Kol Nidre 5764 – Aliyah

For most of the past 2,000 years the history of the Jewish people has largely been one disaster after another. In the year 70 the great Temple was destroyed and Jerusalem laid waste. In 132 the Bar Kochba revolt was brutally crushed, and with it died the dream of an independent Israel. During the Middle Ages Jews were treated as second class non-citizens by both Muslims and Christians. When the Renaissance was flourishing in Europe—for Christians—Jews were being packed into ghettos. Many claim that the ceremony with which we began Yom Kippur, Kol Nidre, has its origins in Spain, where Jews wanted to be absolved from the insincere vows they made in accepting Christianity on pain of death or exile. When the Enlightenment, and citizenship, came for Jews in Western Europe, Jews in Eastern Europe were being killed in pogroms, a foreshadowing of the horrors that would come later during the Shoah, when a third of the Jews then alive, worldwide, were killed by the Nazis for no reason other than being Jewish.

And then, in 1948, a true miracle happened. A miracle which is every bit as great as the parting of the Red Sea. A miracle which shows us that God truly has not forgotten His promises to the Jewish people. In May of 1948, for the first time in 2,011 years, the land of Israel was not under foreign domination. An independent Jewish state was again declared on the soil of ancient Judea. More miracles followed. Tiny Israel turned back the armies of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan and ended the War of Independence with substantially more territory than had been originally granted by the UN. And again our tiny country turned back vastly numerically superior Arab forces in 1967 and in 1973.

The modern state of Israel is far and away the most exciting thing to happen to the Jewish people in the past two millenia. For 70 generations, our ancestors prayed for this day. And the day has finally come.

And yet here we are, still sitting in Exile! What an anti-climax! In the Amidah we just recited, we turned and faced Jerusalem, as we do three times a day. We’re only an ElAl ticket away. And we stay put.

My wife Lauri and I have talked about it a lot, and thought about it more, and we have decided that we don’t want to sit on the sidelines. We are going to make aliyah. We are going to return home to Israel.

And this is a question that each and every one you should ask yourself. Should I make aliyah? It doesn’t matter whether you come to shul every Shabbat, or only once a year. It doesn’t matter if you consider yourself a Canadian Jew, or a Jewish Canadian. It doesn’t matter whether you are just starting a career or retiring. Whether or not to make aliyah is a question we all should think about. If the answer is no—if you make the conscious decision to continue to live in Exile from our ancestral homeland—clearly the choice is yours, but you should be clear about WHY you are making that decision. Because whichever way you decide—to return to Israel, or to stay in Galut—it has profound implications for the nature of your relationship to Judaism, it has profound implications for your family, and I believe it has profound implications for Israel and the Jewish people.

Many of us think of Israel as a kind of “insurance policy.” A refuge, a place to go, for Jews who are suffering from persecution, or economic woes. And it has certainly filled that role for millions of Jews from Europe, from the Arab countries, from the Soviet Union, and most recently from South Africa and Argentina .

Most of us in North America don’t face much blatant Anti-Semitism. We are full citizens of our host countries. The economic opportunities here are better than the opportunities in Israel. So why would anyone in their right mind choose to give up the material comfort and life of plenty we have here, to go to a country torn by war, torn by ethnic and religious divides, a place that seems difficult, exotic and dangerous?

The short answer is, for the sake of the Jewish people, and for the sake of our Jewish souls.

Israel needs more Jews. The Arabs are out-reproducing us. If we want Israel to still be a Jewish state in 50 years we need more Jewish Israeli babies.

But more than just more Jews, Israel desperately needs more Jews like us. And I feel comfortable lumping all of us here today together. Regardless of our backgrounds, we all have experience living in a Western democracy. There is MUCH that Israel can learn from Canada…and the way that “learning” takes place is through Canadians—or better, “former Canadians”—living in Israel.

