I’m Worried – But I’m Not Discouraged!
BY ROI ABECASSIS
It is Friday night at the Mizrachi La Casa (“The Home”) community in Buenos Aires. Mizrachi La Casa is a Religious Zionist community established six years ago by a group of young businesspeople and idealists. Though Shabbat begins at 5:30pm, the Friday night tefillot always begin at 8:00pm, in both summer and winter, for many who are not yet fully observant must finish work before coming to shul. The great majority of the people are ba’alei teshuva, on the path towards observance.
The shul fills through word of mouth. Rabbi David Sa’eed, the shaliach of the World Zionist Organization, and his wife Sarah, the shlicha for World Bnei Akiva, who also serve as the community’s Rabbi and Rabbanit, distribute a l’chaim to all who enter. Rabbi David enthusiastically gives a hug to everyone who comes, and they respond with a huge smile and embrace. The entire congregation stands on their feet and begins a Kabbalat Shabbat full of melodies and joy.
The climactic moment during the tefillah takes place immediately after Mizmor l’David. Rabbi David gives a sign, and Rabbanit Sarah gathers everyone in the women’s section around her, and in one fell swoop, two circles – one of men and one of women – are formed. And then, arm in arm, the people sing, over and over, with great intensity and devotion: “everywhere I go I am going to Eretz Yisrael.”
At the end of the tefillah, at close to 10:00pm, Rabbi David calls forward all those who will be making Aliyah in the coming week – and the entire congregation breaks out into spontaneous dancing, literally raising the olim upon their shoulders and dancing until they can dance no more.
I was privileged to participate in this extraordinary experience this summer at the Renewed Religious Zionism Conference for community leaders in Latin America, led by the WZO’s Center for Religious Affairs in the Diaspora together with Religious Zionist shlichut organizations. It was an unbelievably uplifting gathering.
But I’m worried.
I’m worried because the Latin American communities that embrace Religious Zionism are shrinking. Many community members, and particularly the Religious Zionist leadership, have emigrated to Israel, and the impact is devastating. Schools are closing, communities are weakened, and there is a lack of Religious Zionist leadership.
Don’t misunderstand me. I believe that every Jew’s place is in the Land of Israel, and I am delighted by every new oleh. But if we continue this trend, we will bring 5% of the community to Israel and unintentionally abandon the other 95%, most of whom are not active members of the Jewish community and do not participate in any kind of Zionist activity.
Religious Zionism must not fly a single flag of “Aliyah! Aliyah! Aliyah!” and abandon the majority of the Jewish people who are not yet ready to move to Israel. We must not abandon these Jews to assimilation!
The Charedi community recognizes the problem of assimilation, and it is responding with alacrity. Fully mobilized, the Charedim have recruited many donors and have succeeded in reaching young, secular Jews all over the world, opening new educational institutions and programs for them. Though I commend the Charedi community for its holy work, I am concerned that in many Latin American communities, only one form of Torah Judaism is available: Orthodox Judaism that ignores the existence of the State of Israel.
I am worried, for the Religious Zionist leaders in Latin America are at a loss. Yeshivah day schools are shrinking while the economic burden of sustaining these institutions continues to grow. There are few spiritual leaders fluent in Spanish who represent Religious Zionism, and so Charedi rabbis are assuming educational leadership positions within the communities.
I’m worried because I see the loneliness of the Religious Zionist leaders. They are alone. They have taken responsibility and placed the burden of the future of the community upon their shoulders, and they feel a severe sense of failure. Their beautiful communities are disappearing on their watch.
I am worried because it is difficult to find shlichim who will agree to go on shlichut for several years to serve as rabbis of Zionist communities, school principals, and teachers. And I know that we find it difficult to support the leaders of these communities.
I’m worried – but I am not discouraged!
Yes, it is our duty, as the representatives of Religious Zionism around the world, to continue to proudly fly the flag of Aliyah. But we can only do so by also flying another flag, with the same intensity – the flag of strengthening Jewish communities in the Diaspora. We must dedicate ourselves, with equal passion, to both of these causes!
To accomplish this, we must do all in our power to inspire idealistic Religious Zionists in Israel to dedicate several years of their lives to shlichut in the Diaspora. Instead of serving for 2–3 years, we must encourage shlichim to serve for 5–10 years, so that they have time to build communities and reap the fruit of their labor.
We must work with great love to seek out Jews who are not part of the Jewish community and help them discover the power of a Religious Zionist life – a way of life that is deeply meaningful and inspiring and which holds the power to bring thousands of Jews closer to their heritage. And we must work with generous philanthropists to ensure the teachings of Religious Zionism continue to be taught in shuls, schools and youth movements.
The community of La Casa can also show us another way forward. One of the highlights of the conference was our meeting with the beit sefer l’shlichut, the Shlichut Training Academy of the La Casa community – a group of young, local Jews in their twenties who have taken it upon themselves to become shlichim. Though they are not Israeli, they understand that at times like these, everyone must be a shaliach. We must all do everything in our power to strengthen our communities’ Zionist and religious identity.
When Rabbi David and Rabbanit Sarah return to Israel, who will continue their work? Will others step up to take their place, to strengthen the Jews who are not yet ready to make Aliyah? Who will be there to reach out to the unaffiliated, to welcome them with a loving smile to the Religious Zionist community?
This is our challenge. It is a challenge we must answer with self-sacrifice and dedication, and with love for our fellow Jews who need our help. For if we do not, Aliyah from these communities will soon dry up, and we will no longer be able to sing “everywhere I go I am going to Eretz Yisrael.” Let us answer the call!
Roi Abecassis is Head of the Center for Religious Affairs in the Diaspora at the World Zionist Organization and a representative of World Mizrachi in the national institutions.