Several leading rabbis and lay leaders in the Modern Orthodox community have started a new group called, ZOFLAT, Zionist Orthodoxy For Living in America Today. The group is advocating for more American Jews to remain in the United States and not move to Israel.
“There has been a dramatic shift eastward,” noted staunch American leader Madison Lipshitz. “When I grew up, no one made aliyah (moved to Israel). Today, almost all of my old friends live in Israel. Those that have remained are almost exclusively not religious.”
The movement of American Jews to Israel is made predominantly by the Orthodox community according to recent surveys. Very few Jews with Reform backgrounds make aliyah.
Queens College professor Lawrence Cohen noted that the trend of Orthodox aliyah gained momentum over the past 30 years, when American high school graduates from Modern Orthodox yeshivas began to spend their “gap” year before college in Israel. Many of those students ultimately moved to Israel as adults. “We’re losing kids, and it’s our own fault,” he noted.
The impact is being felt throughout the NY/NJ/CT tri-state area. Many families have left their homes and followed their children to Israel. They can now be found in “Anglo” communities including Ra’anana, Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem. “We needed to do something to combat this trend,” explained Lipshitz.
About a year ago, a group of Modern Orthodox rabbis, community leaders and educators formed the core of the new organization. The mission of the group was to show how religious Jews could live within the secular culture in America. “American Orthodox Jews are being silenced by the rise of Orthodox Jews living in Israel. We needed to show that we are committed to the American way of life,” said founding Rabbi Freedom Lover, of Beautiful Beach Synagogue. ZOFLAT’s stated goal is to flatline aliyah in Modern Orthodox America.
The first programs for ZOFLAT are being held in Manhattan near Washington Square Park this weekend. American flags will be affixed to everyone’s nametag. Various prominent Jewish politicians will be speaking about Jews in American society. Food will include hot dogs and baked beans and will specifically not feature shwarma and hummus. An afternoon game of baseball is planned, depending on weather. “We couldn’t wait for Memorial Day,” said Rabbi Lover, “the issue is now.”
“Too many people have been coerced into making aliyah or believing that living in Israel is the only way to live a meaningful life. This group is dedicated towards showing that people should not be shamed or pushed aside because they don’t want to live in Israel,” added Rabbi Lover.
“I’m excited to come to ZOFLAT,” said Amy Schlessinger, a teacher in New York City, toting a Tony Burch bag. “We need an organization that validates my lifestyle. America is the greatest country in the world, and just because of the Zionist shift of today’s youth, I shouldn’t be made to feel bad about my life choices.”
Rabbi Kenny Silverson, a principal of a local yeshiva, described the tension within the Modern Orthodox communities today. “The Judaism that is being lived today in Israel would be unrecognizable to my grandparents. My own son moved to Israel and changed his last name. Our family name!” Rabbi Silverson, visibly upset, continued “still, we will try to be open-minded and have an open tent to those Orthodox Jews that move to Israel, but our raison d’être is to proudly defend those people that wish to remain in America and live the exact same lives that their parents and grandparents did.”
Rabbi Lover noted that he thought about developing this group after listening to various members of the Israeli Knesset describe there being no future for Jews living outside of Israel, which he found offensive. Those comments by the Israeli leaders were made after terrorist attacks in Europe and the rise of anti-Semitism.
In 2008, Israel surpassed the United States as the largest Jewish community in the world.
“Modern Orthodoxy is facing a serious challenge,” Lover said. “The boundaries of the community cannot be dictated geographically. We want to have flourishing communities throughout America without any guilt. Having an organization with a great acronym should allay any feelings of self-doubt, ideally, cemented with a small donation and dues to our events.”
Hand-in-Pocket is co-sponsoring the ZOFLAT event. “HIP” considers itself the “anti- Nefesh b’Nefesh” and helps people dealing with American bureaucracy such as passport renewals, traffic tickets and the like.
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