Israel and Jewish Identity

Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky once said at convention of Agudath Israel that but for the birth of the state of Israel most non-religious Jews would have fallen into such despair after the Holocaust that their connection with the Jewish people would have been severed forever. My own life and that of many of those closest to me attests to the truth of Reb Yaakov’s statement. Yet I wonder if many of those fortunate enough to have been born into observant homes understand how central Israel has been to the ba’al teshuva movement or why.

One of those who did fully understand this point was Rabbi Noach Weinberg, the seminal figure in the modern ba’al teshuva movement. One of his important insights was that a crucial first step in kiruv for many young non-religious Jews is to get them thinking about themselves Jewishly – i.e., as members of the Jewish people – and to make that identity primary. If their idealism can be channeled into “fighting for the Jewish people,” they will likely come to ask themselves other questions.

One of the first questions he often asked the newcomers whom Rabbi Meir Schuster managed to drag from the Kotel into Aish HaTorah was: “Would you be willing to die for the Jewish people.” If they answered affirmatively, the likely follow-up was: “Well, let us show you how to live for the Jewish people.”

Dying for the Jewish people or even fighting for the Jewish people, of course, is the furthest thing from the minds of most young American Jews. One of the reasons that over fifty percent intermarry, and often quite casually, is that the Jewish part of their identity is so minor – far behind their political identification or even their taste in films.

But the idea of fighting for something does appeal to the idealistic streak in many young Jews, and when what they are fighting for is connected to being Jewish it can have a profound impact. One of the senior rabbis at Aish HaTorah shared with me the story of how his Jewish activism at the University of Toronto led him to ask the questions that eventually brought him to Aish. While in college, he was one of the leaders of an activist Jewish group that harassed Nazi war criminals living in Toronto, played a lead role in breaking the story of Kurt Waldheim’s Nazi past, when he was running for president of Austria, and was involved with Soviet Jews.

He experienced something of a crisis when three Jewish families whom his group had helped to emigrate joined Jews for J. after arriving in North America. He asked himself: What is the point of saving Jews if there is no Judaism? At a meeting with Edgar Bronfman, then head of the World Jewish Congress, he asked, “What would be so bad if we just disappeared?” These questions led him to really begin to probe what it means to be Jewish for the first time.

Nor is the path from Jewish activism to religious commitment confined to university students. About twenty years ago, I received a call from a woman who identified herself as a resident of the same upper middle-class Chicago suburb in which I grew up, who told me that she read my op-eds every week in the English Yated Ne’eman. I replied that I was not born yesterday, and that I was quite confident that no one living in Highland Park, Illinois read the English Yated Ne’eman. (Actually today Highland Park has a thriving Chabad shul and a mikvah on the main street.)

But I was wrong. In her thirties and forties, she was a leader of one of the national Soviet Jewry organizations, and that round-the-clock involvement in a Jewish cause eventually led her and her husband to Torah study. Today they are supporters of a Torah study program on Chicago’s North Shore, an area with hundred of thousands of Jews, which was a midbar in terms of Torah learning when I was growing up.

Based on the insight that Jewish activism opens young Jews to thinking more deeply about the content of their Judaism, such activism has always been a key part of the Aish HaTorah mission. One senior Aish official told me, “Reb Noach convinced me to devote my life to fighting assimilation and intermarriage, even before I decided that I wanted to be religious.”

Much of that activism centers around pro-Israel activity and, in recent years, fighting the threat of radical Islam. Aish students set up Hasbara Fellowships over a decade ago to provide materials and training to university students advocating for Israel on their campuses. And other Aish products created Honest Reporting, an important media monitoring organization on Middle East issues.

Raphael Shore left Aish HaTorah to create the Clarion Fund, which has produced four documentaries on the threat of radical Islam to the West (three of which have been featured in the pages of the English Mishpacha). Those documentaries have been viewed by millions. Most recently, the Clarion Fund produced Inside Israel, which has been widely screened in North America and which makes almost no mention of the Arab-Israel conflict. Instead it focuses on Israel’s role as by far the greatest contributor to the well-being of humanity on a per capita basis: its role as a hi-tech superpower; its bio-tech and medical innovations, curing disease and even offering quadriplegics the ability to walk under their own guidance; and its role as a provider of humanitarian aid.

The key insight behind the film is that it is crucial that young North American Jews view Israel not just as a country locked in perpetual war with its enemies, but identify positively with its energy, innovation, and the simple goodness of its people.

None of these initiatives, it should be emphasized, are solely, or even primarily, for purposes of kiruv. For one thing, they provide creative outlets for many idealistic Jews with talents that could not be channeled into full-time Torah learning forever. And Reb Noach strongly believed that they were important in their own right. The observation that if there are no Jews left, there will be no kiruv, led both to efforts to combat intermarriage and raising the alarms about the threat of a nuclear Iran.

WHY DO I HAPPEN TO BE THINKING of these matters now? Because this week marked the 45th anniversary of the Six-Day War, and not coincidentally the 45th anniversary of my own Jewish awakening.

