Discussions around the Friday night dinner table are a Jewish institution. The raison d’être of Shabbat is indeed to pause between the previous week and the next, to reflect and search for meaning in our busy lives. It’s the quintessential communal meal: sitting around a table with others, valuing congenial conversation and engaging story-telling. Having said all that, it could also be due to more mundane reasons; the abundance of food (How do you get those potatoes to come out so crispy?) or the wine that is known to loosen the tongue.
A few weeks ago I found myself getting worked up during one such conversation. It was a veteran oleh (yours truly, 11 years in the country) talking to a new oleh (an Australian, a matter of weeks) and the topic for discussion: Aliyah. Now, to be fair, in these situations where passion can take over, arguments can become rather polarized. I found myself expressing with fervor, my bewilderment, confusion and even frustration, as to why young, well-educated, socially adept Jews would swap the well-trodden path of career, family and mortgage in Australia for the very same trinity here in Israel.
Now don’t get me wrong, I dig the words of the Hebrew prophets, especially the bit about the Kibbutz Galuyot (Ingathering of the Exiles). I believe that the 200-year-old modern Jewish question has been answered by Zionism. The rebirth of the Jewish people involves its return to Israel from exile, developing a Jewish culture, renewing the Hebrew language and creating a sovereign Jewish commonwealth.
Is this what the Australian olim are fulfilling? The answer is an unequivocal yes. I know an Australian-Israeli lawyer, a business entrepreneur, another in hi-tech and another who is in town planning. They serve in the army, pay their taxes and generally hold left-leaning political views. But even though the choice to migrate 14,000 kilometers from the “land of plenty” to the “land of milk and honey’ cannot be underestimated, the Prophets of Israel called for more – they called for us to create a ‘Light Unto the Nations’ no less. “ As far as I see it”, I explained to our perplexed dinner guest, “you are either part of the problem, or part of trying to find the solution. Just another Israeli citizen who lives here, earns here and votes every couple of years is basically perpetuating Israeli society as is, without significantly changing it for the better.” Now for the killer punch: “What if the new oleh came on aliyah to live in the settlements, diverting government resources towards building Jewish houses over the green line. Not just maintaining the status quo but actually making things worse. What if they used physical violence against Palestinians too?
So where was this Friday night dinner gathering taking place? I live with other olim in an urban kibbutz of predominantly Israeli-born members. This urban kibbutz, Kibbutz Mish’ol*, is part of a wider movement of communities situated throughout the length and breadth of Israel which recognize that today’s pioneering is living and working in the geographical and social periphery of Israeli society. By running after-school clubs for children at risk, providing unique drop-out prevention classes for high school-students and much, much more, we see it as our mission to renew Israeli society as an egalitarian, Zionist and democratic society.
I firmly believe that as individuals, we are as good as impotent in our ability to make anything more than cosmetic changes to the surrounding society. At best we can relieve some of the symptoms of the diseased society, but without the fundamental change needed to transform the roots of the problem. Yet, a federation of movements, made up of communities of like-minded people who possess a cohesive message in the form of a shared vision and a strategy to implement this vision, that choose to work together towards long-term social change, is today flourishing in the spirit of the Prophets of Israel.
*Kibbutz Mish’ol is named after an article by Yosef Chaim Brenner, one of the pioneers of Hebrew literature. Mish’ol means path, and the path of action which began with the pioneers 100 years ago, is continuing to be laid today, by those working day and night to build a more just Israeli society.