Israel was criticzed recently for running a ham-handed advertising campaign that was meant to encourage yordim in the United States to consider returning home. While the intent was noble, the final product was classic Israel - blunt. The message was simple: Stay in America and your kid will wind up celebrating Chrismas with your shiksa spouse. Return to Israel if you want to stay Jewish.
The reaction from the American Jewish community was understandable. It was a histrionic cry of "How dare you portray American Jewish life like that!?" Despite efforts to assure the American community that Israel does not think poorly of them, feathers on this side of the Atlantic are still ruffled.
Here's the problem: American Jewry needs to take a good look at itself because the caricatures in the ad campaign aren't far off the mark.
What is the rate of intermarriage amongst non-Orthodox Jews? For how many years has it been far more likely that a Jewish young adult would married out than in? What is the average level of Jewish knowledge amongst American Jews? I'm not talking about all the cultural pap that gets served up in the non-Orthodox Jewish day school system. How many know more Torah than just Uncle Yankel's Bible Stories? How many can name the various components of a page of Talmud, much less read and understand them?
In truth the state of American Jewry is perilously pathetic. Intermarriage is rife, ignorance of basic Judaism is pandemic. What's more, consider the effect assimilation is having on the community. Not thirty years ago there were six million Jews in the US. Not forty years ago there were Jews in New York than in Israel. According to the most recent population data we're down to four million Jews in the US and that's with an expansive definition that includes people who enjoy knishes and latkes but otherwise have no actual connection to the Jewish nation. What's the real number? Three and a half million? Three? And where did the rest go?
Yes, a chiloni lifestyle in Israel isn't the ideal Jewish one but it is very much better than a secular lifestyle in America. The most disconnected Jew in Israel speaks Hebrew. If the urge suddenly overcomes him tomorrow he can sit down and read the texts of his ancestors in the original. He knows that life slows down on Friday night and Saturday, not Sundays. His yearly rhythm is tied to the Jewish cycle of holidays, not the Chrisian one. In short, he is ready to return while his American brother might not even know that there is something to return to.
So while the campaign was admitted offensive to Americans in that it engaged in the usual lack of subtlety that Israelis are famous for, its basic message was not incorrect. The longer we remain in golus the weaker our connection with God and Torah grows even if we don't want to admit it. This is something we should all definitely self-reflect on instead of dismissing what feels inconvenient to know.