The Issue of Yerida

The issue of yerida, Israelis leaving the Jewish State, has become of increasing concern to Israel with an estimated 10 percent of its population now living outside the country. The yerida problem has received wide attention recently with a discussion on ABC-TV’s “Nightline” and a cover story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

With the vast majority of Israelis living abroad in the United States, “The issue of yerida is no longer only an issue for Israel,” according to Micha Lev, author of the novel, “Yordim: Leaving the Promised Land for the Land of Promise” (Kensington, Md., Woodbine House, $14.95). He stresses that it has become an American Jewish issue, too,

Lev and Asher Naim, Minister of Information at the Israel Embassy in Washington, D.C., discussed the issue Monday night at the 11th Annual Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education at the University of Maryland here. Some 2,000 persons, representing every aspect of Jewish education, are attending the five-day conference sponsored by the Coalition for Alternatives in Jewish Education (CAJE).

Lev said that this was the first time that the issue had been on the public agenda of a national Jewish organization because the American Jewish community feels the yerida problem is too sensitive. But he said that historical experience would predict that most Israelis who live in the U.S. “are going to stay.”

He noted that between 1880 and World War I, 30 percent of the immigrants to the U.S. returned to their former homes. Among Jewish immigrants the number was only 10 percent. Lev said while he would like to see most Israelis return to Israel, Israel is a land of immigrants and considering its problems, the 10-percent figure could be seen as a sign that “Israel is not failing, but succeeding as a viable modern state.”

A VITAL CONCERN

But Naim said Israel is not like other countries. He said Israel was founded not by people who wanted to improve their living standards, but who believed in an ideology for the “redemption” of the Jewish people. The people who leave hurt this ideology, he said.

Lev said he was not so much concerned with the Israelis who are here but with their children, many of whom were born in the United States. Lev, who spent five years in Israel before returning to the U.S., said most Israelis in the U.S. are like him, about 35 years old and with two children.

Lev said the children of yordim have the same conflicts that American Jews have. He said they can be a great resource to the American Jewish community He urged the community to reach out to them and involve them in the community.

Naim, who stressed he was speaking for himself, said he was opposed to having Israelis become part of the American Jewish community. He said the Israel government had no policy on yerida. He said he believes there is no such thing as a yored, because every Israeli may be “physically here, but his mind and heart are in Israel.”

Naim said Israelis do not come to the U.S. for economic reasons, that is only an “excuse.” He said Israelis want to get out of their country for a while, and a year soon stretches to two and more. “Every Israeli says he wants to go home,” Naim said. He said they eventually do return in 10 years, 15 or 20. “More often than not, it is the children who bring the parents home,” Naim said.

Ronald Reynolds, school service administrator for the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles, said that the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles decided four years ago to set up a commission on Israelis aimed at integrating Israelis into organized Jewish life. Los Angeles has the second highest concentration of Israelis in the U.S. after New York.

In addition to this, 15-40 percent of Israelis send their children to the 30 Jewish day schools in Los Angeles, Reynolds said. He said they should not be considered “yordim, but chaverim” (comrades).

Interestingly, Lev’s book the first to be written about yordim, might support Naim’s argument. The book is extremely well written and the dialogue remarkably captures the way Israelis talk and think.

While occasionally a bit melodramatic, the novel accurately describes the life of some Israelis in the U.S. and their guilt about not being in Israel. It also shows how financial and other problems, as well as American life in general, keep many Israelis from returning.

A SERIOUS THREAT TO ISRAEL

As Lev pointed out Monday night, while the problem of yerida is a serious threat to Israel, the individual Israeli should not be judged. “Everyday life decisions are complex,” he stressed.

Israelis in the audience stressed how emotional an issue it is. One said he left Israel I because he could not be a Reform rabbi there. “I discovered my Jewish roots in America,” he said.

A woman decried the criticism in Israel of those who leave. She said if there were less “pressure” by Israel, many more Israelis would return. Others suggested the contribution that Israelis have made to American Jewish life. One noted that many of the teachers in Jewish day schools and Hebrew teachers in universities are Israelis.

“We are not condemning anybody,” Naim said. But, he stressed, Israel is not yet secure and its continued existence is not a certainty. It still needs people to defend it militarily, not just support it from the U.S. “Don’t take Israel for granted,” he warned. “If we lose this State after 2,000 years, we will not have another chance.”

NEXT STORY