Where is the Aliyah from America?

If you ask a Chabadnik in Crown Heights why he doesn’t move to Israel, he is likely to answer that he loves Eretz Yisrael, and that the Rebbe spoke out strongly against proposals to surrender parts of the Land for peace, and that many Chabad Hasidim live in Israel, but that Aliyah isn’t an obligation on everyone until the Moshiach comes to take us there, may it be soon.

Similarly, if you ask the same question to a Satmar Hasid in Williamsburg, he is likely to answer that the “Three Oaths” prohibit Jews in the exile from returning to the Land of Israel en masse in opposition to the Gentiles.

Other Orthodox Jews in New York will answer that Rabbi Moshe Feinstein poskened that Aliyah was an optional mitzvah, like tzitzit, and not an obligatory commandment like keeping Shabbat. Others insist that the Torah was given to the Jews in the wilderness to teach that the Torah can be kept every place in the world, not just in Israel.

Congregants of Young Israel Synagogues, which promote Aliyah, and which largely adhere to the Religious Zionist perspective that sees Aliyah as a positive mitzvah of the Torah in all generations, based on the opinion of the Ramban, will say they are still in America because they have to take care of their aging parents, or because they don’t believe they will find a proper parnassa in Israel, or that in the matter of Aliyah, they follow the ruling of Rabbi Feinstein, or the opinion of HaRav Soleveitchik that a person was not compelled to move to Israel if he or she felt they could accomplish more in the Diaspora.

As part of a series of articles on Aliyah for The Jewish Press, I spoke to several Rabbis in Israel who moved to the Holy Land from different countries around the globe, and asked them if Rabbis and the leaders of major Jewish organizations in the Diaspora should do more to promote Aliyah, and even set a personal example by coming to live in Israel themselves.

Rabbi Zev Leff gave up the spiritual leadership of the rapidly expanding Young Israel of North Miami Beach to bring his family to Israel. When I asked him if the Jewish leadership in America could do more to promote Aliyah, he instructed me to quote what he wrote in the book, “To Dwell in the Palace,” a collection of the “Ya’aleh VeYavo” articles which were published in The Jewish Press. Among many noteworthy observations, he writes:

“Driving home through the largely uninhabited hills of Judea, I hear a question echoing, ‘Where is the religious Aliyah from the Torah communities of the West?’ The question is not of recent vintage, nor was it posed by a representative of the Aliyah Department of the Jewish Agency. It was Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, the leader of the Old Yishuv in Yerushalayim, who addressed these words many decades ago to Rav Yitzchok Breuer, leader of Agudat Yisrael. ‘Now I understand the words Musaf on Yom Tov,’ he said. ‘Because of our sins we were exiled from our country.’ – It was Hashem who exiled us, but it was our sins which distanced us from our Land. The distancing is our voluntary doing.’

“Another quote from Rav Sonnenfeld is perhaps even more pointed. ‘Many times, I have directed that the religious Jews in the Galut be instructed to know that anyone who has the ability to come to Eretz Yisroel and doesn’t, will have to account for his failure in the World to Come,’” (See the book, “Ha’Ish al HaChoma,” Vol.2, pg149).

As a child in German-occupied Lyon, France, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, escaped the deportations to Nazi death camps when his parents assumed false identities. Today, he heads the Ateret Yerushalayim Yeshiva, located in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem. In response to my question, he replied, “People don’t make Aliyah because they are in love with the exile and don’t want to give it up. Therefore, it isn’t enough that Rabbis merely call upon people to make Aliyah. Rather, the Rabbis must make the mitzvah of Aliyah a constant and central part of Jewish education. And, it goes without saying that they should make Aliyah themselves. Concurrently, Israel must finds practical solutions to the difficulties which new olim encounter, such as finding a livelihood, the education of children, and arranging for klita in communities where the language of the oleh is spoken.”

A Rabbi who comes on Aliyah can’t always find work as a Rabbi in Eretz Yisrael, where Torah scholars abound.

