Closing the Gap Between Diaspora Jews and the Land of Israel

Young Jews, from the Diaspora and Israel alike, need to give their Jewish identities a paintjob, so that the Jewish people can grow stronger together.

With all the new initiatives currently working to improve the relationship between Diaspora Jews and Jews in Israel, I hardly think it's necessary to – as the adage says – "go back to the drawing board." Yet, at times I feel we need to take that drawing board – the common religious Jewish fabric that unites all our people – and give it a paintjob. A paintjob that will allow us to “take the old and to make it new, and to take the new and to make it again sacred.”

How, you may ask, can a paintjob help to make the old new again?

Tefillin- Itzik Ben-Malki
Itzik Ben-Malki

As a rabbi, I occasionally paint tefillin (phylacteries), and it is one of my favorite things to do. Over the past year, I have painted three sets of tefillin that were brought to me by middle-aged Jewish men who knocked on my office door wanting to donate them to the synagogue. The boxes had not been checked – which Jewish law requires be done once every seven years - and the black coloring of the straps and the boxes had faded.

However, instead of taking them for the synagogue, I tell the person to come back in a week. I use a special marker and “black-out” paint to color in the faded spots of the base, or I take the paint and color in the straps until the tefillin look almost brand new. Sometimes, the tefillin are hand-me downs from grandparents or great-grandparents, or a bar mitzvah pair that have not been touched in years. And so when the person returns a week later, they are usually surprised at how “new” the tefillin look, as they eagerly take them back to have them checked, and fit to be used again.

Today, younger American and Israeli Jews need their tefillin—their Jewish identities – repainted so that Jewish people can grow stronger together. In America there are too many Jews turning in their tefillin to rabbis because they fail to see its importance, and in Israel, there are increasingly too many Jews who see tefillin as a non-issue in their Israeli identity, leaving what once bound us together - our Judaism – to fade like straps of old tefillin.

Young American Jews who turn in their tefillin may understand why this relationship was once important, but fail to see why in twenty-first century they need to still pick up their brushes and paint. In Israel, Jews have become so disillusioned with the religious establishment that many choose to embrace a secular identity instead, leaving the boxes and straps that bind the Jewish people together without their black luster.

The solution to this challenge of fading Diaspora-Israel relations can be found in a quote that was given to by Israel’s beloved Chief Rabbi under the British Mandate, Rav Abraham Isaac Kook HaKohen, z”l. During his life in Palestine, Rav Kook’s words – those I quoted above - became national marching orders to a weary Jewish people as he challenged Jews to renew their roots and to help build a national homeland. World Jewry answered the call, and pious Jews and secular pioneers around the world worked together laboring and raising capital to paint a new nation rich with art, culture, and spirituality that continues to inspire as a "reyshit tzmichat geulataynu", the beginning sprout of redemption for the Jewish people.

We must renew those marching orders among our children yet again by fostering an open, creative, artful, and relevant Judaism that will attract, meet, and inspire young Jews to carry the torch.

We need to paint over our old tefillin.

Page 6a of Babylonian Talmud of Berachot teaches us that like Jews across the world, God wears a set of tefillin to remind the Jewish people of what can happen when we support each other. “For what, asked R. Nahman b. Isaac said to R. Hiyya b. Abin: Are written inside of the tefillin of the Lord of the Universe? […] The Answer: ‘And God shall make you [the Jewish people] High above all the nations that God has made, and that you shall be, as God promised, a holy people to Adonai your God’ (Deuteronomy 26:19).”

Let us work together to inspire the next generation of Jews to take out their tefillin and paint them black, so that we as a people may once again live up to our true God-given potential.

Rabbi Daniel Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey.