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A New Study Shows That American Jewry is Disappearing. Patrilineal Descent and Intermarriage are the Problem, Not the Solution

on Thursday, June 15 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

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The startling findings of a recent Jewish People Policy Institute study drew an Ha’aretz headline of “Low Marriage Rates and Intermarriage Threaten Future of U.S. Jewry” and an Arutz Sheva’s headline asking, “Is there a future for non-Orthodox American Jewry?” The study found that outside of Orthodoxy, fewer Jews are getting married, those marrying are marrying later and having fewer children and intermarriage rates are increasing.  The combination of these three factors raises the daunting question of the future of American non-Orthodox Jews.

Shockingly, the study shows that among all non-Orthodox Jews in the 25-54 age group, just 15% are married to a Jewish spouse and have Jewish children.  An additional 8% have a Jewish spouse, but no children, 4% are single parents, 36% are single and have no children, 13% are intermarried and have Jewish children, 8% are intermarried and have non-Jewish children, and 17% are intermarried and have no children.

Intermarriage rates increase the younger the generation.  Among those aged 40-44, 60% are intermarried.  Among those aged 35-39, it is 73%, and 75% of those aged 30-34 have a non-Jewish spouse.

In contrast to the other denominations, studies show that the Orthodox community is on the rise and exhibit high levels of demographic stability.  While that conclusion is gratifying and validating, it is absolutely no cause for celebration or triumphalism.  Realize that the hemorrhaging of other denominations is not the result of Jews flocking to the Ocommunity.

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l wrote (Tradition, Spring 1982):

Nor do I share the glee some feel over the prospective demise of the competition. Surely, we have many sharp differences with the Conservative and Reform movements, and these should not be sloughed over or blurred. However, we also share many values with them – and this, too, should not be obscured. Their disappearance might strengthen us in some respects, but would unquestionably weaken us in others. And of course, if we transcend our own interests and think of the people currently served by these movements – many of them, both presently and potentially, well beyond our reach or ken – how would they, or klal Yisrael as a whole, be affected by such a change? Can anyone responsibly state that it is better for a marginal Jew in Dallas or Dubuque to lose his religious identity altogether rather than drive to his temple?

If the muscles of the left arm atrophy or the arm needs to be amputated, it is hardly a comfort that the right arm is strong and has larger muscles than ever.  Sadly, rather than an honest review and return to tradition, ritual and halacha, there has been a doubling down of the policies and ideology that have brought these results to begin with.

Some have suggested an embrace of patrilineal descent as a solution.  Others argue it is time for rabbis to officiate at intermarriages. Aside from representing gross distortions of halacha, mesorah and the will of the Almighty, these suggestions don’t actual address the core issues. They simply attempt to put a Band-Aid over a deeply infected wound that is gushing blood.  Indeed, they are the equivalent of cooking the books or manipulating earnings so that they appear to report profit instead of loss.  Recognizing patrilineal descent or accepting intermarriage just gives the illusion of addressing the problem; it doesn’t actually do anything to address the very real threat facing the future of American non-orthodox Jewry.

If one thinks the Orthodox community is unaffected by these suggested monumental shifts in policy, they are grossly mistaken. Individuals and families who will have grown up thinking they are Jewish will meet our children through NCSY or at their college Hillel and their Jewish status will come into question.  Children who apply to attend day schools or families that will seek membership in our shuls may have questionable statuses.  This potential shifts in policy and practice will not only fail to stem assimilation, but it will further divide our people.  This is not a hypothetical issue that may arise in the future.  This is happening now in our own institutions and among families in our own community.  I see these issues arise frequently – and tragically.

The antidote to these devastating demographic findings is not less adherence to halacha, but more.  When talking about the mitzvah of tzitizis, our rabbis (Bamidbar Rabbah 17:6 and see Nesivos Shalom) provide the following metaphor.  A person was once cast into the sea and was drowning.  The Coast Guard threw the person a rope and said grab on. If you hold onto it, you will survive but if you let go, you will be swept away and disappear.  Wearing tzitzis reminds us of our commitment and responsibility to a life of Torah and mitzvos.  Grabbing on to those ropes and what they stand for gives us life.  Tzitizs themselves are not the solution, but they are symbol of a lifestyle of mitzvos.   Eitz chaim hi la’machazikim bah, the Torah is the tree of life for those who grab onto it.  Let it go and you will be swept away.