North Americans can help provide a vision for what Israel can become. And if Israel is to become something greater, is to become a true light to the nations, it needs visionaries.

Israel struggles with issues of pluralism and equality. Beduoins and Druze who are loyal citizens of Israel have neither equal rights nor equal opportunities. The environment in Israel is so polluted that when four athletes fell from a poorly-built bridge during the Maccabiah games in 1997, they weren’t killed by the fall but from being poisoned when they accidentally swallowed some of the water.

Jews from North America know what it means to live in a dynamic functioning democracy that affords protection for minorities and for the environment. Israel needs more citizens who will lobby hard to fix the things that are wrong with Israeli society.

Israel needs more Conservative and Reform Jews. Far too many Israelis have been totally turned off to religion by a harsh, uncompromising, version of Judaism that is all they see around them. Many Israelis are secular who would probably be very happy in a Conservative or Reform setting—they just don’t know anything about it, and view us with suspicion because that’s what they read in the propaganda from the Orthodox establishment. A “kinder, gentler” Judaism could go a long way in keeping Jews who would otherwise be secular in touch with the faith of their ancestors.

But let’s face it. Not very many people are going to move to Israel because Israel needs us. We live in a selfish, individualistic society. So how would living in Israel be good for you?

The answer to that question varies depending on many factors, not the least of which is how religious you are. Let’s start with the case of the religious Jew. If you are religious—if you take the idea of being commanded by God seriously—most rabbis would agree that it is a mitzvah to live in Israel. And I don’t mean mitzveh, as in the Yiddish phrase your Bubba used to mean “good deed,” but I mean mitzvah, the Hebrew word which means commandment.

You probably know there are 613 commandments. What you might not know is there is no agreement on exactly what those mitzvot are. Ramban, Nachmanides, includes yeshivat Eretz Yisrael, settling the land of Israel, making aliyah, as one of them. Rambam, Maimonides, does not include this in his list, but most commentators say that’s because he didn’t list “prerequisite” mitzvot—he does list other commandments which hinge on living in Israel.

Most authorities agree that making aliyah is a Biblical commandment, based on Numbers 33:53: “And you shall inherit the land and settle in it.”

In the Talmud in tractate Ketubot it says “A person should always live in Eretz Yisrael, even in a city of mostly gentiles, instead of outside of Israel, even in a city of mostly Jews, for someone who lives in Eretz Yisrael is like someone who has a God, and someone who lives in chutz la’aretz (outside Israel) is like someone who doesn’t have a God.” If a man wanted to make aliyah, halachically the wife is forced to go with him, or she gets a divorce without any financial settlement. The wife can also force the husband to make aliyah: if she wants to make aliyah, the husband has to go with her, or pay her her ketubah.

In the Amidah we say a prayer which includes the words “v’kabtzanu yachad ma’arba kanfot ha’aretz”, and “gather us together from the ends of the earth.” Three times a day, six days a week (we don’t say this prayer on Shabbat or holidays) we pray for God to gather us in Israel. If an observant Jew starts saying this prayer when he turns 13, by the time he turns fifty he will have prayed that God should help us all make aliyah over 33,000 times. How many times do you have to say something before you get the message?

Most of you aren’t that religious. There probably aren’t many people here tonight who have said that prayer for the ingathering from Galut over 30,000 times. Since I’m a late bloomer, I probably haven’t said it more than four or five thousand times. But there are lots of good reasons to move to Israel that apply equally whether you are already religious, are only potentially religious.

Israel is the easiest place in the world to be a Jew. Here in Richmond, if you want to keep kosher, it means going to Garden City to buy bread, Omnitsky’s to buy meat, and not forgetting to bring your reading glasses when you go to grocery store, because you have to read labels very carefully. In Israel, almost every bakery is a kosher bakery, you have to go out of your way to find treif meat, and in most grocery stores you can literally buy anything on the shelves. There is no shortage of kosher restaurants, with every kind of cuisine from Moroccan to Chinese to Italian. And of course the best falafel in the world.

