For the past four issues of Jewish Action, my messages have been devoted to one topic—the affordability of Jewish life, particularly with regard to yeshivah tuition. My goal was to make this matter, so vital to the health and continuity of the Orthodox community, front and center for the Orthodox Union and its varied constituencies and to garner widespread support in developing networks for government action on the federal and state level.
The results have been encouraging thus far. Through our Institute for Public Affairs (IPA), we have been bringing the message to sympathetic officials in Washington and a variety of states. The IPA, under the direction of Nathan Diament, has staff operating in New York, New Jersey, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania and Maryland, covering more than 80 percent (approximately 170,000) of current day school students. In each of these states we are developing new or deepening existing relationships with our communities’ representatives and we are advancing new policy initiatives to help support our schools. We continue to do the same with federal policymakers in Washington.
Addressing the tuition affordability challenge will take years of our united efforts, but it is of utmost importance that everyone becomes involved in bringing our message to our government representatives. It will also be most important for each of us to register and vote. We are committed to leading the efforts and, with God’s help, we will persevere and succeed.
However, just as Jewish education is an essential ingredient for Jewish continuity, so is the modern State of Israel. On one of my recent trips to Israel, Rabbi Steven Burg, managing director of the OU, Rabbi Steven Weil, executive vice president of the OU, and Rabbi Avi Berman, OU Israel’s executive director, and I visited a number of bereaved families, including the Fogels and Peretzes. In March 2011, members of the Fogel family were brutally murdered by Arab terrorists in their home in Itamar. The Peretz family lost two sons in combat, both of whom were Golani officers. The older son, Uriel, was killed in Lebanon and the younger one, Eliraz, in Gaza. I walked into the homes of both bereaved families speechless, subdued and with an intense feeling of sadness. We wanted to give them some comfort, but to our surprise the parents of Ruth Fogel, a”h, Rabbi and Mrs. Ben-Yishai, as well as Miriam Peretz, the mother of the two soldiers, actually succeeded in comforting us. They were inspirational in their staunch belief in Hashem and in their devotion to the nation and the Land of Israel.
We spent almost two hours with Miriam Peretz. On the walls of her home were pictures of her two sons in their army uniforms—healthy, handsome, smiling young soldiers who died defending our people. I cannot erase those images from my mind.
Miriam told us that she has three boxes that she keeps in her breakfront. The first contains the thorns she used to pull from her sons’ uniforms when they would come home from army service for Shabbat. The second contains threads from her husband’s tallit (he died of heartbreak after Uriel was killed). The third contains earth from the graves of her two sons. When she visits the military cemetery on Har Herzl, she said she goes to the grave of Uriel and hears Eliraz cry out, “Ima, come to me!” And when she goes to the grave of Eliraz, she hears Uriel cry out, “Ima, come to me!” She herself engages in prayer. “Ribbono shel Olam,” she cries, “whom do I go to first? “Please,” she prays, “do not let any other parent experience such pain.”
We left both families with a sense that we in Chutz l’Aretz need to do more to support our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisrael. What can we do to help our brethren who are sacrificing so much to ensure that Israel stays strong and free?
Firstly, we at the OU are determined to continue to send planeloads of young men and women to Israel, providing them with experiences that will positively affect them for the rest of their lives. Through NCSY, Yachad and Birthright Israel, we expect to send more than 2,000 students to Israel this summer alone. This past year, seventeen percent of our unaffiliated Birthright participants decided to stay on in Israel after the trip for a learning experience, a figure that other Birthright providers don’t come close to.
Secondly, we are committed to continue our myriad programs in Israel overseen by the Seymour J. Abrams OU Israel Center. These include Makom BaLev and the Jack E. Gindi Oraita Clubs, which bring Torah to non-observant youth and currently service more than 2,600 teens in twenty-five communities; our Pearl and Harold Jacobs ZULA program, in partnership with the Jerusalem municipality, which provided support to 3,000 at-risk youth last year; our Mashiv Haruach program, a joint endeavor with the IDF, which brought 16,000 mostly secular soldiers to Gush Etzion for up to a week of a unique Jewish educational experience as well as our countless other programs run by the Israel Center.
But what can we as individuals do to strengthen and support our homeland? Israel has faced existential threats since its birth, but now the danger is intensified by the impending threat of a nuclear Iran. We are all aware of this existential threat, but what more can we do?
We know our forefather Jacob prepared for his confrontation with Esau through prayer, gifts and battle preparations. Why not implement this paradigm again? We must be ever mindful of Israel and her citizens in our tefillot, with special kavanah as we recite the prayers for the welfare of Israel’s government and soldiers. As for gifts, well—we will leave that to the international diplomats, but I personally feel that we have already given those. And as for preparations for battle, it seems to me that the modern version here in the United States is policy engagement and, on this issue, partnership with the policy advocacy of AIPAC.
AIPAC has developed an extraordinary network of support for Israel among members of Congress with the singular focus of maintaining a strong US-Israel relationship. AIPAC has the support of Jews of all backgrounds as well as non-Jews, all of one mind and heart, committed to supporting Israel and its political and military defense. While the OU will continue its unique role—as a Torah-based, Religious Zionist organization in pro-Israel advocacy focusing on key issues such as Israel’s role as a “Jewish State” and the centrality of Jerusalem as our eternal capital—confronting the Iranian threat requires our closer alliance with the political advocacy of AIPAC.
Jews are a shrinking minority in the United States, comprising only 2.5 percent of the population, and personal relationships with members of Congress must be maintained and deepened. In this upcoming election cycle, half of the members of Congress will be replaced so new relationships need to be forged. This is the primary work of AIPAC, which we will support.
The AIPAC conference in Washington this past March drew more than 13,000 delegates from across the country, including 1,600 students from 530 campuses with 217 student government presidents (our future public officials in many cases). Orthodox shuls sent 1,100 community delegates (not including the students). And there were more than 400 attendees at an OU reception for the Orthodox community. Rabbi Steven Burg was joined by several dozen NCSYers who heard from a variety of important speakers in their own exclusive sessions at the conference.
Under the leadership of Rabbi Judah Isaacs, our director of community engagement, work is well underway to strengthen the OU’s involvement with AIPAC. Meetings are planned on a monthly basis to discuss issues AIPAC would like us to bring into our synagogues and to identify OU shuls that can be enhanced by AIPAC programming. We are committed to providing AIPAC with access to OU synagogues as part of our efforts to enhance pro-Israel advocacy within our member congregations.
So what can you do? Become a member of AIPAC, become informed, and if possible, consider attending, at least once, AIPAC’s National Policy Conference in Washington, DC. Traditionally, the role of the President’s Message in Jewish Action has been to promote the work of the Orthodox Union. This message promotes our vision for inclusion in AIPAC. When it comes to the challenges Israel faces today, there is no difference, for, like Jacob and his family, we are all in this together.