The storms of change are raging around us.  The current is getting stronger and stronger and sweeping more and more people away.  The only way to stay safe, and remain true to our values, our traditions and our obligations, is to make a commitment to not only hold on to Torah, but to demonstrate a willingness to swim upstream at times, to go against the tide, to dare to be different and to be willing to stand out.  This is no easy task and takes great courage, but we have it within our very DNA because our great patriarch Avraham planted it there.  Avraham was called Avraham Ha’Ivri meaning mei’eiver, on the other side.  When the whole world took one position and stood on one side, he had the courage to stand out, remain true to the vision and will of the Almighty and to stand on the other side, even when it meant standing by himself.

The great Piacetzner Rebbe, R’ Kalonymous Kalman Shapira writes in his spiritual diary, Tzav V’Ziruz:

You cannot remain static in this torrent river just by standing firm in your place – you must actively swim against the flow.  You may not be successful in swimming upstream, but at least you will not be swept down by the flow.  So it is with spiritual life and the purity of spirit that you have attained.  You cannot retain them against the flow unless you continue to struggle for spiritual growth.  You must swim upstream without respite – upward, onward against the flow.  There may be a limit to how far you can go, but at least you will not be drawn down with the flow.

W.C. Fields once said, “Remember, a dead fish can float downstream, but it takes a live one to swim upstream.”  Those who are spiritually dead, cut off from our timeless and time tested traditions, are floating away.  We, the community who are willing to swim upstream, must not only swim harder, but we must be willing to grab on to those around us and share our life preserver (the Torah).

The potential demise of other denominations is no cause for celebration.  It is an opportunity —  and an obligation  —  to reach out and share the beauty, majesty, meaning and joy of a Torah lifestyle.  These findings demand a mass movement of outreach.  The needle won’t move and the problem won’t be solved by kiruv professionals and rabbis alone.  A difference will only be made when every Torah shul, institution and individual sees as part of their core identity and personal mission to not only hold on to the sturdy tree of Torah (eitz chaim hi la’machazikim bah) to prevent being swept down the river, but to reach out and extend a hand to those floating by.  We are proud that BRS has a dedicated outreach rabbi on our staff whose mission is not to service our members per se, but to run outreach programs, make contacts in the greater Jewish community and minister to those who are integrating into the community.

Milton Friedman, the great Nobel Prize-winning economist and professor at the University of Chicago, had a very simple suggestion for how to identify a person or institution’s priorities.  Many people eloquently describe their beliefs, values, and principles and talk about what is most important to them.  Friedman advised to ignore what they say.  If you want to truly know what someone’s priorities are, it is simple – Look at someone’s budget and you know what is important to him/her.  See how someone prioritizes their money and you will know their priorities.

We claim to care about outreach but do our institutions, shul and schools have an outreach budget?  Do we have dedicated people working on this cause?  Do we put our money where our mouth is?

This is our generation’s test; it is our challenge.  Many summers ago, I worked at Aish Ha’Torah in Jerusalem as an advisor in their Discovery program.  My friend and I were fresh out of yeshiva and when asked to recruit at a particular location that we didn’t feel was appropriate for “bnei Torah” to spend time, we resisted.  A meeting was scheduled with Rav Noach Weinberg zt”l, founder of Aish.  After some small talk, he asked us what the problem was.  We explained that we were yeshiva guys trying to work on ourselves and we didn’t feel that it would be good for our neshamos to hang out at an immodest location.  I will never forget what he answered.

He looked us in the eye and with the greatest sincerity said, “Let me ask you.  If you were in Eastern Europe and the train was leaving to Auschwitz and a woman extended her hand for you to pull her off, would you hesitate to take it because you are a yeshiva guy?!”  “Well,” he said, “the train is leaving and it is taking millions not to Auschwitz, but to assimilation and oblivion.  You need to go recruit and figuratively extend your hand to pull people off the train and redirect them from assimilation and into Discovery.”

It has been said that in Europe they killed us with hate and in America they are killing us with love.  These statistics bear out that truth and challenge us to ask ourselves, will we rise to our generations test and care enough to not only be willing to swim upstream ourselves when necessary, but to extend our hand to those around us who are being swept away.  If the answer is not a resounding “yes,” the consequences will be devastating.

