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New Heights, New Views

Rabbi Yehuda Heimowitz

Ever since Avraham Avinu passed the challenge of Lech Lecha, his descendants have had the yearning for Eretz Yisrael's kedushah implanted in their genetic composition, drawn there as if by gravitational pull. Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, the Bostoner Rebbe, and Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, all of whom were at the height of their “careers” as community leaders in America when they made the move, discuss the pull that they felt towards Eretz Yisrael and share some insight into the prospects of making aliyah today.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

An announcement from friends or relatives that they have decided to make aliyah will always elicit surprise, but when such an announcement comes from a rav or community leader, it is all that much more shocking. How and by whom will the void left in their wake be filled? Will the community continue to thrive with a new leader?

But devastating as the news may seem to those left behind, aliyah seems to be gaining popularity among leaders, with several North American rabbanim making the move each year.

Gathered at Mishpacha’s headquarters in Jerusalem are three people — giants, really, each in his own way — whose departure from America left great voids: Rabbi Emanuel Feldman, who built and led the Atlanta kehillah for several decades before making aliyah; the Bostoner Rebbe of Yerushalayim, Rabbi Mayer Horowitz, who founded and ran several Torah institutions in Boston before moving; and Rabbi Shmuel Bloom, who recently retired as executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America.

Geographic distance between their respective cities in the US notwithstanding, the three turn out to be old friends, and as we settle into our discussion, they commiserate about some of the banes of living here these days: the difficulty in finding parking and the continuous rise in the price of the shekel verses the dollar.

The overwhelming mutual respect is obvious, and they all feel that the others should be the first to speak.

 

The first and most obvious question is: What would make a leader of American Jewry pack up and leave? Were you harboring thoughts of making the move all along and just waiting for the opportunity, or was it a snap decision at some point?

Rabbi Feldman and the Bostoner Rebbe both yield to Rabbi Bloom, who, the Bostoner Rebbe notes, is “the youngest here”— i.e., the one who most recently made the move and had his

“rebirth” in Eretz Yisrael.

Rabbi Bloom: “Back when I was living in America, whenever I used to visit Eretz Yisrael, taxi drivers would ask me, ‘Why don’t you live in Eretz Yisrael?’ ‘Where does the Israeli ambassador to America live?’ I would reply. ‘In Washington DC, because that’s where his diplomatic mission is.’ When you are an ambassador for the Ribono shel Olam, you may have an assignment in a different part of the world. But when the assignment is done or you find a new assignment, then it’s time to go back home. For me, the decision was simply to follow what I had been telling the taxi drivers all along.”

Bostoner Rebbe: “Why did I come here? I want to answer from both my father’s standpoint and my own. My father came here for his bar mitzvah — perhaps one of the first boys to be brought to Eretz Yisrael for his bar mitzvah. My grandfather quoted a Zohar that states that if you become bar mitzvah in Eretz Yisrael, you are given a special neshamah, so he insisted on bringing my father here. For my father, being in Eretz Yisrael was a homecoming of sorts; he always wanted to be here. As for me, I benefited from the system that thousands of young Americans are gaining from until today — I came to learn in Eretz Yisrael as a bochur. When I came, of course, it wasn’t de rigueur. It wasn’t an accepted fact that everyone came to learn here. My older brother had been the trailblazer, and I followed in his footsteps. There were three or four Americans in Ponevezh at the time, and almost no Americans in Mir, which had less than 100 talmidim then. The experience was life-altering. At first, I wasn’t sure if it was the right move for me. I had taken the SATs before I left America, and had scored high enough to make university studies a viable option. But I remember a turning point when I felt that I wanted to be here: I was about to walk up the hill to Ponevezh, and three young children were standing at the bottom of the hill. One of them turned to the others and said with pride as he pointed to me, ‘Hu lomeid b’Ponevezh’ (He learns in Ponevezh). When I saw that the recognition of the value of Torah, the importance of Torah, is so much greater here in Eretz Yisrael than it is elsewhere, I knew that I wanted to be here. I’m not putting down America, chas v’shalom. There are great yeshivos there, and a lot of Torah learning there. But there is a counterbalance: the focus on the money that one can earn, which is much less of a consideration here. As soon as you have something on the other side of the scale, the weightiness of Torah is not as significant.”

Rabbi Feldman: “Sometimes, when I’m standing in front of a Misrad HaPnim [Interior Ministry] clerk or some other government bureaucrat, I ask myself that very question: ‘Why am I here?’ But when I see the side that the Rebbe just mentioned — the ruchniyus that’s available here that’s not available elsewhere — I know why I came. In truth, I wanted to come throughout my life. About twenty years before I came, I asked my father, who was a rav in Baltimore, whether I could move. He told me that I have a tafkid, a purpose to fulfill in America, and I may not move. I also addressed the question to other gedolei Yisrael, and they told me the same thing. I still had a tafkid when I moved, but I left my son behind to fill that job.”

