OpinionU.S.-Israel Relations

Is Israel failing the Diaspora?

The COVID-19 crisis demands a re-evaluation of what it means to be “one Jewish community.” Help and solidarity cannot—and must not—be a one-way street.

The flags of Israel and the United States wave above a camp for U.S. service members supporting exercise Juniper Cobra at an Israeli Defense Forces site on Feb. 23, 2018. Credit: Sgt. Matthew Plew/U.S. Air Force.
The flags of Israel and the United States wave above a camp for U.S. service members supporting exercise Juniper Cobra at an Israeli Defense Forces site on Feb. 23, 2018. Credit: Sgt. Matthew Plew/U.S. Air Force.
Kenneth Brander. Credit: Courtesy.
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is the president and rosh yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, a Modern Orthodox network of 32 educational and social institutions and programs.

On Monday evening, May 4, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stood before the television cameras and announced that Israel had achieved remarkable success in its battle against coronavirus.

While the prime minister rightfully observed that every life lost is one too many and that it is far too early to declare victory against the deadly virus, the reality is that Israel has established itself as an international leader in minimizing the health impacts of COVID-19.

Our accomplishments in this ongoing battle are undoubtedly a source of great national pride. While explaining why one nation has succeeded where others have failed is deeply complex—perhaps even unexplainable—there is a general consensus that Israel’s history and ongoing security challenges make us that much better suited to address crises. With decades of unfortunate experience, the nation and its leadership are able to adopt a military mindset that allows us to very quickly adjust from “routine” to “emergency” that requires difficult decision-making from both our elected officials and the general public.

And yet, while we are deeply thankful for where we are today, we risk a contentment that borders on hubris.

Potentially most problematic, the Jewish state is in danger of celebrating while the Jewish Diaspora continues to suffer. This would be a callous and inexcusable mistake.

For many years, the State of Israel has been on the receiving end of endless waves of compassion and outright support from our friends and family in the Diaspora. When our enemies hoped to destroy us, whether it be in the form of physical attacks or financial embargoes and boycotts, the Diaspora community was unwavering in the intensity of their response.

Hundreds of millions of dollars of philanthropic aid pours into our country every year from Jewish donors who are moved by Israel’s challenges and recognize our historic plight.  In times of increased tension, we are always moved by the arrival of missions from all over the world who disregard security concerns and choose to demonstrate solidarity with real action; Jews relating to Israel as their real homeland and coming home when our country was in need.

In a painful reversal of fortunes, today it is the Diaspora that requires Israeli support.

Not only has Israel fared relatively well in this crisis, but the Jewish world abroad has been terribly maimed. Communities with large concentrations of Jews, like New York, New Jersey and London, are bearing the brunt of the pandemic.

In a community where respect for the dead is paramount, we have been horrified by the images of funeral homes stretched beyond their capabilities. The very tenets of Jewish life—schools and synagogues—have been closed, and communal prayer and study forced into the privacy of homes.

I write this as my own elderly parents in Florida are homebound, some of my siblings in New Jersey are recovering from COVID-19, my daughter is a health-care professional in New York City and we have yet to personally hug a new granddaughter born to us in Connecticut.

Jewish tradition and practice are predicated upon the concept of unity, that wherever our people find themselves in the world, we thrive on the recognition that we are “one people with one heart.” It is that understanding that has always inspired Diaspora Jewish support for Israel and must therefore be the one that motivates our actions in the face of this latest crisis.

I am proud of some of the activities that I have witnessed among the Israeli community in an effort to help Diaspora Jewry. World Mizrachi, based in Israel, has put together a plethora of programs to inspire thousands in the Diaspora during this difficult time, and convened a WhatsApp group that has engaged hundreds of community rabbis throughout North America and Israel so we can share in real time best practices during this time of emergency.

Israeli musicians like Ishay Ribo and media personalities like Sivan Rahav Meir have engaged tens of thousands throughout the Diaspora. Our hospitals and research institutes are in constant dialogue with those around the world to be able to leverage our experiences for the betterment of the global community. Furthermore, I take great pride in Ohr Torah Stone’s 300 rabbinic and educational emissaries around the world; Israelis who continue to give of themselves to lead Jewish communities worldwide—as well as the OTS professionals who have been supporting them 24/6.

Nevertheless, I fully recognize that Diaspora Jewry feels alone, and we need to do better.

The situation demands a re-evaluation of what it means to be “one Jewish community.” Help and solidarity cannot—and must not—be a one-way street. We are no longer the poor cousin. Israel has succeeded in countless ways; it would be ignorant and irresponsible to minimize the contribution of Jewish communities abroad in that achievement.

Just like our pain has been your pain in decades past, you deserve to know that today your pain is ours.

Until we are all blessed with a return to a far healthier world very speedily in our days, every Jew—and particularly the people of Israel—must open their hearts to Diaspora Jewry and say, “We are with you and, without you we are incomplete.”

Rabbi Kenneth Brander is president and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 27 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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