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Tuning In to the Sinai Frequency – Was God’s Revelation a Thing of the Past or is it a Voice Speaking to Us Today?

on Thursday, May 25 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

“Mosquito tone” is a 17 KHz sine wave that teenagers use on their cell phone to alert them when they’ve got a text message so the teachers can’t hear it. Studies say that most adults can’t hear much above the 13-14KHz range, but teenagers can.  Our ability to hear high frequencies falls as we age.

I found the mosquito tone online and played it. I heard nothing but my kids in the other room started screaming, “What is that? Turn it off!”

Adults have now struck back using the teenagers’ technology against them.  Inventor Howard Stapleton has created the Mosquito teen repellent (I kid you not). He says only a few people over age 30 can hear the Mosquito’s sound.  Stores and parks in England and Japan have begun to use it to keep teenagers from loitering.  The repellent continually plays a high frequency.  Adults can’t hear it and teenagers can’t stand it.

The most seminal moment in human history occurred when God addressed millions of people at Mount Sinai in an act of supreme revelation. Indeed, this moment was unprecedented, unparalleled and unrepeated. The Torah says,   “These words that God spoke to all your assembly in the mountain out of the midst of the fire, the cloud and the thick darkness, with a great voice which was not heard again… [v’lo yasaf]” (Deut. 5:19)

The simple meaning of the words, v’lo yasaf as explained by the Ibn Ezra and other commentaries, is that the voice and experience were “not to be repeated.”  This was a onetime only deal, an exceptional and transcendent moment in human history, never to be replicated.

On the one hand, the uniqueness of this event is significant and special.  We eternally reflect back and recognize that the moment is inimitable and unique, distinct and singular.  On the other hand, its uniqueness forces us to consider the fact that no matter how we live and whatever choices we may make we can never experience revelation like Mount Sinai again.  This generates a sense of disenfranchisement and deflates our spiritual ambition.  If God only spoke once and we missed it, how do we connect today?  How do we access the affirmation that only God’s voice can provide as to His existence and our charge in the world?

Commentators were troubled by this dilemma and offer another layer of interpretation of the phrase v’lo yasaf.  Onkelus, the famous convert who lived in the period of the Tannaim from 35 – 120, translates v’lo yasaf not as never repeated, but rather as v’lo p’sak, God’s voice never ended or ceased.  The Ramban brings a few sentences as evidence that the Hebrew root – yud, samech, fey – can mean ‘never stops.’  According to this interpretation, God spoke at Sinai thousands of years ago and his voice and message continue to carry until today and beyond.

So, which is it? Does v’lo yasaf mean God’s voice never repeated or does it mean God’s voice never ceased?

I believe the answer is up to each and every one of us.  We each have a critical choice to make.  Do we view the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai as part of the past, a historical event and previous occurrence, or does God voice speak to us today?

Each year on Shavuos we recall the Sinai experience and challenge ourselves with the question of which interpretation best reflects our life.  Are we going to choose the reading that says the voice of God is no longer heard, or are we going to continue to listen carefully for the reverberation of God’s message in our lives? Are the events of Mount Sinai representative of an ongoing, developing relationship with God, or are they an isolated event?

In truth, God’s voice is all around us. Like the mosquito tone, a frequency is playing, the only question is if we can hear it.

Each time we open a book and challenge ourselves by learning Torah, expanding and broadening our wisdom, understanding and insight, God’s voice is reverberating. Each prayer in which we are not only physically present but spiritually invested, God’s voice is reverberating. Each magnificent sunrise or sunset that we pause to take in, God’s voice is reverberating.  Each act of kindness we share with others God’s voice is reverberating.

There is no doubt that God’s great and mighty voice is all around us.  Shavuos demands of us to consider: are we tuned into the Sinai frequency or do we simply go through the motions, and view God’s voice as something of the past?

The choice is yours to make.

