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Free at Last:

Free at Last: Of Rome and Jerusalem

By Rabbi Basil Herring

The Russian Jews are coming home. After decades of struggle forfreedom, the Jews of the Soviet Union aregetting their walking papers en masse, with hundreds of thousands expected to come out in the next few years. At last we can say it with certainty: thanks to Gorbachev's Glasnost, itself a consequence of the demise of the great pagan idolatry of our time. Marxist Communism, the iron gates of that failed Workers' Paradise are finally swinging open for the Jews of the Soviet Union. That, in itself, is occasion to celebrate and rejoice, to thank God that those imprisoned millions of our brothers and sisters have begun the historic exodus that we have so long prayed and petitioned for. To borrow a phrase: free at last, thank God, they're free at last!

But therein lies the deeper, and more profound question: free to do what? Free to enjoy the privileged status of refugee that will entitle them to come to this country, to get a head startin pursuit of the treasure at the endof the rainbow,in this land of opportunity? Or is it rather free to go to Israel, the historic homeland of the Jews, but also a land of struggle and challenge and hardship? The latter, it is now clear, is the case. As a consequence of the recent decision by the U.S. State Department to limitthe availability of coveted refugee visas for Soviet Jews camped outside Rome, thevastmajority of the new emigrants will be forced to go directly to the Holy Land, much to Israel's joy.

And after years of internal debate and dissensionwithin the American Jewish community, the matter has, it would appear, finally been put to bed, and the emigrant Jews of the Soviet Union have had to apply for US visas from within Moscow itself. Rather than go to Rome, as they did previously. Soviet Jews must, perforce, travel to their stated destination: Jerusalem. Iwould like to examine this issue in some detail, and to consider its implications for us as Americans and as Jews, most especially in the perspective of Yom Kippur, and what is has to teach on the subject of the relationship of Rome to Jerusalem.

Change of Position

Let me say first that a while ago Idelivered a sermon from my pulpit on the subject of Soviet Jewry. Itook a position then that I recall debating and defending in discussions with a number of people after I spoke, as usually happens after such sermons. In retrospect, I was substantially mistaken then. I have thought about it again and again recently, and can tell you that Ihave changed my mind and reversed my thinking.

What was my position then? What I said on that occasion was that even though it was preferable that Soviet Jews go to Israel, nonetheless they should be given the choice of destination; I argued that the first priority was to get them out of Russia where they face massive assimilation and loss of Jewish identity, irrespective of where they would go. In taking that position, I echoed the attitude of much of the organized American Jewish community, sharing their concern to save as many Soviet Jews as possible.

But frankly, I now feel that I was wrong, and for several reasons. In the first place, Soviet Jews did not then, nor do they now, have a "right" to enter this country as stateless refugees with nowhere else to go. Surely they have a right to emigrate from the Soviet Union, but that does not mean that they have a concomitant "right" to enter any country they choose. As The New Republic put it, "no Soviet Jew is properly a refugee." For there is a country that wants and welcomes them dearly, and that is, of course, the State of Israel. Consequently, there was little justification for insisting that the American taxpayer is morally obliged to supply the millions of dollars needed to resettle our Soviet brothers and sisters. Had we, the organized Jewish community, been able to raise the funds necessary to care for them ourselves, perhaps it would have been different. But this has not happened. How then can we honestly argue that Uncle Sam must make the room and foot the bill, when there are so many genuine stateless refugees who have nowhere else to go, and whose claim therefore is so much greater?

Immoral Charade

But the issue was not so much financial - as one of conscience and principle. Simply put, it was wrong for emigrating Soviet Jews to use Israeli supplied visas so as to leave, but then, once this side ofthe Iron Curtain, to switch destinations, to run to countries that are neither their homeland nor places where family reunification could take place. To support some supposed "right" for them to do so, was for them and us to participate in a charade that was both immoral and deceptive.

But even more important is the matter of Jewish priorities, most particularly survival as a people. It is time we recognized that the American Jewish community is simply unable to integrate the vast majority of these people into the existing corn munity so as to prevent their mass defection from Jewish life. We are largely losing the battle to maintain the positive identity of native-born American Jews in the face of overwhelming assimilation and alienation from Jewish priorities. How could we possibly cope with such a massive influx of largely ignorant and disaffected Jewish souls? The result is that almost certainly within a generation or two, most of them will be lost to Jewish life. In saying this, I have in mind a Soviet emigrant taxi-cab driver I met not long ago in Mid-Manhattan. As we sat in the traffic, I asked him about his new life here. After 10 years in this country, he told me, he was making a decent living; however he lived a life completely divorced of Jewish identity: in a non-Jewish neighborhood, no synagogue affiliation, no celebration of Jewish holidays, no Jewish education for his children. The one vestige of anything Jewish was Yom Kippur, a clay on which he took off from work and went to a synagogue. But he admitted to me that while he still felt the tug of an ethnic Judaism, his children put no premium on such things whatsoever. Is this what we marched and petitioned, lobbied and demonstrated for, so that the Soviet Jews whose Jewish identity could not be erased by 70 years of atheist Communism, should come here to commit cultural suicide?

