Don't Just Bemoan the Tragedy: Do Something
A few weeks ago, Rabbi Moshe Grylak, wrote a piece entitled "Tragedy in London," on the rapid assimilation of the Israeli Jewish community in London. Subsequently, I viewed a snippet of a meeting between a figure in the Israeli embassy in London and a group of communal askanim discussing that disturbing phenomenon.
The consular representative expressed her dismay that so many Israelis have lost any connection to the Jewish calendar, even Yom Kippur, just as Rabbi Grylak wrote. To its credit, the Israeli embassy uses social media and any other means at their disposal to remind ex-pat Israelis in London of the Hebrew calendar and the holidays, and yet, she said, it's often not enough.
At the same meeting, another major communal askan, who grew up in Israel, commented that only five percent of Israeli families send their children to any form of Jewish school, whereas the figure for the general community is well over half at the elementary school level.
As Rabbi Grylak wrote, all this is a tragedy. But there is another side of the story that Rabbi Grylak did not address. Most of the tens of thousands of Israeli Jews currently living in London are living in northwest London, which is where most of the Orthodox community also lives. And yet there is almost no interaction between the Jews from Israel and the established Anglo community.
London is blessed with some of the largest and most successful kiruv organizations in the world, and yet even they have not yet reached out in a systematic fashion to the tens of thousands of Israeli Jews nearby. Nor is there yet an English equivalent of Project Inspire that has raised awareness in the Orthodox community of the large numbers of Jews within easy walking distance.
ALL THAT, HOWEVER, may soon change. I first heard about the large community of ex-patriate Israelis living in northwest London from Rabbi Shlomo Raanan of Ayelet HaShachar nearly two years ago. Even then, he was eager to do something about the situation. A few months ago, he convinced a young couple, Rabbi Elya Askki and his wife Yaffa, to take up residence in Hendon. Theirs is a mixed marriage: Elya grew up in Jerusalem, in a family whose Shabbos table in Bayit Vegan always overflowed with Shabbos guests. Yaffa grew up in Gateshead. Thus between them they have an understanding of the culture from which the Israelis are coming, and that which they are entering.
Two weeks ago, I sat with the Askis. They did not claim to have made any major impact as of yet, but they were filled with enthusiasm. They certainly do not view their efforts as futile. They rarely have a Shabbos meal with less than ten guests at the table.
They have also found that many of the Israeli parents do want their children to know more of their heritage, but feel a certain helplessness about doing so in an overwhelmingly gentile society. The Aski's menorah lighting during Chanukah was a big hit for this reason, as it afforded Israeli parents a chance to explain to their children that Xmas is not for Jews.
In response to the desire of Israelis living abroad to preserve some sense of Jewish identity in their children, a number of Jewish schools for Israeli emigres have been created in the United States in centers where there is a large Israeli population – e.g., Miami and Los Angeles. And one Israeli-oriented organization in Chicago created a highly successful Sunday school for Israeli Jewish children.
Rabbi Ranaan confirmed that we should not be too hasty to write off Israeli Jews living abroad. During a visit to London two weeks ago, he encountered two fellow Israelis by happenstance. In both cases he asked them whether they had ever received a Shabbos invitation since coming to England, and they both replied in the negative. When he asked them whether they would be interested in such an invitation, both responded that they would. Rabbi Ranaan quicklyt arranged the invitations.
Rabbi Ranaan's trip to London had a twofold purpose. The first was to encourage the rabbis of Golders Green, Hendon, Edgeware and other nearby communities to encourage their congregants to reach out to their Israeli neighbors. Over thirty rabbis and dayanim attended a gathering in Rabbi Shimon Winegarten's Bridge Lane shul on the subject, and there was a nearly unanimous consensus in favor of pushing the issue with congregants.
Joining Rabbi Ranaan in London was Rabbi Yitzchak Fanger, a well-known speaker in Israel, especially within the ba'al teshuvah community. He addressed 200 native Israelis in Rabbi Doron Achiel's shul in Golders Green, which caters to Israelis, and another group at Edgeware's Ohr HaChaim shul.
IF RABBI RANAAN TRAVELLED TO LONDON to inspire the Orthodox community to reach out to the large Israeli Jewish community in their midst, in at least one American community, the community has already spontaneously reached out to Israeli families in the neighborhood. There are approximately 700 to 800 Israeli families in or around the Far Rockaway/Five Towns area, and an organization, Kesher Yehudi of the 5Towns, has come into existence specifically to connect to this community.