(Published on Aish.com)

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Instead of a Massacre, We Experienced a Miracle: What Does the Six Day War Mean to You?

on Sunday, May 21 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

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The Klausenberger Rebbe zt”l, R’ Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam, lost his wife and eleven children in the Holocaust.  After the war, he gathered a small community of followers who had also survived, and from that small group eventually rebuilt a beautiful community.  Rabbi Shlomo Riskin describes a visit to the Beis Medrash of the Klausenberger Rebbe in the summer of 1952 when he was just 12 years old:

Then came the Torah reading. In accordance with the custom, the Torah reader began to chant the Warnings in a whisper. And unexpectedly, almost inaudibly but unmistakably, the Yiddish word “hecher – louder,” came from the direction of the lectern upon which the rebbe was leaning at the eastern wall of the synagogue.

The Torah reader stopped reading for a few moments; the congregants looked up from their Chumash in questioning and even mildly shocked silence. Could they have heard their rebbe correctly? Was he ordering the Torah reader to go against time-honored custom and chant the tochacha out loud? The Torah reader continued to read in a whisper, apparently concluding that he had not heard what he thought he heard. And then the rebbe banged on his lectern, turned to face the stunned congregation and cried out in Yiddish, with a pained expression on his face and fire blazing in his eyes: “I said louder! Read these verses out loud! We have nothing to fear; we’ve already experienced the curses. Let the Master of the Universe hear them. Let Him know that the curses have already befallen us, and let Him know that it’s time for Him to send the blessings!” The rebbe turned back to the wall, and the Torah reader continued slowly chanting the cantillation out loud. I was trembling, with tears cruising down my cheeks, my body bathed in sweat.

I could hardly concentrate on the conclusion of the Torah reading. “It’s time for Him to send the blessings!” After the Additional Service ended, the rebbe rose to speak. His words were again short and to the point, but this time his eyes were warm with love leaving an indelible expression on my mind and soul. “My beloved brothers and sisters,” he said, “Pack up your belongings. We must make one more move – hopefully the last one. God promises that the blessings which must follow the curses will now come. They will come – but not from America. The blessings will only come from Israel. It is time for us to go home.”  And so Kiryat Sanz – Klausenberg was established in Netanya where the rebbe built a Torah Center as well as the Laniado Medical Center.

The tochecha in our parsha describes the devastating result of siluk ha’Shechina, when God removes and withdraws His countenance and providence from us.  While its graphic description is, thank God, unimaginable to us, the Klausenberger Rebbe felt the tochecha was an apt description of what he and so many others had actually endured.  But it isn’t just the Holocaust that appears to be the fulfillment of the terrible consequences foretold in the tochecha. In many ways, the Jewish condition during much of the last 2,000 years, punctuated by pogroms, crusades, the inquisition and countless expulsions, provides examples of the embodiment of the harsh and cruel description the tochecha.

In the middle of the tochecha that we read this morning, the Torah says:

וַהֲשִׁמֹּתִ֥י אֲנִ֖י אֶת־הָאָ֑רֶץ וְשָֽׁמְמ֤וּ עָלֶ֙יהָ֙ אֹֽיְבֵיכֶ֔ם הַיֹּשְׁבִ֖ים בָּֽהּ׃

“I will make the land desolate, and your enemies who dwell in it will be desolate upon it.”

Chazal see a silver lining, a ray of hope and optimism, even within this harsh promise.  The Sifra writes that when we are exiled from our land, it will remain desolate.  Despite being occupied by others, it will remain in ruins, and they will not succeed in making it bloom.  It is striking how accurate this promise of our parsha has been.  Over the last two millennia, despite countless efforts to make it blossom by crusaders, the Mamelukes, the Ottomans, the Turks, the Arabs and the British, Eretz Yisroel was in a virtual state of ruin.

In the mid-1800’s, Mark Twain traveled the world and wrote a book recording his impressions and experiences called “The Innocents Abroad.”  Listen to what he writes about his experience in then Palestine and compare it to what you think of when you picture traveling around Israel today.  He writes:

Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince.  The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are un-picturesque in shape.  The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation…It is a hopeless, dreary, heartbroken land…Palestine sits in sackcloth and ashes.  Over it broods the spell of a curse that has withered its fields and fettered its energies.  Renowned Jerusalem itself, the stateliest name in history, has lost all its grandeur, and is become a pauper village.