“That is true, but it is preferable to be a simple Jew in Eretz Yisrael than to be a Rabbi in the Diaspora, as is stated in the Yerushalmi, Tractate Nedarim, 6:3, ‘The Holy One Blessed Be He says: A small group in Eretz Yisrael is more beloved to me than the Sanhedrin outside of Israel.’ There is no obligation to be a Rabbi, but there is an obligation for a Jew to dwell in the Land of Israel.

“HaRav Yosef Chaim Zonenfeld and Maran HaRav Kook both held that a working person in Eretz Yisrael is preferable to a Torah scholar outside of Israel.  In the book, ‘Ha-Ish Al Ha-Chomah’ (pp. 157-158), it is related that Rav Zonenfeld’s grandson, like many yeshiva students, was in a difficult financial state but had a great desire to continue learning Torah.  He received an offer from one of the famous cities in Czechoslovakia to become its Rabbi, which would solve both of his problems.  He went to discuss the matter with his grandfather.  HaRav Zonenfeld lovingly looked at his grandson and said to him: ‘According to my opinion, it is preferable to be a working man in Eretz Yisrael than a Rabbi outside of Eretz Yisrael.’  Similarly, it is told that a student of HaRav Kook asked him about traveling to America to become a Rabbi. HaRav Kook discouraged him, saying, ‘It is better to start some business here in Yerushalayim than to embark on a Rabbinical career in America,” (‘Le- Shelosha B’Elul,’ Vol. 2 #32.) The student followed Rabbi Kook’s advice and succeeded, while continuing to learn Torah on a regular basis.

If all of the Diaspora Rabbis would come on Aliyah, there would be no Torah learning outside of Israel.

 “I once attended Rabbinical Council of America conference.  I happened to be in America, and they invited me to come as an observer.  HaRav Herschel Schachter gave a class on whether it is preferable to make Aliyah or to be a community Rabbi.  After a long shiur, he concluded that it is preferable to make Aliyah. At the end, he humbly said: ‘I don’t know what I am doing here.’  I innocently noted: ‘If HaRav abandons his community, they won’t have a Rabbi.’  He said to me that for every Rabbi in America, there is a line of Rabbis waiting to take his place.”

What about Gedolei Yisrael?

“We are not speaking about the Torah leaders of the generation who have weighed Aliyah and decided to remain in the Exile.  For example, Maran HaRav Kook offered to help HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski set up a Rabbinate in Eretz Yisrael, but he wrote that it was difficult for him to abandon the orphaned generation in his area and the yeshivot. The Responsa, ‘Maharam Shick,’ Yoreh Deah 225, 227, notes that many places in the Exile are like a sinking ship and the captain must stay aboard to save the passengers. Similarly, HaRav Tzvi Hirscher Kalisher writes that HaGaon, HaRav Akiva Eiger wanted to make Aliyah at the end of his life, but his students told him that if he abandoned the country, the generation would be lost, and this is indeed what happened after his death. And we have heard that HaRav Schachter himself once met the Chief Rabbi of Israel, HaRav Avraham Shapira, and related to him all of his different responsibilities, and HaRav Shapira told him that he was obligated to remain in America.”

Many Ultra-Orthodox Jews and Hasidim in the Diaspora say that they will come on Aliyah when the Mashiach comes. 

“That is a mistake. The Rambam explains that the very sign that Mashiach is on the way is when Jews from all over the Diaspora make Aliyah!” (Laws of Kings, 11:1).

Rabbi Chanan Morrison says that he “escaped” from New York during his last year at Yeshiva University. Today he lives in Maale Adumim. The author of several books on the life and teachings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, he relates the following:

During a 1924 fundraising mission in America, on behalf of the yeshivot of Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Kook tried to convince an influential Jew to immigrate to the Holy Land. The man gave various reasons why he could not yet leave America, but concluded, “God willing, I will soon make Aliyah to Israel.”

Rav Kook responded: “God is certainly willing. After all, dwelling in Eretz Yisrael is one of His commandments. But you must also be willing… Before the Israelites entered the Land of Israel in the time of Moshe, they first needed to kill Sichon, the king of Heshbon. The Hebrew word ‘Heshbon’ means accounting. This teaches us that one should come to the Land of Israel bli heshbon — without making calculations. You have to put all calculations aside and come.”