Beginning with a concert by Gad Elbaz, a popular Israeli religious performer, a year ago Chanukah, Kesher Yehudi of the 5Towns has already sponsored ten get-togethers, primarily of Israeli Jewish women and women from the local community. The message of the 5Towns community has been: We know you are here; we want to get to know you on a personal basis.
To avoid any danger of the women of the Five Towns being seen as patronizing or acting out of some sense of noblesse oblige, the get-togethers have all been held in the homes of the Israeli women. The message is not just "How can we help you?" but "We honor your for all that you have sacrificed to build our ancient homeland and want to know you personally."
A detailed directory of all the services provided by the local Jewish community and its various organizations and institutions is distributed at the gatherings, and a questionnaire is distributed asking Israeli women what communal services they could benefit from.
Interestingly, the most frequent request has been, "Do something for my kids." Though few of the children go to Jewish schools, their parents are not resigned to their children losing all connection to their heritage.
In response to those entreaties, for the upcoming Purim holiday, girls from nearly every religious school in the 5Towns area and from the Israeli Jewish community – 75 in all – are putting on a musical production, together with approximately twenty adult women from the 5Towns community.
And planning has already begun to share a complete Shabbos together, with meals in one of the shuls that caters to the Israeli community, for the last Shabbos of the year.
Kesher Yehudi of the 5Towns and the new rabbinic initiative getting under way in London are examples of how opportunities to connect our fellow Jews to Torah are often as near as next door if we only open up our eyes.
Thinking about Kiddush Hashem –Again
I recently ran into Rabbi Moshe Shachor, the male coordinator for Kesher Yehudi's work with pre-induction academies (mechinot), and asked him how the Shabbaton for one of the pre-induction academies (mechinot) in Ramat Beit Shemesh had gone. My interest in this particular Shabbaton was heightened by the fact that two of my sons are involved with that particular mechinah, as volunteer chavrusos, and I knew that one of them had been hosting members of the mechinah that Shabbos.
Moshe could not have been more enthusiastic. He told me how the American-born rav in the shul in which they davened on leil Shabbos had kissed each young man from the mechinah as they came through the door. And he was particularly excited by the fact that on Shabbos afternoon the whole group had gathered for learning with the avreichim who volunteer for the program in a shul.
I happened to run into Moshe again at Minchah, and this time his tone had changed. Not about the Shabbaton himself. But he confided that he sometimes feels like the mythical Sisyphus condemned for eternity to push a huge boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down again every time he approaches the summit. "We work for ten months totally upending all the preconceptions about chareidim that the participants in the mechinot come in with, and then a group of chareidi demonstrators close down the Tel Aviv highway for a few hours with a demonstration, leaving tens of thousands of people unable to get to their destinations. And I feel that we are right back to where we started."
Moshe is wrong. The impact of the work done one-on-one does not disappear just like that. But I understood his dismay. Most of us have felt it at one time or another.
You spend an entire transatlantic flight speaking pleasantly to the non-religious person next to you, then upon landing, some "brothers" leap up and ignore the pleas of the stewardess to remain seated until the plane comes to a full stop. Or else, they make a huge scene before the plane even takes off over their seating.
Perhaps the demonstrators in question had factored into their calculations the impact of their actions on the attitudes of not-yet-observant Jews to Torah Jews, and thus to the Torah itself. And they decided no matter how much they enraged secular Jews (and, by the way, their fellow chareidim who were unable to get to their destinations) the issue over which they were demonstrating was more important. Perhaps – but somehow I doubt the impact on the image of Torah in the world ever entered their calculations.
I'm reminded of something one of the members of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of America said to me more than a decade ago: "Everything is going so well for us, except for the fact that we keep shooting ourselves in the foot."
Maybe we could learn a lesson from President Trump. My guess is that his performance on substantive issues to date – e.g., the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, regulatory rollback, serving notice on Iran for its ballistic missile tests – would command well above majority support. But he has managed to continually distract attention from his own successes by bickering with the media over trivial issues, like the size of the inaugural crown, and fed his opponents with issues to ridicule him.
Shouldn't Torah Jews be smarter than that? Where is our chinuch going wrong that so frequently we do not take into consideration the Kavod HaShomayim impact of our actions? And how can we change that?