Six hundred years before Twain, in his commentary on our parsha, the Ramban writes:

And your enemies will be desolate upon it is a good tiding.  It proclaims in every generation that our land does not accept or enemies.  This is a great proof and promise for us, for you will not find in the entire world another land that is so good and spacious and was always inhabited but is now in such a state of ruin.  Ever since we left it, it has not accepted any other nation; and they all try to settle it, but are unsuccessful.

Indeed, the gemara (Sanhedrin 98a) quotes Rebbe Abba who teaches –

ואמר רבי אבא אין לך קץ מגולה מזה

And Rabbi Abba says: You have no more explicit manifestation of the end of days than when produce will grow in abundance in Eretz Yisrael; it is an indication that the Messiah will be coming soon. (See more in R’ Moshe Lichtman’s “Eretz Yisroel in the Parsha”)

R’ Yoel Bin Nun, the great Tanach teacher in Israel today, was a member of the now famous 55th brigade of paratroopers who liberated Yerushalayim.  When his commander, a Shomer Ha’tzair kibbutznik, asked him how he felt after taking Har Ha’Bayis, he responded “alpayim shenot galut nigmeru, two thousand years of exile are now over.”

If for the Klausenberger Rebbe, the Holocaust represents the fulfillment of the tochecha, the consequences of siluk ha’Shechina, Divine withdrawal and hiddenness, then 1967, the miracle of the Six-Day War and the reunification of Yerushalayim, represent nothing short of giluy ha’Shechina, the intense presence and the powerful revelation of the hand of the Almighty.  If the Holocaust engenders all kinds of compelling questions, then the Six Day War provides all kinds of undeniable answers.

Those of us with no memory of May 1967 and earlier don’t know what it means to feel truly fragile and vulnerable as a people. Those of you who do remember will confirm that just over 20 years after losing 6 million of our people there was a collective panic and sense of urgency that there was going to be another Holocaust.  Rav Yehuda Amital recounted that before the Six Day War there were American Jewish leaders who pleaded with the Israeli government to evacuate the children from Israel, since the annihilation of Israel was expected. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel had designated public parks as burial sites and almost 100,000 graves had been dug in anticipation of the mass casualties.

But instead of a massacre, a miracle occurred.  On June 5, Israel launched a preemptive strike. In a single day, it destroyed almost the entire Egyptian air force. Jordan and Syria both declared war. In six days, Israel defeated all three armies, each larger than the size of its own. The Israelis retook Sinai, captured the old city of Jerusalem, Yehuda and the Shomron and the Golan Heights.

This sweeping military victory against all odds continues to defy explanation and leaves experts confounded.  R’ Berel Wein tells the story of a cadet at West Point who asked why the Six-Day War was not part of the curriculum.  The high-ranking teacher silenced the questioner and demanded he speak to him following the class.  The soldier approached the general and again wondered why Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War wasn’t studied.  The teacher explained that the Six-Day War is not studied because at West Point they study strategy and tactics, not miracles.

Yossi Klein Ha’Levi tells the powerful story of his father who was from a very religious chassidishe family and gave up on God and on religion after surviving the Holocaust.  Even after the founding of the State of Israel, he was still so traumatized from his devastating loss that he couldn’t find God.  In June of 1967, however, after witnessing with the world the miracle of Israel not only surviving, but thriving, he took his family to Israel and went directly to the Kotel.  After seeing the hand of God, he was ready to forgive Him and to have a relationship once again.  They moved to Israel and his father came back to religion.

Yossi Klein Ha’Levi explains that 1967 turned Israel from a secular to a sacred landscape.  Yes, in 1948 we gained sovereignty over our own country, but we still had no holy sites.  After the miracle of ’67, overnight, we returned not only to the Kotel and Har Ha’bayis, but to our Mama Rochel imeinu, to Chevron and Ma’aras Ha’Machpeila.

In our parsha, God promises us:

וְזָכַרְתִּ֖י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֣י יַעֲק֑וֹב וְאַף֩ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֨י יִצְחָ֜ק וְאַ֨ף אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֧י אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶזְכֹּ֖ר וְהָאָ֥רֶץ אֶזְכֹּֽר׃

“Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land.”

God has indeed made good on that promise to remember our land, and with it, we have access again to our forefathers.  The first Jew to enter the Ma’arat Ha’Machpeila, the burial place of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs in some 800 or 900 years, was General Moshe Dayan. When he entered, he did not know exactly what to do. But instinctively he straightened up, offered a snappy salute, and said “Shalom” to Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya’akov.