At the young age of 16, disillusioned with the Jewish establishment in America, Rabbi David Samson left Baltimore and came to Israel on his own. After studying under HaRav Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook for 12 years, he taught Gemara at the Mercaz HaRav High School Yeshiva for over two decades. More recently, he established four religious high schools for youth at risk.

“The Rambam writes: ‘The great Torah scholars would kiss the borders of Eretz Yisrael, and embrace her stones, and roll in her dust, as the verse says, ‘For your servants hold her stones dear, and cherish her very dust,’ (Tehillim, 103; Laws of Kings and Their Wars, 5:10). We learn from this that it is incumbent upon the Torah leaders of the generation to teach the Jewish People to cherish the Land of Israel. Obviously, this cannot be done by kissing the stones in New York or New Jersey.”

Some yeshivot teach that the Torah was given to the Jewish People in the wilderness to emphasize that the Torah can be kept anywhere – not only in the Land of Israel.

“When I began learning at Mercaz HaRav, I mentioned this notion to the Rosh Yeshiva, HaRav Tzvi Yehuda HaKohen Kook, of blessed memory. He replied in wonder, “Where do people get such ideas? Aren’t they familiar with the words of the Ramban? It is well known that the Torah giant, the Ramban, established a fundamental halachic ruling that living in the Land of Israel and conquering the Land are commandments of the Torah which apply in every age (Supplement to the Sefer HaMitzvot of the Rambam, Positive Command #4). Among the supporting Torah verses he cites is the verse, ‘Rise up and possess the Land.’ The Ramban emphasizes that this is a command. In contrast to this, the rejection of the precept is a rebellion against Hashem, as the Torah itself states: ‘And when the L-rd sent you from Kadesh Barnea saying, Go up and possess the Land which I gave you, and you rebelled against the L-rd your G-d, and you did not believe in me, and did not listen to My voice,’ (Devarim, 9:3). The Jews who followed the evil advice of the Spies didn’t listen to Hashem to conquer and settle the Land. Settling the Land is a mitzvah, and the opposite is a rebellion against Hashem.”

Did you ask him about the Three Oaths?

“Yes. HaRav Tzvi Yehuda encouraged his students to ask every question we had. He asked me to bring him the Tractate Ketubot from the bookcase. I brought him the old Vilna Shas, which he opened to the exact page. He said that the argument of the Three Oaths was a matter without substance. ‘The principle Oath is not to rebel against the nations of the world in our coming back to Israel. In fact, we returned with their permission, in the Balfour Proclamation, and in the decisions of the League of Nations, and the United Nations before the establishment of the State. The nations of the world agreed that the Land of Israel belongs to us.’”

What about the often-cited Tosefot in the name of Rabbi Chaim Cohen which states that there is no commandment to live in the Land of Israel today because there are some  precepts dependent upon the Land, and some punishments which cannot be enacted?  

“HaRav Tzvi Yehuda said that there was no justification for that statement. ‘If a person is unable to perform the precepts dependent on the Land by reasons beyond his control (because a majority of the Jewish People are not yet living in the Land), The Torah exempts him; however the sanctity of the Land, and the obligation to dwell here, continue unabated. Furthermore, the Maharit, in his Responsa 28, proved that this Tosefot does not express the opinion of Rabbi Chaim Cohen, but rather of a mistaken student,’” (See also, Chidushim on Ketubot 110B; and the Pitchei Tshuva, Even HaEzer 75, sub-section 6).

[This series of articles first appeared in The Jewish Press newspaper.]


Before making Aliyah in 1984, Tzvi Fishman taught Creative Writing at the NYU School of the Arts. In Israel, he studied Torah at Yeshivas Machon Meir, Beit-El, Ateret Cohanim, amd Mercaz HaRav. He has published nearly twenty novels and books on a wide range of Jewish themes, available at Amazon Books and the tzvifishmanbooks.com website, including Free Downloads. He is the recipient of the Israel Ministry of Education Award for Creativity and Jewish Culture. Recently, he produced and directed the feature film, “Stories of Rebbe Nachman” starring Israel’s popular actor, Yehuda Barkan. Presently, he is working on Volume Four of the “Tevye in the Promised Land” Series.

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