Here in Richmond if you have kids and try and keep Shabbat, it can be difficult. The kids all want to participate in extra-curricular activities like soccer, hockey, dance, Girl Guides or Scouts. And those extra-curricular activities often involve programs on Shabbat. It can be very tough to keep telling your kid “no, you can’t do that on Shabbat.” So many parents don’t try. In Israel it’s not a conflict. The soccer competitions will not be scheduled on Shabbat. Period.

Here in Richmond if you want your children to have a Jewish education, it’s an expensive proposition. Day school tuition runs as high as $5000 a year per child. Two kids and you are looking at about $10,000 a year. In Israel, day school tuition is free. You have your choice between secular public schools, religious public schools (from relatively liberal to ultra-orthodox), or Tali schools, which bring some religious content to the secular schools.

And those conflicting activities aren’t just issues for your kids. Here in Richmond we start Shabbat services at 8pm most of the year because people have to work. Even in the winter, when Shabbat starts at 4pm, the earliest we have services is about 6pm, because people have to work…in Israel, your boss will NEVER make you work late on Friday. In Isarel, practically every synagogue, Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, has services that start when Shabbat starts, not at some arbitrary hour.

Here in Galut, to be an observant Jew can be very tough. If you take off all of the days mandated as days of rest—two days for Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, the first two days of Sukkot, the last two days of Sukkot, the first two days of Passover, the last two days of Passover, two days for Shavuot—you won’t have any vacation time left. You’ll never get any skiing in! In Israel it’s so much easier—for one thing, other than Rosh Hashana, they only celebrate the holidays for one day—and for another thing, the secular holidays ARE the religious holidays.

Shabbat in Israel is an amazing experience, especially in Jerusalem or other religious areas. In Jerusalem, you can tell when Shabbat is coming. There is less traffic on the streets. The stores start closing. A peaceful atmosphere descends on the city. Within an easy walk of any apartment in Jerusalem there will be dozens of synagogues to choose from of all flavors. Traditional with a cantor. “Happy clappy” filled with young people. The speed-daven. Whatever works for you, you can find it.

For all the tension between Orthodox and Conservative or Reform on an official level, it mostly disappears on a personal level. During the time I lived in Israel I had plenty of Orthodox Jews eat dinner at my home. It’s a very rare occasion that a seriously Orthodox Jew would eat in my home in Canada or the US. Not because of my standards of kashrut—rather because of their standards of politics. In Israel there is more a sense of we’re all just Jews—you are not so much defined and pigeon-holed by what kind of synagogue you choose to go to, or which rabbi you choose to go to with questions of halacha. There is more a sense that there are only two kinds of Jews—serious Jews, who take Judaism, learning, practice, seriously—and everyone else.

Experiencing the holidays in Israel is truly amazing — something you might not get to appreciate if you just pop over for a visit. On Yom Kippur there are no cars on the streets at all. It’s eerie. But there are hundreds of bicycles and skateboards—everyone lets their kids take advantage of the lack of traffic.

On Sukkot every house, every apartment balcony has a sukkah. You walk down the street and you hear lots of singing, laughing, and enjoyment. It’s a beautiful experience. And in Israel, the weather is almost always very pleasant around Sukkot—it’s before the rainy season, the temperatures are mild, it’s lovely.

On Passover every grocery store goes “kosher l’pesach.” In some neighborhoods they will have big cauldrons of water bubbling on the streets to simplify kashering your pots and pans.

Shavuot, a holiday little noticed here, is a night when the entire city of Jerusalem stays up all night learning Torah. Walk around the streets at 2am and every few blocks you’ll pass a synagogue with people learning. World-class scholars offer lessons open to the public at 3am. And about 4am there is an amazing sight: rivers of people joining together, all walking towards the Western Wall to converge and pray at dawn. We now have a Conservative section at the wall, where on holidays like Shavuot we can pray without a mechitza, men and women together, women reading Torah.

