenomenon turns 30, fewer quality influences remain back home who could have disagreed – if they would have risked alienation by even daring to do so – in the earlier years of the student’s education. So the depleted American schools feed the Israeli Yeshivot a nonstop, ready-made cache of impressionable young minds primed to imbibe every bit of a Zionist ideology that ignores Reuven and Gad, Rashi, Tosafot, Megillat Esther, and Rav Moshe Feinstein, then act surprised when we can find no one to hire to teach our children a few years later because all of the best candidates are thousands of miles away, soaking in a blissful Olam Haba bankrolled by a self-indulgent usurpation of Ramban and Rav Kook.

Prioritizing in an Aliyah World
It is also unfair to consider only the selected lines of the uber-Zionist Gemara at the end of Ketuvot without looking at the rest of the page, which also says …

כתובות קי עמוד ב-קיא עמוד א
דאמר רב יהודה: כל העולה מבבל לארץ ישראל עובר בעשה, שנאמר (ירמיהו כ”ז), “בבלה יובאו, ושמה יהיו, עד יום פקדי אותם, נאם ה’.”

… and …

כתובות קיא עמוד א
אמר רב יהודה אמר שמואל: כשם שאסור לצאת מארץ ישראל לבבל, כך אסור לצאת מבבל לשאר ארצות. רבה ורב יוסף דאמרי תרוייהו: אפילו מפומבדיתא לבי כובי.

And lest you think that those two quotes are connected, and that neither matter anymore because we reached the “יום פקדי אותם” on 5 Iyar 5708 when Hashem, let’s say, ended the Babylonian exile by giving us a State, Rashi, ever the non-Zionist, gives a separate reason for the second line quoted above:

רש”י מסכת כתובות דף קיא עמוד א
“כך אסור לצאת מבבל” – לפי שיש שם ישיבות המרביצות תורה תמיד.

Oh. In other words, stay where the learning is. Your job in life is to learn Torah, do Mitzvot, make an impact – essentially, יש לי ארץ אחרת if that ארץ is where I can have the biggest impact on the Jewish scene in that century. Where you are not allowed to leave, says Rashi, is where the action is – not necessarily Israel. Learning is primary. The Rambam, of course, does not count living in Israel in Sefer HaMitzvot, for which the Ramban takes him to task. He does, however, discuss the necessity to live in Israel in the main part of Mishneh Torah, where the Rambam gives several exceptions, including, like Rashi, ללמוד תורה. The major Rishonim, with the exception of Ramban, always understood that living in the Land of Israel is secondary to the need to fulfill one’s overall purpose in this world.

As did the earlier Acharonim. The Netziv, an early Religious Zionist and supporter of the movement to return Jews to Israel – also the Rebbe of Rav Kook – makes a statement in his commentary to Shir HaShirim (to 1:6) which I found rather startling when I first read it:

“כרמי שלי נא נטרתי” – הנהגת ישראל, כתורה המיוחדת לי, לא נטרתי. ואמר “כרמי שלי,” בכפל לשון, ללמד, כי אין הכוונה ב”כרמי,” מדינה שלי, היינו ארץ ישראל, אלא שלי, היינו עצמיות המיוחד לי. כי משונה לאום ישארל מכל הלאומים; דצורתם המיוחד, ושמירת לאומם, המה בתורה ומעשים טובים, ולא בארצם ומלכותם ככל הלאומים. וזהו דבר מלאכי הנביא (ג:יב), “ואשרו אתכם כל הגוים כי תהיו אתם ארץ חפץ,” ולא המדינה.

The Land is us! The Netziv is not denying that those who can live in Israel should do so, and in fact he did try to move to Israel at the end of his life, after he had completed his life’s mission as Rosh Yeshiva in Ponovezh (although he was prevented by ill health from actually doing so). The Netziv’s point is that in a world in which we must prioritize between various good options, Israel should not be thought of as the only viable one. As Rashi and the Rambam said before him, as wonderful as Israel is, we were not born to live in Israel if common sense otherwise dictates that we can have a broader impact elsewhere, but rather to fulfill Hashem’s Torah in whatever country we most naturally find ourselves.

It is unprecedented in Jewish history to see young leaders so easily abandon what is, by almost any objective measure, their life’s mission of learning and teaching in the most suitable environment for them, simply because the alternative is to live, unemployed and rudderless if need be, in Israel. Bidding Elisha a teary-eyed final farewell this morning, I had to ask myself: What hath Rav Kook wrought? What hath Rav Lichtenstein wrought? Is this right?

Give It Two Years
In the end, it is unfair to blame Elisha. He should not be blamed just because he put a face to the problem by stepping out from behind the curtain and actually giving his two years; it is all the nameless people who huddle behind it and never risk the smallest speck of spiritual stain by giving back to the American community which needs them who are far more blameworthy. Elisha gave forty children a lifetime of special memories; while I wish he would give hundreds more those memories too, it is unfair to fault him for what he did do when so many others have yet to give their share.

