The plan underway to re-open Eretz Yisrael in the aftermath of the Omicron variant is no simple feat. It took the involvement of many groups, representatives, and behind the scenes meetings all focused on showing that the State of Israel is home for Jewish people worldwide.
Earlier this week, the Religious Zionists of America-Mizrachi (RZA), the umbrella movement for religious Zionism in North America, took the lead in convening 350 Diaspora rabbis and community lay leaders to petition the Israeli government to re-open the country’s borders to their communities as expeditiously as possible; over 300 signed in under 36 hours and an addendum of another 100 signatories was later supplied. On Thursday morning, shortly after the petition was delivered to the offices of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and President Isaac Herzog, an announcement was made regarding the re-opening. As of this past Sunday, Israel is once again allowing tourists in its borders.
The Mizrachi methodology is never to tell the Israeli government what to do, rather go about ideas in a social manner pushing forward responsibly discussing Israel as our land as well and how we are connected as a birthright. One method is explaining how we are a united family with Israel as our homeland. There is not a notion of one day being a citizen and the next not.
There was a collective voice concerned how the actions of Israel were flying in face of our feelings here in America as the reality is that we celebrate Israel and its inner workings.
Rabbi Ari Rockoff, RZA Executive Vice President, reached out to me, as a delegate for the Orthodox Israel Coalition-RZA, as the petition took off. The work of the RZA led to the participation of Jewish communal leaders from more than 28 countries across the worldwide Mizrachi movement, including communities in Australia, Finland, Spain, the United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico, and the United States, among others. They span the various generations of Jewish communities from the college-campus to the most established of religious institutions. The work began in America as the Mizrachi representatives began calling Rabbi Rockoff asking how they can assist and soon moved to communities worldwide. Each country used the English template and translated it into the languages of their region - Hebrew, French, and Spanish were predominant.
“I would get calls from regular Jewish families who were missing milestone family events. A bris here, a wedding there, or a Bar Mitzvah. It was a lot for many who could not reconcile missing a simchah,” explained Rabbi Rockoff. “Then, I would hear from heads of schools and community rabbonim. It was quite obvious that there was a need and we at Mizrachi heard the call.”
Rabbi Rockoff expressed, “The petition was just one piece in an approach that included the delicate conversations of talking with government officials. The timing of our letter could not be better. We are extremely thankful to Israel’s leaders for taking our message to heart and re-opening the country to our communities,” said Rabbi Rockoff. “We look forward to visiting Israel and strengthening the bonds between our communities.”
The letter signed broadly from representatives of the Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Chabad communities expressed recognition and understanding for Israel’s need to maintain safety precautions while also forewarning of the impact that shuttering Israel’s borders will have on the relationship Diaspora Jewry will have with the Jewish State for years to come. The letter brought home the notion that those in the Diaspora have a family connection to the Holy Land. The letter was designed to portray the family connections that Jews here have for Israel and that we are not bound by ideological values.
Rabbi Jonathan Morgenstern, head rabbi of the Young Israel of Scarsdale, was an initial voice that had a strong impact. “I felt along with many Jewish Americans the actions of Israel were not what we had been davening for,” said Rabbi Morgenstern, who was privileged to visit Israel this past summer despite the mountain of paperwork required to enter. “We should always have a Jewish homeland to return to and not be told that at a certain point we cannot go back. It became a choice of a Jew living in Eretz Yisrael or America.”
“We represent communities that not only visit Israel but are the source of extremely significant support for our homeland. Many of our members move to Israel, all of our members advocate for Israel with their elected officials, it is the norm that our children study in Israel, and many go on Aliyah and serve in the IDF…” explained the letter.
“The Israeli government cannot say that the Jews in America are so important only when it suits their political needs,” noted Rabbi Morgenstern, whose mother resides in Rechavia and whose son is learning in Yeshivat Reishit Yerushalayim. “I speak for myself and the feelings of many of my rabbinical colleagues when I state that our neshamos were hurting. We felt that our country was cutting us off; we should be able to return home if we so desire.”
According to Rockoff, the significance of the initiative was the widespread support it received in the Jewish community. “Israel is such a treasured unifier in our community. Our call to ease travel restrictions for Diaspora Jews was welcomed from all corners of the Religious Zionist movement which was absolutely heartwarming,” he added.
The letter acknowledged the understanding and need for rigorous testing protocols and vaccination standards for entry. It also highlighted how many of the communities represented have been at the forefront of vaccinations and are already used to following rigorous PCR testing protocols, masking when medically advised, and quarantine and isolation as prescribed by their local health officials in line with best practices worldwide.
It is the both the formal efforts of people like Knesset Member Dov Lipman, who deserves special acknowledgement for his actions, Rav Doron Perez, Executive Chairman of Mizrachi World Movement; Rabbi Warren Goldstein, Chief Rabbi of The Union of Orthodox Synagogues of South Africa; and organizations like National Council of Young Israel and Orthodox Israel Coalition, and the collection of voices from around the world who brought about the change.
Acknowledgement is awarded to signers Allison Haller, Yeshiva Central Queens; Rabbi Shlomo Hochberg, Young Israel of Jamaica Estates; Lior Kleinman; Meshulam Lisker, Kew Gardens Hills Civic Association Chairman of the Board; Rabbi Shmuel Marcus Young Israel of Queens Valley; Rabbi Menachem Penner, Young Israel of Holliswood; Yaakov Serle co-publisher of the QJL/BJL; Chana Wasserman, Co-chair, Cong. Ahavas Yisrael Chesed Committee; as well as others locally: Rabbi Ira Ebbin, Congregation Ohav Sholom in Merrick; President David Basaleli, Young Israel of Great Neck; Marci Bleicher, YU, Far Rockaway; David Cutler, NCSY, Woodmere; Andy Goldsmith, AMIT Children, Cedarhurst; Aviva Greenberg, Shulamith School for Girls and Torah Academy for Girls, Cedarhurst; Ms. Joy Hammer, HAFTR, Lawrence; Rabbi Simcha Hopkovitz, Young Israel of Hewlett; Rabbi Shmuel Ismach, Young Israel of Great Neck; Yehuda Kessock, Young Israel of Oceanside; Sara Munk, Shulamith High School for Girls, Woodmere; Rabbi Jonathan Muskat, Young Israel of Oceanside; Dr. Rona Novick, YU, West Hempstead; Rabbi Uri Orlian, Congregation Shaaray Tefila, Lawrence; Rabbi Ephraim Polakoff, Cong. Bais Tefilah of Woodmere; Avi Rosman, Congregation Anshei Shalom, West Hempstead; Owen Rumelt, Young Israel of West Hempstead; Rabbi Shay Schachter, Young Israel of Woodmere; Rabbi Simon J Taylor, OU, Cedarhurst; Rabbi Yaakov Trump, Young Israel of Lawrence Cedarhurst; Rabbi David Warshaw, NCYI, Oceanside; and Sarah Yastrab, Congregation Bais Ephraim Yitzchak, Woodmere.
“Our Jewish soul is yearning to be in Eretz Yisrael and we cannot go,” concluded Rabbi Morgenstern with the words of “Hatikva.”