Rabbi Bloom: “My cousin, Rabbi Yosef Nayowitz, founded many Jewish initiatives in Memphis, and he made many baalei teshuvah. He wanted to move to Eretz Yisrael, but before doing so, he came here and visited gedolei Yisrael. They told him that he can’t move unless he finds someone to replace him. Their advice to him was always in the back of my mind. As long as I felt that there was no one to replace me in the Agudah, I felt that I had no choice but to stay. But when people came up in the ranks who could take over, I felt that it was time to make the move.”

The Rebbe mentioned that in Eretz Yisrael, the focus on and chashivus for Torah is greater than it is in America. Is that one-sided? Are there ruchniyusdige benefits to living in America, things that are missing in the system in Eretz Yisrael that exist elsewhere?

Bostoner Rebbe: “When I was in Ponevezh, Rav Chatzkel Levenstein, ztz”l, expressed to us that the few Americans who were there were the most malleable students, the ones who he could most impress with mussar. He felt that there was a certain temimus [pure sincerity] that American boys had that is lacking in Eretz Yisrael. Today, I would say that the danger here is that anyone who does not fall into the category of ‘Toraso umnaso’ [engaged in fulltime Torah study] finds himself outside of the machaneh. We have to find a way to work with boys who are falling off the path because they are put between a rock and hard place: they can either learn full day, and if not, they will feel ostracized. The problem is further aggravated by the fact that a boy cannot go to work unless he has gone through the army, and in the army, which is Israel’s melting pot, a boy will have to face nisyonos [challenges] that many in that age bracket — especially those not spiritually inclined — may not be able to withstand. But even boys who do fit into the system are missing an element that is inherent to almost every young person in America: decision-making. In Eretz Yisrael, a child growing up doesn’t have to deal with adversity to his ruchniyus. He doesn’t have challenges in kashrus and davening, and he doesn’t have to consider whether to pursue a secular education. He doesn’t have to make a single decision, until the most important ones: Who am I? What is my purpose in life? It can come as a real shock to them when they are finally forced to face those questions. We were brought up in America with the idea of, ‘You can go to his house, but you can’t eat there,’ and ‘You can go there, but realize that we don’t do certain things that he does,’ and ‘You can attend that affair, but know that their standards are not acceptable to us.’ Those challenges foster spiritual strength.”

Rabbi Feldman: “There’s no question that what the Rebbe said is a significant factor. Having grown up in a city outside of New York, and then living in Atlanta, the epitome of ‘out of town,’ there’s no question that the Jew inside of you is strengthened when you’re not in a purely Jewish environment. Of course, there’s a downside to it: the challenges can easily lead people astray. But those who stay within the fold are much stronger because of the adversity they faced. I once heard it from Joe Kaminetsky, and I have heard this from yeshivah and seminary heads here too: Children who come from areas with less-established Jewish communities are invariably more committed.”

Rabbi Bloom, you lived within the frum community of New York. Do you feel that the upshot of facing adversity that the Rebbe and Rabbi Feldman are describing exists in a frum metropolis as well?

Rabbi Bloom: “We definitely do lose the strength to a certain extent when Judaism is more developed. Recently, Ohr Somayach, which I am now affiliated with, had a program in which a group of university students were paired with frum people who traveled from America to mentor them. We took a trip one day, and as the others embarked on a hike, three boys stayed back. One was a boy who had almost no prior exposure to Yiddishkeit, and the others were children who had, lo aleinu, strayed from the path. One of those two boys remarked that what was special about coming on this trip was seeing the excitement that the newcomers to Yiddishkeit have towards mitzvos. Tefillin is special to them, davening is special. There is a tremendous maaleh to being exposed only to Yiddishkeit from the day you’re born, but there is also a danger in it. On the other hand, I was recently pondering the concept that everything that happens — and especially at this point in history— is part of a process to bring the Geulah Shleimah. In this past century, for instance, there was a massive kibbutz galuyos: Hashem emptied out Europe, North Africa, the Eastern lands — it’s all part of a process. The Rambam says that in Yemos HaMashiach, we will all be learning in kollel. Can you imagine if the situation would be that 99 percent of people went to college at a young age, and then went to work, without ever having sat and learned? Suddenly, Mashiach would come, and they would be forced to sit in kollel all day, without any prior ‘training.’ Perhaps the Ribono shel Olam orchestrated that a greater and greater percentage of American Jewry is now spending at least a few years in kollel as part of the overall process that will lead to the Geulah.”