Following the Six-Day War, Jews around the world felt as if they were 7 feet tall, confident, proud, almost invincible. Jews walked the streets of New York, Paris, London, Johannesburg, Melbourne, with their heads held high, the envy of their neighbors.  Everyone wanted a piece of this special nation, a connection to the Jewish people.  And the Jewish people felt a giluy ha’shechina, revelation of God Himself, and wanted a greater connection with Him.

In a sermon delivered one week after the Six-Day War, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm said:

Now this places a great burden upon us, greater than we realize. Even observant religious people usually possess an element of doubt within their faith. We use this doubt to excuse many of our transgressions, and we excuse the existence of this doubt by saying that had we lived in the age of the prophets or the age of miracles or the age of revelation, we would be sufficiently persuaded and convinced to be able to live according to the highest precepts of our faith, but that the absence of any such evidence justifies this seed of doubt. Were we exposed to the same wonders as was Israel of old, “and Israel saw the Egyptians dead at the shore of the sea,” then we too would react as they did: “and they believed in the Lord and in His servant Moses (Ex.14:31).

Such was the justification we offered ourselves for our doubt and our laxity heretofore. Now, we can no longer avail ourselves of that luxury. For we have seen, as did Jews in very special moments of history, ha-yad ha-gedolah, the “great Hand of the Almighty!

Through electronic eyes and ears, each of us has been a personal witness to the great miracle, the great revelation of 1967. How our parents and grandparents and theirs before them, through all the ages, would have thrilled to this singular experience — not only because of the victory that would have given them relief from the humiliation of exile, but because this liberation of Jerusalem in our times is a vindication of their faith throughout all times.   For indeed the giluy shekhinah of the past two weeks is a vindication of ancient promises, the fulfillment of hoary prophecies.

A few summers ago, I attended a Rabbinic conference in Israel where Rabbi Chaim Druckman, Rosh Yeshva of Ohr Etzion and the Rabbinic head of all Bnei Akiva.  He talked about the paragraph we say before benching, chapter 126 of TehillimShir Ha’Maalos b’shuv Hashem es shivas tziyon hayinu k’cholmim.  When Hashem will return the us to tziyon, we will be like dreamers.  What does it mean to be like a dreamer, he asked?  He quoted a number of interpretations of the classic commentators but then he gave his own and it touched me very deeply.

He said, picture a teacher at the front of the classroom who is teaching when he or she suddenly calls on a child in the classroom and asks a question.  The child is startled and is caught off guard because they weren’t paying attention to the teacher.  They were, what we would call “day dreaming.”   Day dreaming is when you are eyes are open, you are looking at the person talking, you see, hear and feel everything going on, but you are so checked out and distracted that you don’t really register what was said or what just happened.

Hayinu k’cholim, said Rav Druckman, means that after 2,000 years of persecution and suffering, Hashem will perform miracles and bring us back to our land.  After being the scorn of the world, we will be the envy.  It will be so surreal, that we may be like day dreamers who see and hear what is happening but are so distracted that it doesn’t truly register; it doesn’t move us the way it should.

Every time I visit Israel, I find a way to spend a few minutes sitting in the square in the Old City of Yerushalayim.  I don’t sit in the big square with all the pay phones that tourists all walk through.  There is another square where the residents hang out.   This square is no ordinary gathering place.  Etched in the stones on the side of the square are the ancient words of our prophet Zecharia.  Our ancestors read these words as depicting a fantasy, a fictional description.   We, the most blessed generation in 2,000 years, can read those words and witness their very fulfillment before our very eyes.  I love watching the older people walk by with their walkers and canes and listening to the sounds of the children running and playing and then reading:

כֹּ֤ה אָמַר֙ יְהוָ֣ה צְבָא֔וֹת עֹ֤ד יֵֽשְׁבוּ֙ זְקֵנִ֣ים וּזְקֵנ֔וֹת בִּרְחֹב֖וֹת יְרוּשָׁלִָ֑ם וְאִ֧ישׁ מִשְׁעַנְתּ֛וֹ בְּיָד֖וֹ מֵרֹ֥ב יָמִֽים׃

וּרְחֹב֤וֹת הָעִיר֙ יִמָּ֣לְא֔וּ יְלָדִ֖ים וִֽילָד֑וֹת מְשַׂחֲקִ֖ים בִּרְחֹֽבֹתֶֽיהָ׃

“Thus said the Lord of Hosts: There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the squares of the city shall be crowded with boys and girls playing in the squares.”