The only time in my youth that a television was permitted to invade the sanctum of the family dining room was during the two weeks prior to the Six-Day War. The whole family sat in silence watching the U.N. debates, with Abba Eban so eloquently making Israel’s case.

On the morning of June 5, my mother was crying when she woke us up with the news that Israel was at war. By the time I headed off to high school, the only news reports consisted of Arab boasts of glorious victories. I spent the day wondering how my fellow students, approximately fifty per cent of whom were Jewish, appeared to so unconcerned that Israel’s fate hung in the balance.

Nor was the Six-Day War the last time the state of Israel had a lasting impact on my developing Jewish identity. I spent the summer of 1976 in Israel, along with two of my brothers. When I got on the bus the morning of July 4 – the U.S. bicentennial — on my way to ulpan, my Hebrew was not yet good enough to understand the news blaring from the bus radio or to grasp why everyone was hugging and kissing one another. Only gradually did I realize that Israel had rescued the captives in Entebbe.

The electricity on the bus that morning forced me to ask: Why do I feel so bound to everyone on this bus, despite all the obvious external differences between us – a reaction I never experience on a New York subway? The answer that I came up was: We are each the product of an unbroken chain of ancestors who found something so powerful in their Judaism that it was worth enduring a never-ending chain of pogroms and forced exiles, on the one hand, and rejecting all the blandishments that gentile society held out to those willing to become apostates, on the other hand.

The impact of that insight the morning of Entebbe became clear to me about six months later, while hoeing around avocado plants on a kibbutz. The young Israeli with whom I was working tried to convince me to make aliyah and abandon the legal career to which I would soon be returning. One of his arguments was that because Jews have suffered so much I should live in a Jewish state. I pointed out to him the inconsistency of bootstrapping his Zionism on Jewish suffering since he lacked the belief in Torah that had led Jews to subject themselves to that suffering, and thus their suffering was, in his eyes, one gigantic mistake.

Three of my brothers and I, however, felt the need to make sense of Jewish history and to find out whether it was still possible for a secular Jew at the end of the 20th century to tap into the power that provided our ancestors the strength to endure. Fortunately, we discovered that it is. But had our parents not taught us to identify first and foremost as Jews – at that stage primarily through Israel – that would never have happened.

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5 Responses

  1. Tuvia says:

    I think Jewish continuity turns into guilt for many. For those who view it positively – they scarcely need worrying about.

    If you believe Torah is divine – there is no question. So many Jews today will not consider Torah divine – so there is no real good answer.

    Kiruv is a still pretty new idea – and it is evolving. Aish used to spend a lot of effort on proving the divinity of Torah. I don’t know how much they do that now – most of the proofs seem deeply flawed, and thanks to the internet, people can really explore these proofs in detail.

    The other angle they took at Aish is trying to show that an Orthodox life was a better quality life.

    All of this works for some young people. I just don’t believe the majority of young Jews today will agree with the idea that Orthodoxy is actually better.

    I heard somewhere that about three thousand people a year did t’chuvah (maybe this is for the US only?) These folks become Orthodox and probably have larger families. If others at Aish develop a Jewish identity but have 1.3 children – that won’t work as a replacement number.

    I suppose the question in this day and age – when intermarried couples feel comfortable, when identifying as a Jew (ethnically) seems kind of old-fashioned – is still: why be Jewish?

    I think the Jewish community has to furnish an answer that is not about G-d, the Holocaust, or guilt if it wants to retain the majority of Jews today.


  2. Dovid says:

    Very insightful and thought-provoking post, yasher koach.

    Rav Amital zt”l often noted that the American Conservative and Reform movements should be given credit for maintaining Jewish identity among their constituents. Ein hachi nami, Reform was founded to bring Jews away from traditional Judaism. But now, the function they serve is to maintain at least a semblance of Jewish identity, which, as Rabbi Rosenblum noted, is a very important achievement. Obviously this does not make them legitimate voices of Torah by any means, but we must give credit where credit is due.

  3. lacosta says:

    i remember the principal in an MO high school during 73 war echoing, that were RBSO to take down the medina it would have devastating impact on the 90% of non-frum jews left in the world and therefore he didnt believe it could happen…

    now, today, we live in a world where presumably a large percent of under 40 yr old jews are either disconnected from Israel or are pro-palestine ; in addition , the haredi community purports to be non- or anti- zionist [ they would unquestionably mourn the loss of life; but would shed no tear over the demise of a halachically assur entity]. so today, i am not so sure that principal could express the same opinion….

  4. meyer apfeldorf says:

    yaasher kochacha, translate it into yiddish …

  5. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Tuvia: I think the Jewish community has to furnish an answer that is not about G-d, the Holocaust, or guilt if it wants to retain the majority of Jews today.

    Ori: I agree about the Holocaust and guilt. Neither sadness, nor anger, nor guilt are appealing. But if the answer is not about G-d, then what is it about? Community? Our gentile neighbors are happy to have us as part of their communities these days.

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