In 1939, my father, Joe Kupfer, was on his way back to college from Poland to Belgium. The Nazis caught him at the border and he spent the next six years in a series of labor camps, culminating in Auschwitz.
"I was as shocked when the Nazi's grabbed me, as you'd be if it happened in America today," my father always told me. "It happened overnight. One day, life was normal. Then suddenly everything changed."
For Jews, it's an unfortunate but familiar story. From Egypt to Babylon, from Spain to Germany, the pattern repeats: Jews establish themselves in a country, prosper, and then begin to assimilate. Never was this was more profoundly expressed than by the Jews of early 20th century Germany, who called Berlin "the New Jerusalem."
We know the terrible end of this story. You would think that by now Jews would have gotten the message. And yet, we continue to repeat the mistake and miss the proverbial message on the wall.
Berlin is not Jerusalem. Boro Park and Monsey are not the Garden of Eden.
What exactly is that message?
Berlin is not Jerusalem. Boro Park and Monsey are not the Garden of Eden. And America is not "the Golden Medina."
God wants the Jewish people to be a light unto the nations, to teach, by example, what it means to live by the highest standards in all areas of life. That means being different, unique -- in our customs, diet, and view of the world.
That explains, in part, why we were sent into exile. When we moved away from Torah, the light became too small. So we had to be dispersed throughout the world, as little flames to teach humanity the Torah's values.
In some cases we succeeded, and in others we failed. In either case, the time has come to return to our destiny, united in the Land of Israel.
God will have compassion on you and will return and gather you from all the nations amongst whom God has scattered you. If you are outcast in the utmost parts of heaven, from there will God gather you and from there will he bring you back and God will bring you into the land that your father's possessed. And you shall possess it, and He will do you good and multiply you more than your fathers. (Deut. 30:3-5)
In the Torah, God tells Abraham to go to the Land of Israel -- "Lech lecha." The Midrash translates these words as "Go for yourself." God was telling Abraham that to take upon himself the challenge of moving to Israel, would not only be best for the future of the Jewish people, but would also be the best thing for him and his family. Yes, on one hand Israel has its difficulties, but on the other hand, it is the greater source of personal fulfillment.
Anyone who visits Israel can attest to an intangible quality that touches the recesses of every Jewish heart, and brings out the latent spiritual potential of every Jew. In the holy land, everyone feels closer to God. No matter who you are, or what level of observance, Israel is the place where a Jew can feel his essence.
But it goes beyond the realm of fulfillment. For a Jew, living outside of Israel is by definition a temporary station. Things may prosper for a few decades, or even centuries, but it is never permanent.
For a Jew living outside of Israel, things may prosper for a few decades, but it is never permanent.
The story is told of Rabbi Berel Wein who was building a new synagogue in Monsey. The contractor told him that he could order either American lumber -- which was guaranteed to last 90 years, or special Finnish lumber -- guaranteed for 150 years. Rabbi Wein told the builder, "We'll take the American lumber." Why? Because Jewish permanence in America is not the goal, Rabbi Wein explained, and historically, very few buildings have remained in Jewish hands for more than 90 years.
Unquestionably, America has been a remarkably kind and generous host to the Jews. Yet America is not our permanent home. Things may be bigger and fancier than in Israel, but they are indeed less permanent.
Rabbi Chaim Brovender tells the story of the famous Apollo Theater in New York. Originally, this building was a magnificent synagogue that held 600 people. Every Shabbos, it was teeming with children and adults coming to pray together as a vibrant Jewish community. But the neighborhood changed, Jews moved out, and the once-beautiful shul became an empty, dilapidated building... eventually sold and converted into the Apollo Theatre.
In Israel you don't find such a phenomena, Rabbi Brovender said. The shul that you pray in will be the shul you show your grandchildren. It will never become the Apollo Theatre.
TURNING UP THE HEAT
If we trace the steps of previous exiles, we can see how the pattern has begun in our generation. The Durban circus kicked off a new wave of worldwide anti-Semitism. Syria now sits on the UN Security Council. And with Bin Laden saying that Israeli policy is responsible for terror in America, it could open a Pandora's box of anti-Semitism.
When America's interests and Israeli interests collide, as when President Bush told Israel, "America's war comes first," American Jews are in the most awkward position. Since the September 11 attacks, some American military officials have perceived a new sense of mistrust and antagonism, their Jewishness being the only apparent reason.
If America should decide, in conjunction with the U.N., to impose a military solution on the Palestinian question, every American Jew will be a target of the infamous dual-loyalty question: "Whose side are you on?"
As the heat turns up, we need to take a step back and look at the big picture of where this may be heading. If this was 1933 -- some warning signs, but no concrete trouble yet -- what would you do?
Leah Rabin, the wife of Yitzhak Rabin, recalled that after Hitler's rise to power in 1933, her father said, "He is going to kill all of us." So the family packed everything and moved to pre-state Israel. That decision saved their family. Her father's friends thought he was crazy to give up the comforts of Europe for a barren desert. Yes, in 1933, he was crazy. But in 1943, he was a man of vision.
They thought he was crazy to give up the comforts of Europe for a barren desert.
Stop and think for a moment. We cannot ignore the possibilities. Now is the time to look beyond our current comforts and lifestyles and see the reality changing before our eyes. If it really was 1933, what would you do? Sell all your things and pack? Buy real estate in Israel?
Perhaps it is not realistic to drop everything and start packing. What should we do?
Take a step in the right direction. If you've never visited Israel, plan a trip now. For 7, 10, 14 days. If you've been to Israel before, plan a longer trip: Spend the summer and send the kids to camp in Israel, or arrange for a year-long leave of absence or Sabbatical in Israel.
If you have ever contemplated Aliyah, set a target date.
At the very least, take one concrete step to shift your focus to Israel as the land of Jewish destiny.
We hope and pray for peace in America, in Israel, and in every corner of the world. But we must be realistic as well. The sands of history are shifting. God loves us and won't let us disappear into the oblivion of assimilation.
My father, after surviving Auschwitz and weighing 76 pounds, used to say, "There are two ways to go to Israel. You can get in an airplane, or you can try to swim there." One way or another, we all make it home.