An abridged version of this article appeared here on JTA on June 1, 2020
On Purim this year, I was celebrating with friends in Boro Park. The streets were filled with people wearing costumes and Purim masks, celebrating and rejoicing. No one had the slightest clue that N-95 masks would soon take the place of Purim masks, and that instead of celebrating together, the community would start to face a horrific daily death toll.
For weeks, I have been following the news in Israel and in America and comparing the collective responses. I had planned to stay in New York until Pesach and then to return to New York in May to launch my new book, “The Narrow Halakhic Bridge”. But the day after Purim, I felt that a big catastrophe was imminent and decided to return home on the first available flight back to Israel.
It wasn’t a prophecy to recognize that Israel would be a much safer place, observing the differences between the decisive leadership of the Israeli government issuing clear and consistent messages and the confusing messages which came out of the White House, issuing conflicting statements, seeking who to blame instead of taking responsibility and often issuing puzzling statements, such as using bleach or disinfectants. While Israel was already closing its skies and requiring two-week quarantine for anyone entering the county, flights from Italy and France were still landing in America. Israelis quickly started practicing social distancing, while in New York people were freely using public transportation and everything was still open.
Returning to Israel, I found it quite shocking to encounter a cultural shift. Normally, compliance with rules is counter-intuitive to Israeli culture. Often, rules are seen as recommendations! By contrast, American culture is usually characterized by obedience and discipline. But I discovered that things had flipped. The vast majority of Israelis were strictly following the guidelines and restrictions, while American society was still way behind.
Israel’s ability to overcome COVID-19 in a relatively effective way was mainly due to civil obedience, perhaps because Israelis are used to coping with emergency situations. But I believe there is also something deeper going on here. ‘Kol Israel arevin zeh la’zeh’ means that ‘All Jews are responsible for one another’. The level of solidarity and mutual responsibility shown in Israel has reached new heights. Young people, who did not consider themselves at risk, fully obeyed the rules and wore masks in order to protect the elderly. Many of them volunteered to deliver food to those who were stuck at home. Although the Haredi community woke up to the virus late and suffered the highest concentration of infections, most have been cooperating with the authorities and we have seen unprecedented cooperation of non-religious soldiers working together with the Haredi community in Bnei Brak in love and harmony. This is in sharp contrast to the experience of some Haredi communities in America, who have felt abandoned or betrayed by the authorities. There was indeed a strong sense and display of solidarity within the American Jewish community, however, that was not the overall experience of the general American society. A demonstration against wearing masks or social distancing would have been inconceivable in Israel where, in times of crisis, popular solidarity usually wins over individualism.
However, this unique solidarity and sense of collective responsibility should have gone beyond Israel’s borders. Tragically, current estimations show that the Jewish community in America has suffered more than 1,000 casualties, and other Jewish communities around the world have also been badly affected. It is clear that Israel has not done enough for world Jewry. Most Israelis are not aware of the scale of the catastrophe that European and American Jews have been facing. I personally think that, especially during this time of crisis, the borders of Israel should have been opened to any Jew wishing to find a temporary shelter here, as promised in Israel’s Declaration of Independence: “The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles”.
There is also a fundamental lesson that Israeli society can learn from the Jewish American community. America’s rabbinic leadership has also risen to the challenge. Several weeks before Israeli shuls were closed, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County realized that it was not enough to comply with government instructions; they were proactive in closing down shuls and preventing social gatherings in order to reduce the risk of infection. Most communities in the U.S. immediately followed their example. As a relatively new member of the Rabbinical Council of America, I have been very inspired by the courageous and sensitive Halakhic leadership of Rabbi Hershel Schachter and Rabbi Mordechai Willig, providing almost daily responses to new unprecedented communal challenges. The endless support that North American rabbis have provided to their communities, working day and night under difficult conditions, has been truly inspiring. In Israel, that communal layer, the bridge between the authorities and the individuals, was missing. While there was a broad sense of solidarity, most individuals do not have communities, communal leaders, or rabbis to relate to. The absence of direct communal support and pastoral care during these challenging times has been strongly felt by many.
There is an enormous level of uncertainty about what will happen on the day after Corona, and specifically about the future of American Jewry. Traditionally, America has been the safest place for Jews, economically, politically and socially, a safe ground that became very shaky nowadays. It is impossible to estimate the ripple effects of the pandemic, but it is reasonable to assume that the financial crisis and the unprecedented levels of unemployment will hugely affect the Jewish community. Many businesses within the Jewish community have already been badly hit. Schools, shuls and federations – supported mostly by tuition, membership dues and donations – are already starting to face these challenges. The cost of living, education, health insurance and other expenses may become too heavy burden for many Jewish families to bear. Growing antisemitism may also severely affect the sense of safety of American Jewry.
