I am writing this in a part of our apartment that looks much the same as it always has. But in the next room, the boxes are piled high in preparation for the move of a lifetime. By the time you read this, that move will already have taken place.
I have lived in Queens for my entire life, close to 68 years. We live today, up the hill and across the street from the building on Yellowstone Boulevard where my family lived when I was born. It is a building I pass regularly on my way to shul. For most of my childhood, we lived on Saunders Street, near 63rd Drive. The house looks different now, but the fence my grandfather installed to make sure we didn’t run into the street is still there. When Evelyn and I first married, we moved to an apartment in the Thurman Verona complex on 65th Avenue. That is where we welcomed our older son, Moshe David, into the world. For the past 33 years, we have lived in the George Washington building on 108th Street, where our younger son, Natan Benjamin, became the newest addition to the family.
When it is time to daven, I can choose between the shul whose previous rabbi officiated at my parents’ wedding, a shul whose current rabbi lives in the house where my parents lived for 40 years, and a shul that my father helped to found. I went to school in Yeshiva Dov Revel and the Yeshiva High School of Queens. Through most of my career, I have worked as a Special Assistant in the Queens Borough President’s office or as Executive Director of the Queens Jewish Community Council.
In short, I have spent my entire life, within a two-mile radius of where I am sitting right now. I am as Queens as it gets. Even the title of this article is inspired by two singers from Queens, one of whom was my cousin’s next-door neighbor in Kew Gardens Hills. The idea that I would ever leave Queens seems unthinkable. But later this week I will be moving 6,000 miles away, to our new home in the Talpiyot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
The question people often ask is “Why?” The answer is that for almost as long as I remember, I have prayed for Hashem to gather our people from the four corners of the earth to our homeland and to rebuild Jerusalem. For close to 2,000 years, those were distant dreams. Now, through chasdei Hashem, they are becoming a reality. A voice in my head tells me that if I am serious about kibbutz galuyot and rebuilding Jerusalem, I have to do my part to make it happen.
The question then becomes “Why now?” Evelyn and I have reached retirement age. Our two sons are adults. For many years, many people, including prominent rabbanim, public officials, and even representatives of the Israeli government have told me that I couldn’t leave because my work here is too important. I no longer work in the Queens Borough President’s office. I am no longer the Executive Director of the Queens Jewish Community Council. Others have stepped up and will step up to do the work of the community better than I ever did.
Still, for many people the question persists. “Why now?” I know what underlies that question. People want to know if I think antisemitism here has reached the point where the future of Jews in this country is in jeopardy.
Events like the massacres at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Powhatan, the attempted arson at the Yeshivah of Flatbush, and the antics of the “Squad” in Congress are cause for concern. But antisemitism has always been with us. At the funeral of Rabbi Jacob Joseph, the first and only Chief Rabbi of New York, thugs threw rocks at the funeral procession and the Irish police officers arrested the Jews. Charles Lindbergh, once the most popular man in America, was a Nazi sympathizer. Henry Ford, the high-tech mogul of his day, used part of his vast fortune to promote the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Father Coughlin spewed antisemitism on the radio waves across the country. People who looked for jobs where they would not have to work on Shabbos were told, “if you don’t come in Saturday, don’t come in Monday.” All this in a country that was our safest refuge from antisemitism even then.
On January 1, 2020, the biggest day for football in America, 90,000 people filled one of the largest football stadiums in America for the Siyum HaShas of Daf Yomi. When the “Squad” tried to cut off funding for Israel’s Iron Dome system by insisting that it be removed from the continuing resolution to keep the government functioning, the House of Representatives responded by adopting funding for Iron Dome by a vote of 407-9. At a time when Democrats and Republicans can’t even agree on whether the US government should pay its bills, the only thing they can agree on is support for Israel. We even have Mayim Bialik explaining what cholent is on “Jeopardy!”
The dark clouds that I see are for America as a whole. Rabbi Chanina, the Deputy Kohen Gadol, taught that we should pray for the welfare of the ruling authorities for, without respect for them, people will consume each other alive. Respect for the institutions that make for a stable society, government, courts, law enforcement, schools, and religion is at an all-time low. The American people have become warring tribes that identify themselves primarily by racial, ethnic, gender sexual orientation, and political ideology. Other Americans are seen not as neighbors to engage with or opponents to debate with, but as enemies to be defeated and humiliated. The extremes of both parties are gaining power. This kind of identity politics is especially dangerous for us. To white supremacists, Jews are a parasitic minority. To the progressive champions of people of color, Jews are white colonialist oppressors. That is why I consider my work with the No Labels Movement, which seeks to bring Democrats and Republicans together to find common ground, one of the most important things I have done over the past five years. If you care about the future of Jews in America, you need to care about having an America in which diversity means respect for all, not turf battles between warring tribes.
America has faced greater challenges before. During the 1860s, we fought a Civil War, during which more than 600,000 people were killed, because some of the states did not like the results of an election. We have overcome those challenges in the past and we can do so again.
While I care deeply about the future of America in general and the Jewish community in particular, I believe that the future of the Jewish people will be determined in Israel. There are many challenges ahead. Iran is closer than ever to acquiring a nuclear weapon. Hezbollah and Hamas sit, heavily armed, on Israel’s borders. Perhaps most seriously, divisions between left and right, and religious and secular, threaten to tear Israeli society apart.
But if the challenges are great, so, too, are the opportunities. If anyone had said in 1945 that Israel with a united Jerusalem as its capital would emerge as a military, economic, and technological powerhouse with more people learning Torah at a high level than ever before, they would have been considered crazy. Yet that is exactly where we are today. We have gone from the lowest point in our history to one of the highest. When looking at the long sweep of Jewish history, one can reasonably say that the best of times is now.
The united kingdom of David and Shlomo lasted for 73 years. After Shlomo’s death, the kingdom was divided. While the Beis HaMikdash stood for another 360 years, neither Israel nor Judah ever attained the glory of the years of David and Shlomo.
During the dynasty of the Chashmona’im, Judaea was powerful and flourished. Yet the dynasty lasted for only 80 years. Polarization and corruption led to the Roman occupation, and eventually the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash.
It has been 74 years since the rebirth of the modern State of Israel. We may be standing at a similar crossroads. Will our enemies on the outside, and divisiveness within, risk another churban? Or will we come together as one people to finally make the dream of kibbutz galuyot and the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash a reality in our lifetime? That question will be answered in Israel.
Hashem sends each of us into the world and provides us with the talents we need to achieve our mission. I want to do my small part in building a better future for the Jewish People. For close to 68 years, the place for me to do that was here in Queens. Now, and hopefully for many years to come, the place for me to do that will be in Israel. One thing will not change: The best person for me to do that with will always be my wife, Evelyn.
This is not a farewell. I thank the Queens Jewish Link for providing me with a platform to share my views with a wider audience. I plan to continue writing for this newspaper, and I hope you will engage with me as we discuss the great issues of the day.
By Manny Behar