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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.