Perhaps now is the time to return home, recognizing that our safest home is Israel. Experts estimate that the Israeli economy, which as the start-up nation has more flexibility and resilience, will recover faster. Jewish education is almost free here, and health insurance is very inexpensive. While serving for 8 years as a rabbi of an American community in Ra’anana, I realized how much dynamism Olim bring to Israeli society, including the important culture of community, which we are lacking in Israel. If we can now build dozens of American communities across Israel, with experienced communal leaders and rabbis, we will undoubtedly bring a significant change to Israeli society. American Olim, who are usually very professional and talented in fields such as science, education, economy, industry, trade and more, have the potential to make a substantial contribution to the success of Israel.
At the very same time, the Israel government must see the developments and prepare the ground to absorb the potential waves of Aliyah. It is not enough to call people to immigrate to Israel; we need to help them to integrate into the workforce. While serving as a Rabbi in Ra’anana, I’ve seen the most talented professionals, doctors, lawyers, therapists and more that were unable to work in Israel due to dreadful bureaucracy which made it an impossible mission having their qualifications recognized in Israel. This attitude must change promptly and drastically. Utilizing the vast experience of Nefesh B’Nefesh, I have no doubt that there will be ways to improve the Aliyah experience, if the new government would be open to seeing that as a major priority.
I have lived for a couple of years in New York, and I hope to spend more in America for my rabbinical work. I understand how challenging it can be to relocate to Israel, after supporting hundreds of families of Olim as their community rabbi. Indeed, I know that Aliyah is not practical for everyone and that many people have jobs and businesses which are not easily replaceable. I’m talking here about conveying a vision about the future mainly to our children and grandchildren, considering inexpensive higher education in Israel, instead of incurring debt in a struggling economy. By giving Jews around the world a clear message that Israel is their home and their future, and encouraging them to move while they are still young and more adaptable, we can plant the seeds for a positive change.
I wish to conclude with a true story. In Poland in the early 1930s, lived a man called Yitzchak who constantly talked about Israel and the need to leave Europe and come to Palestine before it was too late. He used to tell everyone that there was no future for Judaism in Europe. People thought he was crazy. Back then, Israel was still full of swamps and camels, while the communities in Poland were at their peak.
Yitzchak lived in Błonie, not far from Warsaw, and belonged to one of the town’s wealthy families. Rabbi Meir Shapiro came to town to promote his great vision – the central yeshiva for European Jewry – Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin. Yitzchak was furious and told everyone: “How can you invest money in a yeshiva that will be set up in Poland? You must send your donations to Eretz Yisrael!” Of course, no one listened to him and he became unpopular. Finally, he decided to take action to realize his vision. His wife Yocheved refused to leave Błonie and their business, so he took his eldest son and immigrated to Israel without her knowledge. When he arrived, he sent her a telegram saying: “If you want to join me in Eretz Yisrael with our other three children, please come. If not, I will send you a divorce bill (gett) and you can stay in Poland.” Yocheved joined him in Israel with the children, and they were one of the only families from that town who survived the Shoah.
Yitzhak Betzeig was my great-grandfather, and the daughter who came over with her mother was my grandmother, who passed away just seven years ago. Thanks to his tremendous vision and courage, I was born and raised in Israel, proudly serving as an officer in the Israeli Navy for six years and building a family and a future here.
We cannot in any way compare the tragedy of the Holocaust with the COVID-19 pandemic, but we need to open our eyes and ears to new challenges and opportunities in the days following Corona. As Ishay Ribo says in his beautiful song, “LaShuv HaBayta”:
“The time has come to wake up; to leave everything, to overcome;
To return home, not to search for any other place.
The time has come to change; even if we’ve missed a few stops;
You can get off, there’s a train going back to the neighborhood.
Everything is possible but where there’s a will, the searcher always finds;
Even if he finds himself somewhere at the far end.”
It is time for Israel to make a drastic change of attitude to the world Jewry and make a paradigm shift regarding Olim, considering the potential waves of Aliyah. Indeed, it is time for all of us to consider coming back home to Israel, the safest place for Jews in our day.