DIASPORA IS JEWRY’S GRAVEYARD
Rabbi Dr Yehoshua Kemelman
Urim Publications, Jerusalem/New York, 2009
Reviewed by Rabbi Dr Raymond Apple
Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney
This is powerful stuff. First published in Hebrew in 2003 by the World Zionist Organisation, the material has been expanded for this English edition. The author’s message, not unknown to antipodean Jewry from his Australian sermons and speeches, is that the Diaspora is shrinking and unless more Jews come to Israel the Jewish people will be almost halved by mid-century. The statistics he quotes suggest contrary to what could have been predicted that there would be 11 million Jews in America today, 70% of American Jewish youth “has no tie to Judaism” and the situation is even worse in other places. In Sydney he estimates mixed marriage at 40% and in Melbourne at 25%. He quotes cases from the Central Synagogue, Sydney, in which Holocaust-survivor parents were shocked at their children’s abandonment of the Jewish heritage, though some youngsters complained that their parents themselves were less interested in Judaism than in making money. 60% of Jewish children attend Jewish day schools but are hardly ever seen in the synagogue. Australia and other communities welcomed Jews from the former Soviet Union but these Jews are now “in an advanced process of spiritual and national eradication”.
After the Holocaust, says Rabbi Kemelman, we said, “Never again!”, but we did not heed our own words. We opened ourselves to an “epidemic of spiritual loss of identity and biological assimilation… The Diaspora Jews are dancing upon the Titanic, while the Jews of Israel who take care not to offend the pride of Uncle Sam, appear as if applauding them”. The Jewish leadership is deafeningly silent, believing that doomsday will never come and we need no strategy to save Jewish souls. “What should we do?” asks Rabbi Kemelman: “Should we cry, should we laugh? Perhaps both…” He believes that no “Jew in Diaspora lands exists who is able to rise and state assuredly that his grandchild, and certainly not his great-grandchild, will be Jews”. There are Jewish schools, but “the home ruins what the school aspires to repair”. Jewish youth often regard their Jewish heritage as the worst thing that could have happened to them.
The author’s prescription is to bring the Jewish people to Israel. He quotes the Talmudic statement that living in the Land is equivalent to observing all the Biblical precepts. Realising that some will say that this is pure dreaming, Rabbi Kemelman comments that living in Israel “would preserve the Jew and enable and inspire him to observe all the other commandments of the Torah…” Since “the Jew who dwells in the State of Israel benefits from full Jewish existence”, he wonders why religious Jews in particular “continue to live in exile, when the gates of the Land of Israel are wide open for them”. The rabbis are shepherds who lead the people astray, when they should be urging Aliyah and accompanying the Olim.
To his credit, Rabbi Kemelman has always emphasised the positive aspects of Israel. In fact he points out that when he addressed UIA meetings the campaign organisers criticised him for being too optimistic. They insisted that talking about the poverty, suffering and sacrifices of the Israelis would raise more money. Whether they are right or not, the fact is that Rabbi Kemelman refuses to be anything but a optimist about Israel, but his book does not properly address Israel’s failures when it comes to the propagation of Judaism. Nor does it fully acknowledge the positive sides of the Diaspora picture: surely not everything in the Diaspora is bad for Judaism. Nonetheless he has a valid point when he urges the establishment of a “Va’ad Hatzalah”, a Jewish Rescue Council, charged with the duty “to lay out the complete picture before our fellow Jews” and to go on the offensive to save Judaism both demographically and spiritually.
Despite its forceful language, sections of the book could have done with some editing. The ECAJ is called “the Acting committee (sic) of Australian Jewry”. Isi Leibler is called “Izzy Liebler”. Britain is “Brittan”. Rabbi Teichtal is sometimes Teichtell, sometimes Teictel. Professor Harold Fisch is Professor Aaron Harrell Fish. Shevi’it is Shvieit. The altar is “alter”. Sometimes feminine words end in “h” (“Aliyah”, “Yeridah”) and sometimes not (“Mishna”). But despite these issues, the book ought to be thoroughly read and digested.