Let's Abandon the Misguided Fantasy of Mass Aliyah From the U.S.

Problems like the Women of the Wall and dependence on foreign contributions won't be solved by immigration – and it's not going to happen anyway.

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
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I grew up in a committed Jewish family in a very non-Jewish part of the United States. Both of my parents grew up in the strong cultural embrace of a large Jewish community in New York City, and then found themselves raising a family in a WASPy suburb in New England.

In this town, the Reform synagogue was the only game in town. There were two clear paths they could follow - assimilation or becoming part of this community. It is because of that Reform synagogue that they raised three children who identify strongly as Jews, all of whom married Jews and are raising their own children Jewish. In the case of two of us, in fact, our identity was so strong, that somehow, we ended up marrying Israelis and moving to Israel and settling here. Had they not embraced that synagogue and its values, I can almost guarantee none of this would have happened.

I tell my story frequently to Orthodox and non-Orthodox Israelis as a response to their assertion that secularism is preferable to non-Orthodox religious practice. I challenge them: would I have been better off if my parents had chosen not to affiliate? Would the Jewish people?  

I tell my personal story to establish my credibility when addressing two opinion pieces that appeared in Haaretz yesterday - David Landau’s Women who libel Israel and Chaim Levinson’s Donations from abroad do not a Zionist make.

The two writers address different problems - in Landau’s case, he objects to the Women of the Wall and the ‘provocations’ of Anat Hoffman, the head of the group and the executive director of the  Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center who he feels is cynically ‘playing to the gallery’ of Reform and Conservative Jews abroad.  In Levinson’s, dismay is expressed over the unhealthy dependence that Israeli leaders and institutions have on foreign donations and the accompanying involvement of Diaspora Jews in Israel affairs.

Both authors offer the same simplistic proposal we’ve heard time and time again: If Diaspora Jews really care about Israel, they should move here. Otherwise, they should sit down and shut up.

Landau concludes: “Israel's formative political culture is not necessarily immutable. As Golda Meir, that American-educated yet benighted and misogynous Israeli head of government (America has yet to elect one), never tired of explaining and repeating: If non-Orthodox American Jews want to influence the issue of synagogue-and-state in Israel, they need to live here in sizable numbers and vote here. Decades later, that remains demographic, democratic, common-sense.”

Levinson asserts: “Israel needs good people to live here, raise children, create, buy, study and travel. But anyone who does not consider this country good enough to be their home should forget about the check and long-distance involvement.”

I am a practicing non-Orthodox Jew who did what both of these men are preaching: I picked up, left behind my family, friends, and what I like to think were bright career prospects in the U.S., married an Israeli, moved to Israel, and raised Israeli kids.

But even though I made the move, my right to practice the kind of Judaism that forged the identity got me here in the first place - Reform Judaism - at the holiest site in the Jewish state is challenged. Landau tells me it is a ‘manifest truth’ that  “Orthodox Judaism is Israel’s state-religion.”

It seems I moved here under the mistaken impression that it was a national home for all Jews. But no, it seems that in Landau’s view, my Judaism, the kind which considers women worthy of being seen and heard in a synagogue or at holy sites, is so illegitimate that the activities of the Women of the Wall must be viewed as ‘provocation’ and not actual worship.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Levinson tells me that Diaspora world in which I was raised - the one that made me learn about, care about, contribute to and feel connected enough to Israel to move here, is a waste of space because it corrupts Israeli society and “wealthy U.S. businessmen receive more attention from the prime minister than does the middle-class of metropolitan Tel Aviv. The greatest dream of every wheeler-dealer is to latch onto a teat from abroad that guarantees him a stream of money for projects and institutions.”

Levinson proposes to get rid of all of it, turn off the fundraising spigot - AIPAC, the New Israeli Fund, Birthright, Nefesh b’Nefesh. He doesn’t mention the Jewish Agency, the JDC, or the long list of hospitals and social welfare organizations that benefit from overseas support but they also clearly fall under his umbrella. All of their supporters, he says, should stop giving and pack their bags.

I can’t speak for all of the beneficiaries of Diaspora largesse who would lose support if Levinson’s fantasy came true. I can only speak for myself. My first trip to Israel was subsidized by my local Jewish federation and the Jewish Agency, funded by those whose contributions Levinson rejects. More importantly, my life in Israel is deeply affected by these philanthropists on a daily basis. You see, it is because of the Orthodox political dominance of which Landau speaks so protectively - that the institutions where I practice my brand Judaism are extremely dependent on those Diaspora donors who put their noses into Israel’s business and fund the Reform and Conservative movements, because they are denied equal funding with the ‘state religion.’

Without the investment that the non-Orthodox movements abroad have made in creating support for their institutions in Israel, there would likely be no Reform or Conservative synagogues in my area, my children wouldn’t be able to participate in the NOAM Masorti scouting movement, and there would be no TALI school which educates children in the spirit of pluralistic Judaism.

The creation of the TALI school in my town was a saga that stretched over more than 15 years.  Originally we were given a few classrooms inside a secular school. We funded our education programs from our own pockets, but also asked for support from a Jewish federation in New Jersey. The seed we planted grew, and eventually, the demand - both from immigrants and native Israelis meant the school that housed the TALI classrooms was bursting at its seams. We had the numbers. For years, we lobbied the municipality to transform one of the town’s elementary schools into a TALI school, to no avail - the Orthodox and secular divide was so entrenched in the mentality that our need for something different was not understood and not considered worth dedicating an existing building.

It was only when a Diaspora Jew was willing to shell out the millions of shekels fund a building that the effort was successful. Thanks to him, my youngest daughter goes to a school that embodies my Jewish values; I am happily settled in Israel with no plans to move back.

Would this man have walked away from his family and his successful businesses in the U.S. and his roots in his local Jewish community to move to Israel? It’s highly unlikely. Does that mean that we would have been better off if he hadn’t helped us here in Israel and we should shun him if he doesn’t pack his suitcase? No.

It is long past time that Israelis abandon the misguided fantasy of mass aliyah from western countries and use it as the lynchpin in their arguments and as a simplistic solution for every trouble spot in Israel-Diaspora relations.  

Large-scale aliyah needs a ‘push’ factor as well as a ‘pull’ factor, and none of us - at least the sane among us - would wish disaster on American Jewry in order to spur aliyah. American Jewry, as well as the Jewish communities in other western countries are there to stay. For now, many of them care about Israel and want to be involved with it and shape its future, even if they don’t pack their suitcases.

When we take away “show up or shut up” as a solution, what is left? I see two options. Israelis can act like spoiled teenagers, spitting in their Diaspora cousins’ face, belittling their values and their contributions, past and present, consumed by our own self-hatred for how we sometimes abuse that concern and generosity.

Or we can act like mature adults and continue to try to build partnerships that strengthen our mutual interests, and discuss our disagreements when they inevitably flare up, not stomping away. Like any complicated family relationship, it’s not easy, but ultimately, the connection is worth it, and the price of abandoning one another is far too high.

Jewish Americans.Credit: AP