Come to Israel for Sukkot and there are many things you’ll see at night on Ben Yehudah Street, Jerusalem’s premier recreational thoroughfare. You’ll experience outstanding cafÃ©s and mouth-watering restaurants, families with strollers, and tourists buying souvenirs. Wait till night and you’ll see American teenagers taking over the street, many of them drunk and wandering aimlessly. You’ll see friends guiding their inebriated peers home, navigating broken glass and discarded bottles. But one thing you will likely not see are their yeshiva and program heads, responsible for their supervision. Yes, the kids are alone, away from Mom and Dad and away from nearly any kind of responsible supervision.
Truth regardless of consequences Welcome to the Israeli-American religious-industrial complex, where a year abroad for many American youths means enrolling in a program that costs their parents upwards of $20,000 and is supposed to enhance their religious commitment, but in reality is just a year-long opportunity to drink and behave like hooligans.
Let me be fair. There are countless American Jewish youths who avail themselves of the opportunity to study the great Jewish texts and immerse themselves in serious study and religious reflection. They emerge immeasurably enriched by the experience and infinitely more attached to the Jewish state. But for the hundreds who gather nightly on Ben Yehudah the idea of spiritual uplift is about as distant as Jerusalem is from Malibu.
About four years ago I wrote a series of columns in the Jerusalem Post that expressed how disturbed I was to witness the drunkenness and loutishness on Ben Yehudah. The columns were roundly criticized by year-abroad Israeli administrators and American high school teachers who press their students to study in Israel. I received hate mail from people telling me that I am dampening parents’ enthusiasm for sending their children to study in the holy land. But lo and behold, after a few months, a slew of other writers began decrying the same torrid scene.
Every one of my children, upon coming of age, studied in Israel and I currently have two daughters living there. But I made it clear to all of them that if they are not in serious programs of study and religious commitment, or if they abuse the privilege of being in the holy land by acting in a non-holy manner, I would take the first plane to Israel and bring them home.
My family and I were visiting Israel at the invitation of one its TV networks to develop a series for the Israeli market using Jewish wisdom to heal broken homes. I have already experienced some of the hesitation that non-religious Israelis have for the Orthodox, essentially accusing us of being hypocrites, preaching one thing and practicing another. The last thing we need is a bunch of spoiled American kids with yarmulkes getting hammered nightly on the streets of Jerusalem to prove their point. Where are their yeshiva heads to pull their students back to their dormitories and enforce responsible curfews? Jewish ritual is designed to instill Jewish values, and blowing thousands of dollars a year on booze and throwing up in public is neither Jewish nor virtuous.
But the religious-industrial complex is a problem that transcends wayward youth. In essence, American yeshivas sometimes betray a greater love for donor dollars than Jewish values. While walking with a few of my children to the priestly blessing at the Kotel last Sunday, a friend of mine who is a donor to a major organization invited me to witness the moving spectacle from its rooftop, with panoramic views of the Old City. The group had invited their wealthiest donors for a fancy breakfast to witness the blessing. I was aghast and humiliated when one of the organizers suddenly came over to me in public and told me I had to leave because, while my friend had procured an invitation for me, the same was not true of my children and they were not welcome. But my communal embarrassment and bruised ego aside, here is a group whose stated purpose it is to bring non-religious Jews back to their tradition. To do so it must understandably raise millions of dollars. But must it sell its soul in the process?
My first thought was to promise the organizer that if they allowed me to remain I would be a hedge fund manager in my next life. But then I remembered the sweet countenance of my rebbe, the great leader of Lubavitch, who stood on his feet for endless hours every Sunday giving dollars to rich and poor, successful and desperate, mentally whole and mentally challenged, so that they would know that they were important and commit their lives to virtuous ends. I understood that my chosen profession as a rabbi was not less than that of a businessman, however the organizers had made me feel. The Jewish community has at times erroneously elevated two artificial elites. The first was the aristocracy of the learned. The second was the nobility of the wealthy. The rebbe obliterated both by declaring that all Jews, even those who could not read aleph bais, were equal to the greatest scholars, and that the most impoverished of Jews was as deserving of love as a Rothschild. Let us embrace his message lest we become corrupted by wealth.
Before my banishment, one of the organization’s rabbis walked over to me at the reception and congratulated me on a recent column where I decried the extravagances of opulent Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs as a betrayal of Jewish values. He told me he was of a mind to preach the same to his donors but was reluctant to criticize them for fear of alienating them. But liberating people from material competition is a blessing rather than an offense.
I love Israel and Judaism with every fiber of my being and have devoted my life to their promotion and defense. But both are premised on the dream of a nation whose values of God, family, spiritual living, and peoplehood are so precious that we are prepared to live and die for them. And if we, the religious, don’t practice what we preach then, pray God, who will?