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More on Modern Orthodoxy And Religious Zionism

Thank you for the beautiful, insightful article written by Rabbi Elie Mischel, “It’s Time to Move On: From Modern Orthodoxy To Religious Zionism” (September 22, 2022). I was actually starting to write my own article when I read it, so here is my response.

Disclaimer: I am a licensed realtor with Keller Williams Elite Realty in Metuchen, New Jersey. I work with olim, selling their homes as part of the aliyah process. I am building a referral network to support the American side. Please speak with me privately if I can be of service to you.

Rabbi Mischel defines the current Modern Orthodox hashkafa in the U.S. and the Religious Zionist hashkafa in Israel. And he asks why American Jews are so slow to move to Israel.

“What, precisely, does Modern Orthodoxy stand for? … It is a complex approach to Jewish living, committed to a life of Torah and mitzvot while also open to the best that the secular world has to offer, seeking the gray when others see only black and white.

“In short, Modern Orthodoxy is a sophisticated attitude towards modern life, an attitude I wholeheartedly embrace. But an attitude is not the same thing as a movement—and herein lies the critical difference between Modern Orthodoxy and Religious Zionism.”

I think that much of the mindset in all of American Judaism is based on gratitude to the United States. Our families came to America with no money and no possessions, fleeing from war and persecution. We fled from the Spanish Inquisition, the tsar, the Nazis, the Communists, the Iranian revolution, and so many other dangers. We are so grateful for the safety and security that we have enjoyed here.

American hashkafa evolved to succeed in the U.S. American Jewish history is about taking advantage of the many opportunities that we found here. We can own land, and no one can take it away from us. We can send our children to free public schools and universities. We can join any profession that we want. We can vote, protest and run for elected office. We can keep our money, and we can spend it any way that we want. We can even question Judaism in an academic context. American Jewry is evolving to embrace these freedoms and give them healthy limits within Judaism.

I’m going to respectfully disagree with Rabbi Mischel that American hashkafa is not evolving. Looking back, we see a progression from family traditions coming from living in poverty and fear, such as making cholent from leftover cheap meat, to family traditions which have developed because of public school vacations or tax benefits for donating to tzedaka. And the actual rituals are still developing, as more children learn them. Orthodox, Conservative and Reform are good basics, but they may be too limiting now. So we have Reconstructionism, Chabad, Carlebach, Yeshivish, camps, youth groups—and Modern Orthodox. It takes time to see if the new ideas make sense in the greater picture of American and world Jewry.

Is this the promised land? Many people thought so. If postwar Europe was in ruins, and Israel was still a barren desert, then maybe postwar America was as good as it was going to get.

But it was just a matter of time until we found new strengths in Israel and new weaknesses in the U.S. After our miraculous victory in the Six-Day War in 1967, many people did teshuva. Many outreach movements got started in our communities. The growth of technology in Israel has been astounding. Now students can study in Israel for a gap year or go on a Birthright trip.

On the American side, we lost our optimism after 9/11. After the increase in violence in Pittsburgh, Poway and Colleyville, we worry that our synagogues and schools are not safe. And in the aftermath of the 2016 elections, there is no ideological middle ground where the Jews can succeed. And then, of course, COVID, which killed and sickened so many people, upended the economy, and kept people away from each other.

I think that the best way to move people to Israel is with love and inspiration. We need to validate the American Jewish experience, respect the progress that American families have made, and make aliyah a beautiful and logical next step. If people are living great lives here, they do not want to move to what was perceived as poverty, low wages, shortages, poor health care and a strange education system. It is an honor that we are leaving with so much money and such beautiful households.

I have had the privilege to meet people who are bringing American-style education to Israel, including special education services. I have met people who are developing retirement communities in Israel so that seniors can make aliyah and get both high-quality medical care and the Israeli experience that they dreamed about. The hesder yeshiva program combines high-level learning with military service, so a young man can do both equally well. Israeli restaurants serve world-class kosher food. And, of course, the real estate brokers and developers are working to build everyone’s dream home in the absolute best location.

Thank you, Rabbi Mischel, for giving me the opportunity to join this important conversation.

Melissa Nonken Gursky
Highland Park
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