One thing that almost every person who moves to Eretz Yisrael faces at some point is the culture shock. Were there times when you wondered to yourself whether it was the right move, whether you will ever feel integrated into society?

Rabbi Feldman: “For one thing, in the South, you say hello to people you meet in the street, even if you don’t know them. I tried that when I first moved here, and people looked at me like I was crazy. My brother explained to me, ‘This is not Atlanta. Here people just don’t say hello to everybody.’ I was once walking down a long flight of narrow steps in Bayit Vegan, and a man was walking up as I walked down. As he passed me, I said, ‘Boker tov,’ and he continued on walking as if I didn’t exist. I was so stunned that I started chuckling to myself. ‘Mah yesh?’ he asked. ‘Why are you laughing?’ ‘We were practically on top of each other, and I said good morning and you didn’t answer,’ I explained. ‘Aval ani lo makir ot’cha,’ he answered. ‘I don’t know you!’ I don’t want to present it as a bad thing — Europeans also find it strange that Americans are so informal that within five minutes of meeting each other they’re already on first-name basis. And there’s Jewish warmth here, too, but it’s beneath the surface. You have to be patient and maybe scratch a little, and you’ll find it.”

Rabbi Bloom: “My daughter went to high school in Boro Park, and the teacher told her that they’re not supposed to say hello to everyone!”

Rabbi Feldman: “There’s also culture shock in the way you’re treated in stores. In America, when you walk into a car lot, the salesman is all over you trying to sell you a car. When I came here, I went to a car lot, and found a woman sitting in the office smoking and reading a magazine. I waited for a few minutes, and then I finally said, ‘Do you sell new cars?’ ‘Yes,’ she answered, barely glancing in my direction. ‘Do you have such-and-such model?’ ‘There,’ she says, pointing with her finger. I started to ask her details about the car, and she handed me a flyer. ‘It’s all in here,’ she said. That was culture shock.”

Rabbi Bloom: “Maybe I’m the wrong person to answer this question, because I spend my days in Ohr Somayach and my evenings in Har Nof, so I’m surrounded by Americans all day. When we first moved, we planned to split our time between here and America. I went to Rav Elyashiv, shlita, to discuss whether to keep one day of Yom Tov or two, and he said that we were not considered to have uprooted ourselves from America, so we should keep two. It’s a year later, and we feel so comfortable here that we decided that this is our place. I went back to Rav Elyashiv, and he told me that now we should keep one day. I would have to say that for us, the transition has been smooth, no real culture shock.”

Bostoner Rebbe: “I think the culture shock is much more pronounced for those who come here with young children. I remember that years ago, chocolate leben was more expensive than plain leben, and the Americans were sending their children to school with chocolate leben until the Israelis raised a hue and a cry. Today, the affluence has grown here to some extent, and the Israelis are at a higher standard of living, almost on par with the Americans. I don’t know that it’s a good thing, but it’s a fact. That said, the main culture shock is getting used to the fact that many here want to live in a utopian world in which everyone can sit and learn, and in reality, it hasn’t panned out. A few years ago, the Rebbe, ztz”l, sent a letter to gedolei Yisrael requesting that they not sign on every good initiative placed in front of them, because there are side ramifications to every such initiative. One of the greatest gedolim sent back a reply, ‘You are the only person who is willing to stand up to the radicals.’ “There are radicals here. The Americans are often afraid to stand up and speak for themselves. But when Americans do stand up and speak for themselves, gedolei Yisrael accept their position. Originally, Har Nof had one Bais Yaakov, and the student body had grown to over 1,000 girls. They decided to split — someone wanted to open a Bais Yaakov for the families that learn, and the other one was going to be for the families that work. I went to the Pnei Menachem, ztz”l, and, yblcht”a, Rav Elyashiv and explained that this would leave the Americans in no-man’s land. They gave me the backing necessary to split the Bais Yaakovs geographically, and to this day, residents of the lower part of the Har Nof mountain sends to the Bais Yaakov in their area, and residents of the upper parts send to the one there.”

Rabbi Bloom: “A few years ago, Agudath Yisrael of America had to step in to protest a situation in which a school in one of the neighborhoods with a strong Anglo population began to segregate the American girls. The parents felt that if their children would be in separate classes, they would fall behind. We went to Rav Steinman, shlita, and he instructed them that it cannot remain that way.”

Bostoner Rebbe: “But that would not have happened had Americans not taken the initiative. The segregation would have been a fait accompli. Americans here must be cognizant of the size of their population — American aliyah is 300,000 strong!— and realize that just because something is written, doesn’t mean that it’s etched in stone, and that they should speak up for themselves when necessary. Americans also served an important function here. There were neighborhoods that were originally secular, and chareidi Israelis would not have been interested in moving into those neighborhoods. Americans, who are used to living with diversity, were willing to move in. Thus parts of Har Nof, Ramat Eshkol, and now Kiryat HaYovel that were once inhabited solely by secular Israelis are now chareidi neighborhoods, thanks to the Americans who paved the way.

