April 24, 2024
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April 24, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

We end our Seders each year with those eternal words ringing in our ears. L’shana haba’ah b’yerushalayim. For century upon century, those words were little more than a dream, a distant future that was barely conceivable.

Today, however, that dream is more attainable than ever before. While it is certainly a challenge to uproot one’s life and move to Israel, never before in Jewish history has it been easier to make aliyah. Today Nefesh b’Nefesh consultants are standing by to smooth the process, government programs and benefits are available to new olim and the trip is merely a 13-hour flight. And when you arrive, you find a vibrant, modern country offering a robust job market and—especially as a result of the pandemic—myriad opportunities to keep one’s American job and salary while living in the Holy Land. Not to mention free Jewish education!

But herein is the cognitive dissonance rumbling at the core of American Modern Orthodoxy. We love Israel and we believe that is where God wants us to be. And while making aliyah is certainly not easy, never in Jewish history has it been easier. But still, we stay.

Or at least most of us do. In most Modern Orthodox communities, every year a few families make the leap and move to Israel. These olim have confronted the dissonance head-on and resolved it in perhaps the cleanest, most obvious way—they made aliyah.

But for the rest of us, what can we say? Why do we remain? Why do we continue to invest in and build our Jewish communities in this country?

Some of the reasons that I’ve seen, often offered by olim looking back at their former neighbors, are the three C’s: comfort, convenience and Costco. Adding more substance to these reasons, you could say that American Modern Orthodox Jews stay because of connections to family, a sense of cultural belonging, career opportunities, ties to a community etc. And yet, in a purpose-driven community such as ours, reasons like these just don’t cut it.

There are, however, more fundamental reasons to justify—and not only to justify, but to encourage—building and expanding the footprint of Modern Orthodoxy in America. Some of those reasons are:

(1) America is unique. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks often wrote about the uniqueness of the United States, and in particular the connection between its “civic religion” and Torah values. As Rabbi Sacks wrote, “American presidents speak of Divine Providence and the sovereignty of God. They refer to covenant and the moral bonds by which societies are sustained. The liberty of which they speak is biblical rather than libertarian: a matter less of rights than responsibilities, not the freedom to do what one likes, but the freedom to do what one ought, thus contributing to the common good.” By this logic, America is not just another way station on the circuitous journey of Jewish history, but was and is a grand political experiment in the creation of a society in the model of the Hebrew Bible. To be sure, the state of Israel, where Hebrew is the vernacular and all students study Tanach, certainly has a robust connection to Jewish traditions and values. However, in some ways America, at least in its structure of government and founding vision, is more rooted in Biblical values than the state of Israel, some of the founders of which were indifferent or antagonistic to traditional forms of Jewish observance.

(2) Modern Orthodoxy in America serves a vital role. That role is to serve as a bridge between Torah observance and values and our less observant/non-observant brethren (which is increasingly the status of the vast majority of American Jews), and also between Jewish values and the broader American society. While more right-wing communities often direct their attention primarily inward, Modern Orthodoxy has the tools and the desire to engage in a meaningful dialogue with our fellow Jews and the broader society. And in serving that function, Modern Orthodoxy is also a critical bridge between right-wing communities and the Jews that are less observant or non-observant. Further, Modern Orthodoxy is a natural landing place for baalei teshuva, in that Modern Orthodox communities offer a familiar cultural milieu while also providing access to a Torah-based community. Were the Modern Orthodox movement to wither in America, undoubtedly countless potential baalei teshuva would be lost and the unique Jewish contribution to American society would be materially diminished.

(3) The American separation of the particulars of religious observance from the political arena has merit. While some readers of this paper may have been inspired by the decision of MK Idit Silman to resign from Israel’s governing coalition over the lifting of a ban on chametz in hospitals during Pesach, I do not feel that way. The mixture of particularistic religious observance with politics that we see in Israel often reflects badly on both. America has pursued a different path than Israel, that of a separation of church and state. Candidly, I think the American path presents a more desirable model for a modern state. Related to this point is the value of building
Jewish institutions like schools that are entirely separate from the state. There is a sense of ownership and collective responsibility associated with institutions built by civil society that institutions of the state—as schools often are in Israel—cannot, by their very nature, replicate.

(4) American Judaism presents opportunities for Kiddush Hashem that are qualitatively different from those of Israeli Judaism. While it can be argued that Israel itself is a vehicle of Kiddush Hashem—by, for example, setting up a field hospital in Ukraine and dispatching global response teams to assist in other global disasters—one natural consequence of the Jewish state is that there are far fewer normal, everyday interactions between Israeli Jews and non-Jews, which are the relationships that we typically associate with Kiddush Hashem. And we have all unfortunately seen how, in spite of the myriad good works of the state of Israel around the globe, it is still consistently and continuously vilified and maligned.

(5) Minority Jewish status is not necessarily a bad thing. New olim often enthusiastically describe encountering buses that read “Shabbat Shalom” and the ability to purchase a shofar in a regular grocery store before Rosh Hashanah, and there is something empowering about Jews—for the first time in nearly 2,000 years—being the majority in their own state. However, there is also a value to being a minority. By preserving an insider/outsider status, Jewish communities have often had wielded an outsize influence on the larger society. For example, during the formative years of the United States, Jews—as one of the more obviously different religious minorities—were significant players in moving the United States toward a model where all citizens were entitled to equal rights regardless of their religion (consider, for example, the 1790 letter from George Washington to the Jewish community of Newport, in which he assured the congregants that “no more [is] toleration… spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” In addition, the interaction of Jewish particularity with a wider cultural milieu serves as a crucible that generates enormous cultural, intellectual and philosophical creativity. It is that mixture of American culture and values with Jewishness and Judaism that makes Modern Orthodoxy in America so vibrant and interesting, and I believe it is no accident that both Naftali Bennett and Benjamin Netanyahu—and countless other prominent Israelis in the arts, sciences, business and other fields—have strong American ties or come from American backgrounds.

(6) Throughout Jewish history there have often been twin centers of gravity. Whether it was Babylonia and Israel in the fourth and fifth centuries CE, Spain and France/Germany during the time of the Rishonim, or America and Israel in the present day, this dual-axis model for the Jewish world has not only been highly successful in the past but also offers substantial advantages in terms of creativity, dialogue and Jewish thriving.

In these unprecedented times for the Jewish people, we cannot justify our residence in America with platitudes about aliyah being too hard or missing Sundays or Costco. Indeed, there is a much deeper rationale for continuing to build modern Orthodoxy in America. So as we leave the Sedarim behind us, let’s not just be Jews who happen to live in America. Let’s be American Jews who are proud of who we are and the country in which we live.

Steven Starr lives in Hillside with his wife, Keshet, and his children Ellie, Moshe and Meira. He can be reached at [email protected].

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