When Rabbi Marc Penner, of the Young Israel of Holliswood, rejoined the staff of RIETS in a professional capacity, he gave a rousing speech to the students on what would become a signature topic of his, imploring us to consider giving back to American communities outside of New York. Many who were in that room remember the passion with which he exhorted us to consider the desperate needs of non-New York communities and to go out and serve in a Rabbinic, teaching, or outreach capacity. He said that if everyone in the room gave just two years, the American Orthodox community would be deeply enriched. A few years later, he began to institutionalize the idea by forming a YU chapter of Ner L’Elef, a primarily right-of-center organization which trains Israeli and American students in Yeshivot like the Mir and Brisk to return to America (or, less often, out-of-town Israel) and work in outreach organizations, Shuls, and schools. The pitch should not have been difficult: two hours of work-free classes on campus (or via satellite to YU’s Gruss Kollel in Israel) for a $6,000 per-year stipend, and all for guaranteed employment in a viable capacity in the Jewish community. What could go wrong?

The year I joined, RIETS came close to not filling up the twelve spots needed to run the program. The program has stopped and started, some years filling up, other years not. Of the 200+ students in RIETS at any given time, there are barely twelve who would like to work in a Rabbinic or teaching capacity in a non-New York community.

A veteran staffer in Yeshiva University’s Office of Rabbinic Placement puts it simply: “Give me one block in Alon Shevut, and I’ll educate half of America.” Aliyah of the leaders is so far outpacing Aliyah by the rest of America’s Jews that there will soon be no one left to sell that large community on a ticket to Alon Shevut. Rabbi Gidon Rothstein wonders why American Jews are so ambivalent to Aliyah. My response: because the leaders who could most passionately and convincingly discuss it with them directly have made Aliyah themselves, leaving inferior classrooms, dumbed-down pulpits, and scores of ambivalent Jews in their wake. If more of the recent class of young, educated Olim would give their two years in America and then return, they might take more American Jews with them.

ויש קונה עולמו בכמה שנים – At What Cost Emotion
I, too, long to live in Israel. I miss the Holiness in the air, the Yeshivot on the ground, the fresher-tasting Felafel (in a variety of flavors!), the feeling that I am on the right side of history. When I was single in YU, I went every year for several weeks, and my rule was that I would not return to America without a clear plan of when I would visit Israel again. Now married, employed, and with a growing family, that is impossible – but that is as it should be. With about 600 Orthodox families in my mid-western American town, and about 30 Rabbis and teachers who might be deemed essential to their spiritual guidance, I would go tomorrow if 20 families went too. But with more Yeridah to my town than Aliyah from it, that doesn’t seem to be on the horizon. It seems I am here to tend כרמי, שלי, the hard, old-fashioned, millennia-massaged way.

I agree with Rabbi Rothstein that those of us who are still here need to work harder on convincing American Jews to seriously consider Aliyah, but I also feel those Jews will not cry “uncle” and come just because they have so little spiritual direction left to them in America. We must indeed discuss Aliyah with our youngest children, but we must also let them know that for the foreseeable future the American community will need leaders, teachers, scholars, guides, Rabbis and Rebbetzins who can guide the masses who are still here, and that if they achieve something in their learning they should consider staying behind to pass it along to שארית ישראל; that there is no shame in a ירידה לצורך עליה.

So I sat at my Shabbat table last week with my wife’s aunt and uncle, visiting from Israel for business and vacation, and my wife’s uncle asked when I was planning to make Aliyah. My answer clearly surprised him: “When I retire. About 33 years.” All he could muster was, “Wow, that’s a long time!” I laughed. “I hope so – I have a lot of work to do here first.” But I could see that the philosophical gulf between us was too wide to bridge in casual conversation, so I dropped it. It’s the life I have to live, but also the one I would never give up. Sure I love the Land, but I love Jews even more. I will not walk out on the Jewish present to bask in the Jewish future. Olam Haba can wait for the next world. I guess I’m just an Olam Ha’zeh kind of guy.

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3 Responses to The High Price of a Free Ticket: Aliyah and the Leadership Gap

  1. Samuel says:

    Fantastic article! Not sure if the poke at Chabad Shluchim was necessary though (“taught” by the local Chabad Shaliach). There are many out there who are true Talmedei Chachamim, and excellent teachers (and of course a fare share of not – just like in every sect). What would have been more appropriate would be to weave into the article how the Rebbe had the foresight to send Shluchim everywhere around the world, bringing about a true revolution in the Jewish world. If we only took a lesson from that to the topic of this article, and got people more interested in other peoples Yiddishkeit and spiritual growth, rather than just their own, then we’d have a totally different situation on our hands….

    • rebleib1 says:

      You are correct … far from blaming this on Chabad, they should be celebrated in an article of this nature. I just changed that sentence to try and move in that direction. Thank you for your comment, and for taking the time to read and respond! I am honored that you did so and appreciate your thoughts. I do still feel, though, that Chabad in the Modern Orthodox classroom, given that their philosophy differs from that of the students’, tends to be a late-in-the-summer last resort by the administration and also tends to create a disconnect between student and teacher, the latter of whom views his function as more Kiruv-oriented, and as one primarily of relationship-building, while the students are often capable of actual learning and don’t need Kiruv. I’ve seen that repeatedly as a student and as a teacher. But I have also seen exceptions to that, to be sure.

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