There are areas, however, in which Americans have to accept societal norms. Years ago, an airline advertised that they would teach social etiquette for your destination on the plane. For instance, in Saudi Arabia, you can be on the verge of signing a $100 million deal, but if you cross your legs during the conversation, the deal is off. The same is for every society. Saying hello to everyone is a minor issue, but there are areas in which we must accept the local customs and practices.”

Considering what you are saying about the difficulties of integrating, is Eretz Yisrael for everyone? Should all Jews consider making the move?

Rabbi Feldman: “No, I don’t think it’s for every Jew — and I’m addressing this from an interesting perspective, because according to the Israeli consulate in Atlanta, our shul has the highest per capita aliyah rate from all shuls in the US. We have over 125 families living here, out of a total of only 600 in the shul. Now, I never spoke about aliyah from the pulpit, which is probably why all those families made the move. (My father told me when I first moved to Atlanta, ‘You want them to be shomrei Shabbos, tell them not to be shomrei Shabbos!’) I never felt that Eretz Yisrael is for everyone. First of all, as we said earlier, some people have a tafkid in the US. It’s aliyah propaganda to say that every Jew has to be in Israel. Every Jew has a purpose in some corner of the universe, and he has to find his tafkid and fulfill it. A dangerous phenomenon we are witnessing now is that people who are not making it elsewhere are coming up with the notion that if they come to Eretz Yisrael, all their problems will be solved. That’s simply not true. Before a person makes aliyah, he should make a very careful cheshbon hanefesh, asking himself: On a religious level, where can I best serve HaKadosh Baruch Hu? If he can best serve HaKadosh Baruch Hu in Austin, Texas, or in Jacksonville, Florida — or even in New York City — then he belongs there. When Mashiach comes, he’ll come to Eretz Yisrael.”

Rabbi Bloom: “To second Rabbi Feldman’s motion: Since I retired at a young age, I was able to accept a new tafkid when I got here, which is to be the dean of Ohr Lagolah, a kollel in Ohr Somayach in which yungeleit must make a commitment that after two years of learning and classes, they will return to the golah (Diaspora) and work for Klal Yisrael. Obviously, then, I agree that Eretz Yisrael is not for everybody — but I want to add one word: yet. It’s not for everybody yet. And when I say yet, I don’t necessarily mean that we will all have to wait until Mashiach comes. Eretz Yisrael is for more people now than it has been ever before, and it’s getting progressively easier to move. Most young men and women now spend at least one year here, and are used to the culture, which makes it easier to acclimate if they decide to move later on. That said, even Rabbi Nachman Bulman, ztz”l (one of the strongest proponents of North American aliyah), whose shul mounted a strong challenge to Rabbi Feldman’s shul in terms of per capita aliyah, told his congregants not to make aliyah when their children are between the ages of six and eighteen, because the culture change would be too difficult for them. A large percentage of youth who went off the derech among North Americans who made aliyah were those who moved when they were children in those formative years. So aside from those who have a tafkid in America, those who have children should make the move either before their children turn six, or wait until they are older.”

Bostoner Rebbe: “Being rabbis, we have all experienced situations that follow the famous joke about the rabbi who hears a wife’s grievances on her husband and says, ‘You are correct.’ Then he hears the husband’s side, and he says, ‘You are correct.’ Later his rebbetzin asks him, ‘How can they both be correct?’ to which he responds, ‘You’re also correct.’ Personally, I feel that every Jew should consider moving to Eretz Yisrael at some point in life. We started with the idea of ‘asid Eretz Yisrael l’hispasheit b’chol ha’aratzos.’ You get the feeling that for some Jews, since Eretz Yisrael will eventually encompass Manhattan, they may as well stay in Manhattan. That attitude is one that I cannot accept. As Torah Jews, we have to realize that there are certain mitzvos that we can only fulfill in Eretz Yisrael, which is Eretz HaKodesh. When I was in Boston, I was building the Torah Academy there, which eventually led to the establishment of the kollel and the Bais Yaakov, and I was wondering whether Hashem really wants Boston to become a center of Judaism, or if everyone should instead go to Eretz Yisrael. I felt that that question would never have a clear answer. But I know that for myself, when the opportunity arose, I made the decision that this is where I belong. So while I would certainly agree that people should take into consideration all of the aforementioned factors, if a person is mesupak [unsure as to what to do] after making that calculation, I would tell him to come to Eretz Yisrael.”

 

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