Any Jewish day school or Zionist literature teaches a basic narrative of the inception of Israel: from the ashes of history, the Jewish people rose to begin again in the land of their forefathers. And today, for the first time in millennia, we have a grand experiment – the Jewish state. And we are asked – how will the Jewish people govern themselves, and how will each of us contribute to the Jewish collective? Traditionally, the response has been simple: move to Israel.
Aliyah, the immigration and attainment of citizenship by a Jewish person under the Right of Return, is considered by many Jewish communities as one of the highest pursuits of any Jewish person. But with the drive to immigrate to Israel comes judgment against those who do not make the move, or at least do not spend some time in the country. The perception that a Jew is only as good as the place in which they live is divisive to the Jewish community at large, and we should rethink our viewpoints on how we see those who choose the Diaspora and, even more important, those who spend some time in Israel, but choose to return to America.
Moving back to Israel is the most important step I took as a young adult. It was the right decision for me, though I am the most secular kind of secular Jew. But once I moved to Israel and began to meet other Jews from North America, I learned of an inherent hierarchy in which the community of American Jews in Israel tends to view the Jewish people. At the top sit those who have made aliyah and intend to stay permanently; next, those who had come to Israel but “couldn’t hack it” and returned home; and at the bottom of the totem pole reside those who never intend to leave the Diaspora.
This hierarchy contributes to divisions between those of us who’ve moved to Israel and our friends back home, and that isn’t fair to either side of that equation. It’s become something of a tradition: every friend who visits me in Israel, without fail, insists on beginning a conversation in which he (or she) tells me in a hushed voice filled with shame and fear how desperately he wishes that moving to Israel were feasible for him, that he really wants to, but it’s not right for him, not right now. I don’t think a single one of them believes me when I say that I understand and respect their life decisions, and I’d prefer they not venerate mine.
There is hope that some organizations are beginning to understand that a strong Jewish community, wherever it is, is essential for the continuation of the Jewish people. Back in 2010, the Jewish Agency, the traditional coordinator for aliyah, caused uproar when it chose to pivot its new strategy from actively building the State of Israel to building strong Jewish communities in the Diaspora. The backlash against this new direction was immediate and fiery. In a JPost article published shortly after the organization announced its new mission statement, Haviv Rettig Gur quoted an unnamed lay person who went as far as to say, “First they [the Jewish Agency] sold off aliyah to Nefesh B’Nefesh [the non-profit responsible for facilitating aliyah for North Americans], and now they’re abandoning it altogether because they’ve written it off as impossible.” But the Jewish Agency countered that it was responding to “declining Jewish solidarity, the weak sense of belonging to the Jewish People and the lack of meaningful connections between Israelis and world Jewry.” In its logic, aliyah will not happen if the Diaspora continues to feel disconnected and alienated from its Israeli brethren. They have the right of it, and we should encourage all Jewish individuals to follow their own paths, whether that means moving to Israel, spending a couple years here, coming for visits, or living fulfilling, Jewish lives in the Diaspora and never coming to visit.
We cannot continue to see aliyah as something to judge our fellow Jews by. We need a new understanding of what it means to grow the Jewish state. I encourage all who are interested to come, even if it’s “only” for a few years. Many of the individuals I have met in my years here were not here permanently, but they returned to their hometowns and encouraged others to come. While here, they do research, volunteer within Israel’s low-income and refugee communities, or attend ulpan and keep Hebrew alive for another generation (to name just a few ways in which these individuals contribute substantively to the Jewish State). But many who come here feel trapped, as though leaving is failing. I hope that some can come and feel no qualms or twinges of guilt if they choose to return home. We, all Jews, should stop behaving as though coming to Israel only counts if you stay forever. The Jewish people were not meant to be divided over the state of Israel. Jews come in so many stripes and attempting to paint us all with one brush, and say there is only one place that is appropriate for us to live is hyperbolic. Our grand experiment is meant to be a place of refuge, a guarantee that there will always be a place for Jews. It can only continue to be so if it is welcoming to everyone, for however long each individual decides to take advantage of it.
Merav Ceren is a contributing writer to JLife Magazine.