January 9, 2003
Where Have All the Jews Gone?
It was one of those moments that capture a nation's interest. The Powerball Lottery reached $314.9 million and one person, Andrew J. Whittaker from Hurricane, W.Va., was the lucky winner. As the media descended upon him and his wife, Jewell, asking them about everything under the sun, one question caught my attention. Jewell was asked what she wanted do with her newfound wealth. Without hesitation she responded, "I want to visit the Holy Land and walk the streets where Jesus walked."
Fascinating. She didn't mention any concern about traveling to Israel during these trying times; rather, she simply expressed her strong desire to fulfill this lifelong dream.
Recently, a friend told me that his brother and sister-in-law flew from Newark, N.J., to Israel. The plane was filled with Christian church groups traveling on a Holy Land pilgrimage. When his sister-in-law got up to walk in the aisles, a fellow passenger stopped and inquired, "And what church are you from?"
When she said that she was Jewish, the lady remarked, "I think you are the only Jew on this flight."
Where have all the Jews gone? Not to Israel.
Take a look at the ads for luxury Passover destinations in any of the Anglo Jewish papers. You will find ads for Palm Springs, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Miami, Orlando, Hawaii, San Juan, Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, Aruba, Barcelona, Budapest, Cannes, Italy and the Swiss Alps. Where have all the Jews gone? Not to Israel. That has to change; we have to demonstrate that American Jews belong in Israel this Passover.
On Monday, Dec. 23, 2002, the West Coast Union of Orthodox Congregations and the Israel Ministry of Tourism honored my synagogue, Young Israel of Century City, for organizing three solidarity missions to Israel during 2002. We went in January, July and November. I was informed of this honor while leading the November mission. I was thrilled with the announcement but asked why we were chosen. I was told that no other synagogue in the city organized so many missions in one year. On the one hand, I was proud; on the other, I felt despair that others weren't going.
Why haven't many other congregations organized even one mission to Israel during this period? Why doesn't our own Jewish Federation organize more solidarity missions throughout the year? Our synagogue participated in a communitywide mission that The Federation ran almost two years ago, but isn't it time now for many more missions to occur? Is there anything more crucial than helping the State of Israel overcome her feeling of abandonment during these difficult days?
On each mission we found the country empty of tourists. On one trip a member of our group needed to change his room in the hotel. When he inquired about the availability of another room, the clerk laughed and said, "How many rooms would you like? You are the only ones in the hotel."
Jerusalem at night, once a haven of tourists, is too silent to bear. Businesses, once dependent upon the Jewish tourist trade, are closing. On each of our trips, Israelis stopped us in the streets and thanked us for visiting. They told us, "When you return to the United States, tell others to come. This is their home. Why aren't they here with us?"
On a recent speaking tour of Los Angeles, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel, recounted the following: During the 1948 War of Independence, the great rabbinic figure of Bnei Brak, the Hazon Ish, instructed that no Jews should leave the country, even if they are fearful, since this would harm the nation's stability. A Jew, the Hazon Ish declared, is morally and halachically obligated to strengthen Israel and may never do anything that may harm her. Relying on this observation, Riskin told his audience that now it is our turn to strengthen Israel. There is no more important act, the rabbi said, than to come to Israel and be with her people.
After delivering one of my many impassioned sermons on this topic, a member of my congregation asked me why I am so driven by this issue. I told him that two factors have influenced my thinking. The first occurred while I was still a boy. It was the Six-Day War. Right before the war began, and as the drums of battle were beginning to be heard, a cartoon appeared in the Israeli press. American Jews in Israel at that time quickly packed and left for safer havens, and the cartoon sarcastically depicted this state of affairs with the caption, "Will the last American Jew to leave Lod Airport please turn off the lights." After seeing that cartoon, I became convinced that no American Jew should ever allow such a situation to occur again.
The second reason is history itself. All students of the Holocaust know that American Jewry did not do enough on behalf of their suffering brethren in Europe. We remained too complacent during those terrible times. When the history of this period will be written I don't want the same indictment to be lodged against our community. We must literally stand shoulder to shoulder with our Israeli brethren in their time of need.
So, where have all the Jews gone? The answer must be -- on a solidarity mission to Israel.
Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.