And even if you are totally NOT religious there are plenty of other good reasons to make aliyah. For many Jews in Israel, simply living in Israel is the expression of their Zionism. I had one Israeli tell me, “we don’t need religion, that’s for you Jews who live in galut.” And in one way he was right. If you have a strong Jewish identity—and all of you here clearly must have some kind of Jewish identity, otherwise you would be out watching movies at the Vancouver International Film Festival instead of sitting here listening to me—and you want your grandkids to be Jewish, religion needs to play a role in your life. Israel is the only place in the world where being a secular Jewish family can be a long term option. Here in Richmond, where your kid is likely to be the only Jew in his public school class, if you don’t practice Judaism at home, the chances are pretty high your kids will marry someone who isn’t Jewish. After all, who do they meet? The intermarriage rate in Israel is, needless to say, minuscule.

Israel is a beautiful place. In a space of a few hundred miles you go from the forests and mountains in the north to fertile agricultural plains, to the Mediterranean beaches, to the hills of Judea which LOOK Biblical, to the desert, to the Baja-style resorts of Eilat. If you live in Jerusalem, in January you can drive a couple of hours in one direction and go sunbathing and spa hopping at the Dead Sea. A few hours in the other direction and you can go skiing on Mt. Hermon. No wonder so many people fought over this little scrap of real estate.

Vancouver is also a beautiful place. However, you can really only appreciate that beauty to its fullest for maybe five months a year. The other seven months a year, well, I’ve noticed it rains here. And when it’s not raining, it’s grey. The weather in Jerusalem is perfect. Mild winters, and even in the winter the skies are mostly clear and blue, and they have beautiful summers. Year round outdoor café weather.

It’s kind of ironic because right now everyone thinks of Israel as such a dangerous place. Yet when we lived there, which was during the beginning of this Intifada, we felt perfectly comfortable having our 13 year old daughter and niece walk half an hour home at 10 at night. And this is in the heart of Jerusalem, a city of 600,000, not in some secluded suburb. Our neighbors sent their five year old kid to the grocery store to buy milk and bread. Women can walk throughout the city at any time of night and feel safe.

Being an Anglo, an English speaker, you are part of a community within a community. There are plenty of “landesmen,” people from the home country. Mo and Anney Soronow estimate that there are 200 former Vancouverites living in Israel, including three rabbis that I know of: Rabbis Solomon, Benarroch, and Baumol. There are English language newspapers, English language theaters. I strongly recommend learning Hebrew, but I have met people who made aliyah 20 years ago who still don’t speak much Hebrew. It’s pretty easy to get by with English.

When I’m in Israel I feel alive. I feel like I’m part of history in the making. To make history living in Canada you have to do something truly significant. Yet I had that feeling of being part of something larger and grander than myself just by being physically present in Israel. Everyone in Israel is a news junkie. Conversations tend to stop when the beep-beep-beep announcing a news broadcast is heard. It’s because the news is real. It affects your life.

And a survey has shown that living in that intense environment must be very satisfying. There was a recent survey taken in Israel to see how happy people are. The results were rather surprising. 83% of all Israelis reported being “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their lives. A recent article in the Jerusalem Post, when comparing this “happiness quotient” in Israel with other countries said “In the shangri-la of Canada, for example, where even global warming is good news, the satisfaction rate is 85%.” The author, Hillel Halkin concluded “Knowing what you are living for makes up for a lot of other things. This is as true of countries as it is of individuals. And 83% of us appear to realize that.”