And what of Israel itself? In spite of some of the more self-congratulatory claims of the various American Soviet Jewry Committees, it was not so much our efforts in this country that moved the Soviets to open the gates. The truth, as Charles Hoffman of the Jerusalem Post put it recently, is that without Israel's role in inspiring the aliyah activists who led the struggle for Soviet Jews, and who aroused world support for their right to return ? not to America, but to their homeland, Israel ? there would have been no cause for American Jewry to rally round. Surely, therefore, the freedom that is now to be theirs, is the direct consequence of the benefits to be had from the existence of a strong and dynamic Israel. Was it so wrong, therefore, to expect that at the very least, these beneficiaries should live up to their stated intent to emigrate to the land of their forefathers, to strengthen it and in turn to be made strong as human beings and as Jews, the same land that in our own time is responsible in large measure for their newfound freedom? And yes, itought also to be said, that if having taken up residence in Israel, they then chose to leave that country for whatever reason, then by golly, they should be free to do so, and to line up behind all the others around the world who would like to enjoy the benefits of Uncle Sam.

Security Due to Jewish State

The point cannot be made too strongly or too often, especially at a time when so many of our fellow Jews have lost sight of a fundamental truth, and it is this: if Jews live in security and safety anywhere in the world today, if they are able to walk proudly in their streets or flourish in their adoptive countries, it is surely because there is a Jewish State, a Zionist State, that stands strong and undaunted, ready to fight for the human rights of every Jew in the world. from Odessa to Skokie, and from Ethiopia to the Ukraine. If we here, but 50 years after Kristallnacht can feel secure as Jews, it isin large measure because there is a Jewish state that is strong, where all Jews can go and live as free men and women. Let us not think for a moment that it is otherwise - and I don't care how much faith some would put in the Bill of Rights, certainly not when considering the wide appeal of a Jesse Jackson and his friends and allies.

Please do not misunderstand me. I do not say that this is not a good country for the Jews, neither do I deny that we ought to thank God every day for the blessings and physical salvation that this country has provided, and continues to provide, the Jew, most especially in this century. And we need concede to none the obligation to participate fully in the public life of the land, from sea to shining sea. But I do say that we must equally recognize and act upon the centrality of Israel to the wellbeing, not only of the emigrant Jews of the Soviet Union, but of American Jewry, too, even to the point of considering that distant country our homeland; and thus to strengthen it as our very own, to respond to its needs as we would to family, and to identify with its destiny - for her fate ultimately is our own.

Vital Lesson to be Learned

All of which brings me to a vital lesson to be learned from Yom Kippur and its prayers. For 25 hours we beseech God for life and limb, to save our souls, heal our bodies, protect our families, grant us prosperity and protect our people. All this we ask - and more. But what is the climax and culmination, the apex and zenith that encapsulate our supplications at the end of the day? The answer, as we all know, is to be found in three words: le' Shanah ha-Ba bi-Yerushalayim! Next Year in Jerusalem. Why is this so? The answer, says Rabbi Moshe Avigdor Amiel, is because all of our prayers and aspirations can be fully realized and fulfilled only when we will experience and be the beneficiaries of a Jerusalem rebuilt. As long as Jerusalem is not ascendant, as long as we remain in exile, a nation dispersed and dependent, all of our blessings and accomplishments, our strength and security, remain conditional and tentative, our own lives diminished and deprived of the ultimate fulfillment and blessing for which we beseech God on this day of reckoning and prayer.

Now it is in this context that Rabbi Amiel quotes a fascinating Talmudic pas?sage from the Gemara Me'ilah17a. There is it recounted that after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple and sacked Jerusalem, carting away its sacred paraphernalia, they forbade the Jews to observe the Shabbas, or circumcise their sons, or use a mikveh. And so the Rabbis sent a delegation to Rome to plead with the Romans to suspend the evil decrees. The Talmud records that upon their return, one of them, R. Eliezer b. Yossi, made the following remark:

When I was in Rome, I was able to inspect the curtain that had once covered the entrance to the Holy of Holies in the Temple - and it was marked with drops of blood.

What is R. Eliezer saying here? There are several interpretations of this enigmatic passage, but we can explain it as follows: It teaches us that in exile, symbolized by Rome, nothing in Jewish life is exempt from defilement, nothing remains uncompromised, not even the very tapestry which guarded the way to God's presence. That the impurities of exile cannot but rub off on the Jew. and on Jewish life, sullying their soul, and weakening their fabric, no matter how sublime their origin or purpose. That as long as the Jew is in Rome, and Rome is in the Jew, so long will he remain bloodied and incomplete, in heart and in soul, in body and in spirit, so long will Jerusalem remain subject to the whims of others, and the Jew a wanderer over the face of the earth.

Where is Home?

Hence we takeas the culmination of our prayers on Yom Kippur the ingatheringof our exiles, the imminent termination of our galut, and the refocusing of our sights and energies, our means and resources, on the strengthening of Israel and Jerusalem. no matter how comfortable our circumstance or gilded our gates. And in case we forget, in each generation there are troubled Jewish communities to remind us - in our own case, surely the paradigm being the hapless lot of the Jews of Soviet Russia. And this is true, even though there be Jews, as in our own time, who prefer Rome over Jerusalem, who long for New York and not the Temple Mount. Still it is that Holy Land of our forefathers that is, in the most profound sense, home.

At a time when Israel needs not only material but moral support, when it is confronted by agonizing decisions on the future disposition of its society and its borders, on questions of social harmony and economic reversal, we need to send her a message that is as powerful as it is clear: that we will continue to support her in word and deed, to defend her case and argue her cause, not just because we view her as another charity or sentimental attachment, but because we view her destiny as ours, and her well-being as inextricably bound up with our own fate. That is the message that we must send today, not just to Israel and the Jews of Moscow who are free at last, free to come home in its ultimate sense, but to Jews and non-Jews everywhere, that, indeed, we are one people, united by Jerusalem, even in Rome, even in Moscow, and yes, even in New York.

Le' Shanah ha-Ba hi-Yerushalayim!



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