My friends, if the Klausenberger Rebbe described living through the curses we just read about, then we are meriting to live through the fulfillment of the blessings.  This week when we mark a mere 50 years since that summer of Divine revelation and God’s miracles, we dare not day-dream through it.  We dare not sleepwalk through this milestone as if it is an ordinary everyday event.  We must awaken ourselves with a sense of hallel v’hodaah, profound gratitude and boundless appreciation.  We must once again tap into the feeling of having experienced yad Hashem, the guiding hand of the Almighty.  How could you not make it to minyan on Wednesday morning to sing Hallel b’rov am, together with a minyan and a community of those who refuse to day dream or sleep through it?!

V’ha’aretz ezkor – We are in the generation that after millennia of waiting has witnessed God’s remembering His people and His land. The question is, will you remember Him?

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Beyond Blue and White and Daglanut: What Does it Mean to be a Religious Zionist in America?

on Wednesday, May 17 2017. Posted by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg

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A few weeks ago, we marked Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, celebrating a return of Jewish sovereignty to our homeland after nearly 2,000 years of longing and praying for it.  Our community held a Yom Hazikaron/Yom Ha’atzmaut program with approximately 250 people in attendance.  By most measures, that number indicates a successful event.  But, when one considers how many members we have and how many more regularly participate in other Shul programs, one would expect a much higher attendance, especially given our community’s strong connection to, and passion for, the State of Israel.  Unfortunately, low attendance at events such as the one held in Boca seems to be the norm in many other religious Zionist communities as well, with many rabbis reporting empty seats at similar events.

For many people, Hallel on Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim are the measure of whether someone is a religious Zionist.  There is a lot of discussion and emotion in the debate about Hallel with a beracha, without a beracha, during davening, or after davening.  Every rabbi interviewing for a job in a modern orthodox community is guaranteed to receive that question and in many communities, his answer can make or break his pruba.

And yet, the absence of those who identify as “religious Zionist” from both Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim programs as well as from the morning davening with Hallel has left me wondering exactly what it means to be a religious Zionist in America today.  If one’s Zionism isn’t expressed through participating in these opportunities, where and how does it show?  Sending your children to a school that serves blue and white cookies or choreographs daglanut does not alone make you a religious Zionist.  So what does?  While I have not arrived at a definitive answer, it seems to me that the following factors are key ingredients:

Belief in the centrality of Israel

The Torah is replete with references to the centrality of Israel in the realization of our national destiny and the fulfillment of our people’s purpose and mission in the world.  Hashem’s vision is for Am Yisroel, the Jewish people, to observe Toras Yisroel, His sacred Torah, in Eretz Yisroel, His singular land.  While we may feel comfortable or even have a sense of patriotism elsewhere, a Jew must always recognize and be mindful of the centrality of Israel to our religious lives, individually and collectively.

Gratitude

If one truly appreciates the singularity and centrality of Israel and connects with our national longing to return to our land, he or she will not only be overwhelmed with gratitude for the miracles of the modern State of Israel, but see this reality as religiously and theologically significant.

We are called “Yehudim” because we are characterized by the quality of hoda’ah, gratitude.  To be a Yid, a Yehudi, is to be filled with gratitude to Hashem for the blessings in our lives.  Meriting to live in the generation that can travel the width and breadth of Israel, daven at its holy sites, and visit its special places, is among the greatest blessings our ancestors could have only dreamt of, and certainly deserves our regular appreciation and gratitude.

Israel Consciousness

While we care about our fellow Jews around the world, our relationship with and connection to our brothers and sisters in Israel is qualitatively different.  In the laws of tzedaka, there is a hierarchy to our giving priorities that includes giving to the indigent in our community first.  Yet, wherever one lives in the world, one must prioritize giving to Israel because even though we may not live there yet, in a real way we are all potential residents of the country.

