North American Modern Orthodox Jews say they can explain their connection to Israel in one word: Torah.
“It’s an organic existence. An Orthodox Jew grows up and believes that Eretz Yisrael and the people of Israel are one. The fulfillment of Torah is Eretz Yisrael,” said David Cohen, director of Orthodox Union (OU) activities in Israel. “It’s not about connection. It’s who we are.”
It’s this Torah-observant lifestyle, Cohen said, that brings the Orthodox on aliyah in disproportionately large numbers and has led them to visit Israel even during the darkest days of intifada violence and to send their children here to study.
It also accounts for the record numbers of participants at the OU convention in Jerusalem last week, organizers said. The Orthodox Union represents mainstream Modern Orthodox Judaism in North America.
More than 800 OU members from 25 states and Canada gathered in Jerusalem for the group’s biannual convention over the Thanksgiving holiday, and hundreds more were turned away for lack of space. This was the first year the convention was held in Jerusalem, and attendance far surpassed the 500 or so people who typically turn out for OU conventions, said convention chairman Stanley Weinstein of Miami Beach.
About 125 synagogues were represented at the conference, including smaller congregations from places like Newfoundland and Texas.
“There are very few Jewish organizations that could bring so many people to Israel at this difficult time, when tourism has been so deeply affected by Palestinian terror,” said Harvey Blitz, the OU’s outgoing president.
Children in the Orthodox community are raised with an Israel focus from a young age, Blitz said. They’re taught about Israel in school and are encouraged to spend time at Israeli yeshivas after they graduate high school.
So, he said, it’s not surprising that a large percentage of immigrants to Israel from North America are from the Orthodox community.
“If Israel is part of your vocabulary and the way you think, then it’s much more natural” to make the decision to move there, Blitz said.
The Orthodox community always has encouraged aliyah, but in recent years efforts have become more organized, he said. He cited the establishment of Nefesh B’Nefesh, a group that aims to help North American Jews make aliyah by removing as many logistical and financial hurdles as possible.
The Israeli government doesn’t track what stream of Judaism an immigrant associates with, but Nefesh B’Nefesh estimates that some 70 percent of North American Jews who have made aliyah through the organization are Orthodox.
Rabbi Joshua Fass, an Orthodox Jew who made aliyah from Boca Raton, Fla., and is a co-founder of Nefesh B’Nefesh, said aliyah is the natural extension of an Orthodox upbringing.
“The exposure that an individual in the Modern Orthodox movement gets from schooling, camp, involvement in synagogue, is always with involvement in Israel,” he said. “It’s not only a connection to a land but a viable place for one’s future.”
Lorraine Hoffmann of Milwaukee, president of the Lake Park Synagogue, spoke of how prayers make the link stronger.
“It’s a daily reminder of the link between the Jews in the Diaspora and the State of Israel. It is what we are all about,” she said.
Many synagogues around the world say a prayer for the Israel Defense Forces, and cards with the prayer on them were displayed at the convention. The cards are sold for $1 in North America, with proceeds donated to help soldiers.
Yishai Fleisher, who made aliyah from New York last year after graduating law school, passed out pins that said “Aliyah Revolution” at the convention.
A talk-show host for the settler-run Arutz Sheva radio station, which broadcasts on the Internet, Fleisher and his wife live in Beit El in the West Bank.
“As an Orthodox Jew you feel very, very connected to the land,” he said.
Being Orthodox helps smooth over some of the difficulties of living in Israel, Fleisher said.
Fleisher has established Kumah, which he described as a grass-roots organization to encourage North American aliyah. He also encourages those already living in Israel “to keep making aliyah” — that is, to improve the country any way they can, whether it’s helping to clean up the environment or lobbying for road safety.
But the majority of Jews, Orthodox or otherwise, don’t immigrate to Israel. The guilt of not moving to Israel can be acute, OU members said, but the connection to Torah ensures an ongoing relationship with the Jewish state.
“If you read the Torah, you have a hard time staying away from Israel,” said Yitz Strauchler, an orthopedic surgeon representing his West Orange, N.J., synagogue at the convention. His visit also gave him the chance to see a son who is studying here for the year.
Isabelle Novack of Los Angeles, an incoming member of the OU board, also has a son studying in Israel.
“It’s just very important for them to come and immerse themselves in yeshivas,” she said. “It’s very important for their life as a frum Jew. You can live as a Jew here. It’s our country.”
David Landau, an Orthodox Jew who is editor of Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, challenged the politics of those at the conference who believe the Gaza Strip and West Bank should belong to Israel. Landau presented several news stories from the week of the convention that he said reflected the toll Israel’s control of those areas has taken on Israeli morality.
One story ran in Ha’aretz on Nov. 25, the day Landau addressed the conference, about a Palestinian man forced to play his violin by soldiers at an Israeli checkpoint. The photograph accompanying the story was seen as eerily reminiscent of Nazis forcing Jews to play musical instruments.
Another story from Yediot Achronot detailed what the newspaper termed the “open secret” of the mutilation of some Palestinians killed by the Israeli army. It also included photographs, the most jarring of which showed a soldier putting a cigarette in the mouth of a recently killed terrorist suspect’s detached head.
“Many of you, like me, have family and friends living as settlers in the territories,” Landau said. “As long as we let the military occupation go on, there is a grave threat to our survival.”
He thanked Orthodox Jews for their generous support of Israel but criticized what he called religious Zionism’s “return to atavistic zealotry which is demographically and morally impossible to achieve.”
The audience appeared somewhat hostile to Landau, clapping loudly when his comments were rebutted by Dore Gold, Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations.
At the close of the convention, the OU passed a resolution expressing reservations about Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan to withdraw troops and settlers from Gaza Strip. The resolution did not come out either for or against the plan, but expressed the organization’s empathy with settlers who may be evacuated.