Friday, September 22, 2006

Aliya and Yerida

I am suspicious, perhaps foolishly, of the official Israeli reports of the number of American Jews who have made aliya, not because I think that we are being deceived but because I sense that there are those who do not go through official channels when they settle in Israel and therefore are not counted. It was announced during the summer that fewer than 500 olim had come to Israel from North American in the first half of 2006. This seems fewer than the number that Nefesh B'efesh, the organization that receives enormous financial support from Evangelical Christians, claims to have brought to Israel via its well-publicized flights. How could the figure be so low?

Even if it is the case that there are American Jews - for instance, some charedim - who have made aliya without formally making aliya, the total is astoundingly low and this is without taking into account those who return within several years or sooner because they could not make a go of it in Israel or for some other reason.

Aliya statistics are pitiful when compared with the population movement in the other direction, meaning the Israelis who are yordim, as they have left Israel. There are many tens of thousands of yordim in the United States alone. Statistics do not tell the entire story, not even the entire quantitative side and certainly not the qualitative aspects. The migration of Israelis to these shores has propped up our population statistics, offsetting to an extent the massive losses resulting from Judaic abandonment. When we reckon, as we should, the offspring of ex-Israelis who now live here, as a consequence of yerida there are probably hundreds of thousands of Jews in the United States whose roots at some point were in Israel.

Aliya, on the other hand, has had a minimal impact on American Jewish numbers. Tens of thousands in a population of five or six million is not significant. However, overwhelmingly aliya is an Orthodox phenomenon and according to demographers the Orthodox come to no more than 10% of American Jews. Therefore, the impact on this sector has been significant. When Orthodox aliya is considered in generational terms encompassing the offspring of those who made aliya - and in many families, their offspring as well - American Orthodoxy has experienced meaningful population loss because of aliya.

That's the quantitative side. Qualitatively, how has aliya and yerida affected religious, intellectual and cultural Jewish life in Israel and the United States? It is difficult to assess the qualitative impact of yerida on either Israel or this country because there is scant evidence that Israel has lost much or that the U.S. has benefited. In the aggregate, the ex-Israelis and their families have not been sufficiently integrated into American Jewish communal life. It seems at times that there is a tacit understanding that neither they nor we - the important exception is Chabad - are much interested in the yordim being actively involved in Jewish affairs. They remain deeply committed to Israel where they have family, but they add little to Jewish life here, with the important exception of their numbers.

Aliya, although low in numbers, has resulted in qualitative gains and losses. Among those who have left, many were among the best and brightest that American Jewry has produced. Invariably, these are young men and women of true spirituality, deepfelt Judaic commitment and decency who possess skills that are valuable to the Jewish people. These qualities have been transferred to the Jewish State because those who made aliya could not see a future for themselves and their families that did not include living in the land that is our heritage. They have contributed enormously to Israel, blessing the land and people that they are committed to in multiple ways. When I am in Israel, I see them everywhere and marvel at their goodness and their endless reservoir of love for the Torah, for the land and for the people.

Israel's enormous gain from American aliya is American Jewry's great loss. When we read about a shortage of rabbis for our synagogues and principals for our day schools and when we bemoan the intellectual aridness of American Jewish life and the paucity of elevated leadership, we are being confronted with the aftershocks of the spiritual drain and brain drain resulting from aliya. Of course, there are other contributory factors arising from weaknesses in the fabric of American Jewish life, yet the deficit resulting from the departure of so many people of talent and deepfelt commitment is real.

This deficit is most pronounced among the Orthodox, notably in the modern and centrist sectors where aliya is most strongly felt as a transcendent religious obligation. The moderns and centrists have by and large maintained their numbers on these shores despite aliya. What they haven't maintained is spiritual elegance, for they are entrapped in a value system that emphasizes pursuit of material things and pleasures. We need only contrast the lifestyle of family members who have made aliya with their close relatives who have remained here.

Nor have the charedi sectors been immune from the same influences. It is telling that in American charedi life in the first years of this millennium, there isn't a towering religious figure. For decades, chassidic and yeshiva-world Jews were inspired by Torah leaders who were born and educated in pre-Holocaust Europe. They are gone, replaced by people of far lesser stature. For leadership, most charedim now look to Israel and this is true of the modern and centrist sectors of Orthodoxy.

There are individuals of true merit and religious and spiritual grandeur in our community. What American religious Jewry lacks is the quality of leadership that has been crucial in our religious life in every place of significant Jewish settlement. We can be thankful, at least, that Orthodox Jews in this country have contributed their best and brightest to Israel.