If you have kids, however, I think the most compelling reason to make aliyah is so that your children will be real Israelis. Last summer I spent two weeks in Israel. One evening three young ladies, soldiers in the IDF, came to speak to the group I was studying with. Each of them was 20 years old, and each came from a religious background. Two of them are on a hesder program, where they combine religious studies with military service for a few years. I was blown away by the maturity, wisdom, and solid moral values of these three young ladies. They work in a program teaching soldiers who came from disadvantaged backgrounds high school equivalency studies. Which by itself also says something about the nature of Israeli society—their students were at the END of their service, not the beginning. The IDF was sending these kids to school for six months to benefit society, not to benefit the IDF. We are so obsessed with the security situation in Israel, I was really taken aback when one of them said “Security is not the most important issue facing Israel today. There are so many issues regarding integration of newcomers, education, housing, etc., that people who decide who to vote for strictly on the security issue are not doing the right thing.” The young lady who brought this up was clearly influenced in her thinking by having real contact with the disadvantaged segments of Israeli society that she had never really interacted with before…e.g., Druze who didn’t speak Hebrew, and didn’t have much of an education. She had no idea there were people like that in Israel, and felt something really needed to be done.

Another one of these young women shared a story which I felt captured what it means to live in Israel in these difficult times. Her father is a professor at HU; two of the people who were killed in the bombing there were good friends of hers, people who were frequent Shabbos guests at her home. She was on the bus coming home from her Army base when her cell phone rang–it was her mother, and she wanted to tell her about the death of her friends rather than have her hear the names over the radio. She immediately started sobbing hysterically, and everyone on the bus knew what it meant. No one on the bus had to ask her what happened…she felt very supported by the understanding presence of the people on the bus.

And that little episode speaks volumes about why we should make aliyah now, not just when things are going well. It’s not strangers who are going through difficult times right now. It’s family. It’s a fantastic feeling to be someplace where you are part of an “us,” not part of a “them.” Your kids will never come home from school singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or announcing they have the part of the Easter Bunny in the school play. December 25 is just another day at the office.

And ultimately that’s why Lauri and I want to make aliyah. Israel is home, and like Dorothy says in the movie, “there’s no place like home.”

If you have tuned out ever since I said, “I’m making aliyah,” please tune back in. To be clear, we are not making aliyah this week, or even this month, or even this year. It’s a long term plan, and there are a lot of factors that go into our timing, including our financial situation and the age of the kids. But in asking the question: “will we make aliyah someday?” our answer is a definite “yes.” Interestingly, it felt kind of scary for Lauri and I to make this a public statement—even when we couch it in terms of a “someday.” But by making that statement, that we plan to make aliyah, all we are doing is affirming what we say in our prayers everyday. If you stop to think about it, the siddur issues us all kinds of challenges. Aliyah is one of them.

And Israel wants us: it has never been easier to make aliyah. In addition to substantial financial support from the Israeli government, there is an organization called Nefesh b’Nefesh which provides financial help to Jews from North America who want to make aliyah. Grants can be as high $25,000 US for a family.

If you have not yet visited Israel, before asking the aliyah question, you owe it to yourself to spend some time there. I never would have answered “yes” to the idea of making aliyah before living there and seeing just how incredible and exciting it is. I think of the first exile from Israel, 2,500 years ago, when the Babylonians destroyed the first temple, and how many people chose to stay in comfort in Bavel rather than return to help rebuild Israel. And that was just 70 years later, just a generation or two. I want to be part of group that returned to rebuild the Jewish homeland, not part of the group that disappeared into the Diaspora.

I encourage you to fill out (after Yom Kippur of course) the pledge card that was left on your seat that you will make a visit to Israel in the next twelve months. There are many ways to visit Israel—on a mission, part of a group, by yourself. If enough Beth Tikvah people want to go, I’ll be happy to lead a congregational trip. And if you are fortunate enough to be between the ages of 18 and 26 you can go for free on a Birthright trip. How can you turn down a deal like that?

If you think you want to wait until things “calm down” in Israel, let me share something Rabbi Shlomo Riskin told me: “If Israel is Disneyland, you visit when the weather is good. If Israel is mishpocha, family, you visit when we need you.”

And Israel needs us now.

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Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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