Feeling like a resident of Israel even while living in the diaspora means following the news from Israel closely, sharing in its successes, and being pained by its challenges.  It means advocating and lobbying on behalf of Israel.  It means contributing our resources in a meaningful way to Israel.  It means raising our children to think about Israel like their hometown, rather than like another foreign place they don’t live.  It means connecting regularly with family and friends who live in Israel and communicating our sense of identification with all that is happening in Israel.

Aliyah

At any given moment, there are many legitimate reasons not to make Aliyah, but there are no legitimate reasons not to struggle with it.  According to Rav Moshe Feinstein, living in Israel is not just an ideological and historical reality, it is the fulfillment of a mitzvah.  The Ramban writes that, in fact, all mitzvos are only truly fulfilled in Israel.  Mitzvah observance outside the land is obligatory, but serves only to habituate us and prepare us for when we will fulfill them in Israel.  This insight should generate a discomfort and sense of impermanence with living in America, even if our being here is warranted at the present time.

Community

You can subscribe to the centrality of Israel, feel gratitude for the gift of Israel, struggle with Aliyah, and be mindful of our brothers and sisters there, all without coming to Shul.  Nevertheless, there is one aspect of practicing a love of Israel that is lacking at home.  Shlomo HaMelech taught us that “B’rov am hadrat melech, In the multitude of people is the king’s glory.” (Mishlei 14:28)

The importance of community is axiomatic to Jewish life. For a mourner to say Kaddish and be comforted, there must be people who are present and can respond.  For a couple to be blessed with the recitation of sheva berachos at the meals that occur during the week following their wedding, there must be not only a minyan, but panim chadashos, new faces, guests who physically come to share in their joy.

Milestones and special moments, both happy and sad, cannot be adequately observed in an online community, even with the incredible help of Skype or FaceTime.  Imagine a wedding where the bride and groom stand all alone under the chuppah with all their friends and family Skyping in or “liking” the Livestream, or a funeral where the loved ones physically stand by themselves, even if people are watching it online.

Valuing, cherishing and loving Israel means participating in, and being counted among, a community of people who love Israel.  Many self-identify as religious Zionists even though they have no desire or intention to make Aliyah, are not connected to the news from Israel and don’t participate in Israel advocacy or philanthropy.  For such people, the only thing left to be practicing Zionists is to at least show up at and participate in Yom Ha’atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim celebrations.  Can those who fail to put in this minimum effort, and instead abstain from the opportunity to join with a community who do, truly call themselves religious Zionists?

Yom Yerushalayim

We will imminently mark the 50th anniversary of the miraculous reunification of Yerushalayim, but it almost didn’t happen.  At 4:00 in the morning a few days into the Six-Day War, then-opposition leader Menachem Begin awoke with a premonition and turned on the radio. He heard on the BBC that a vote was occurring at the UN to pressure Israel into a cease fire with its enemies who had been swiftly decimated. In the middle of the night, he called Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and begged him to call a special cabinet meeting to approve going into the Old City and conquering the remainder of Jerusalem. The meeting was called and Begin argued this could be an unique moment that history would not provide again. They would have to reclaim Jerusalem from the Jordanians before the international community pressured Israel to a cease fire.  A unanimous vote approved the military operation and just three hours later, the now famous statement, “har ha’bayit b’yadeinu, the Temple Mount is in our hands” was uttered.

After visiting the Kotel for the first time under Jewish sovereignty, Begin was asked what went through his mind.  “When I touched the Wall today I cried.  I suppose everyone had tears in their eyes.  Nobody need be ashamed.  They are men’s tears.  For the momentous truth is that on this day we Jews, for the first time since the Roman conquest of 70 C.E., have regained ownership of the last remaining remnant of our Temple site, and have own for ourselves free and unfettered access to pray there.”

Next week, Jews from around the world will be traveling to Israel to celebrate Yom Yerushalayim.  Will you travel to your Shul that morning to daven in a minyan?  Will you make your way to your Shul’s program and connect with the community of those who value the singularity and uniqueness of Yerushalayim and Eretz Yisroel?

I believe that for all of us who consider ourselves proud religious Zionists, these questions and considerations must remain front and center at all times, but especially on days of communal commemorations.  What a strong, powerful message of identification with, and appreciation of, the miracle of the State of Israel and a united Yerushalayim it would be if the upcoming programs across the country are standing room only with lines out the door to get in.

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