A couple of years ago, while visiting the wife's parents over Rosh HaShanah, I overheard a conversation between two men sitting at the next table in shul. The one asked the other what his retirement plans were seeing as he would be calling it a career in the next few years. His friend smiled and told him that he planned to move down to Baltimore. It's got such a nice Jewish community, and some of his kids already lived there. What about Eretz Yisrael, the first asked him. The man shook his head. No, Baltimore would be fine.
For me, this conversation shows how far off the derech mainstream Orthodoxy is nowadays, how much it misses the point of what it means to be Jewish.
Sound harsh? Well, it's meant to.
From our holy sources, there is no question that the ideal Jewish state of being is living in Israel under the reign of a king from the House of David who maintains the Torah as the law of land, with a functioning Temple in Yerushalayim and proper Jewish courts dispending God's justice and guiding the people on the proper path.
Many of these same sources also extol the value of living in Eretz Yisrael, more than can be counted (although I'm sure someone has). Three times a day we pray for God to return us to that land. We announce that next year our seder will be in Yerushalayim but most of the time, even if it is, it's part of a tourist package and we return home to the cozy golus right after. How many great Jewish leaders over the last several centuries were there that risked their lives and everything they had just to reach Eretz Yisrael? How great was the joy for them when they reached the Land? Such things we can only guess at.
But we cannot know because for the last 85 years, our situation has been radically different than those of the generations before. For the last 85 years, Israel has been accessible to us. It has been possible to return to the Land and build a life there like at no time in history since the destruction of the Second Temple (may it be speedily rebuilt).
And what has been the response of the Jewish people? Perhaps Herbert Samuel, the first British governor of Israel in the 1920's summed it up best. At the time the local Arabs were disorganized and many didn't realize what was happening with Jewish immigration. The borders were open and any Jew who wanted to could come to Israel. But life in the 1920's was quiet and prosperous for Jews and in Eastern Europe most were either too poor to leave or trapped by the religious philosophy that staying put until Moshaich came and personally dropped off the train ticket was assur. And Samuels wound up having to explain to the British government why their initiative, to build a Jewish homeland in Israel, was not attracting any significant interesting from world Jewry. "Jews where are you?" he called out and no one answered.
Now the situation is not so different. In the West, the golus remains a relatively benign regime, despite what the Bnai Brith and ADL would have you believe. We do well here, are mostly accepted and see no obvious dangers to our success and prosperity on the horizon. What's more, there is much money in the frum community. Shuls, schools, yeshivos, bookstores, sheitl machers, and all the accoutrements of a "mature" frum community can be found in places like Toronto, New York and L.A. The large religious communities have become comfortable. Yes, Israel is there. Yes, we pray three times a day to go there, but to actually make the move? No thank you, I'm fine right here. Did Moshiach call or leave a message, perhaps?
I've been asked before why I live in a small Jewish community, one with limited facilities, a very small frum population and a school which, while providing the secular population with a good Jewish education, tends to let down the frum kids year after year. After all, I could afford to live in nearby Toronto where I would have a choice of schools, butchers, shuls, yeshivos, mikvehs and supermarkets with kosher sections. Why wouldn't I want all that comfort? Why struggle and go without?
For me, the answer is simple: Like the alcoholic who doesn't see the damage his next shot will do to him or what the last 5000 have done, Jews in large frum golus communities don't realize how far they've sunk away from the ideal, how much the desire to return to Tzion has become mere lip service.
But when you're in a small community, believe me you realize each and every day that you are not in the ideal place a Jew should be in. Every time you realize how limited one's Jewish options are, or how one must make do with what one has instead of a luxury standard, when one realizes that if the children are going to get a good Jewish education, you as the parents have to step up to the plate and do it yourself which forces you to learn and do more, then you remember you're in golus.
And that means when we, out here in the Boonies, say our Amidahs three times daily, we really do have more sincerity when we beg God to return us to our Land. And when the opportunity comes, we are more likely to take it. May God return us all speedily and before too long.