It’s amazing the changes we go through between the ages of fourteen and eighteen. In those four years, our high school years, our bodies, minds and spirit transform us from children to young adults. During that time we make decisions and have experiences affecting us for the rest of our lives. Some of us experience love for the first time, some of us experience death. It is a time of coming of age and those closest of friendships which accompany us through this time of transition can last a lifetime. They help in the formation of who we are to become.
I am blessed to have remained close with several of my high school friends, although I have also lost touch with some of my closest friends from that time. Facebook has changed that. Through this online social network I have been able to reconnect not just with high schoolfriends, but even with friendships going farther back.
Haim and I were classmates at Akiba Hebrew Academy where I went to high school. While each of us were passionate and devoted to our own brands of Judaism, he to Modern Orthodoxy and I to Conservative Judaism, we each respected each other’s commitment. With each of our parents and our school raising us with pluralistic values, we found this common commitment to Judaism and to Israel a foundation for our friendship.
Haim went on to attend Yeshiva University and I to the Joint Program between the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and Columbia University in New York. Each of us remained embedded in our values, strengthened by our institutions of higher learning, each respectively the center of our movements. Our friendship continued through college, but in an age when e-mail was uncommon and international postage and phone calls were expensive, Haim and I lost touch as we each pursued our dreams: mine to move to Israel and his to become a doctor.
Today a cardiologist on Long Island, married with five children, Haim does not seem to have changed much. After reconnecting and continuing our discussions about the future of American Jewry, the role of women and homosexuals in Judaism, the rabbinate’s stronghold in Israel and more, I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised that my Orthodox friend was still pluralistic and accepting in his attitudes. Perhaps his criticism of those in the Orthodox world who are not so open is one of the traits which endears him to me. I am also impressed at how he continually educates himself about different issues. As a member of the largest Young Israel synagogue in the country, he takes advantage of the multitude of speakers who address his congregation.
Jokingly, one rabbi told him that they are the closest synagogue to Israel, being only a few miles from the airport. The proximity is closer than that. Although the community has about forty kosher restaurants ranging from Mexican to Chinese (more of a selection than in Jerusalem), something seems to be missing and that “something” draws many of the New Yorkers to the Holy Land each year.
Haim and I reunited this summer when he and his family came for his oldest son’s hanichat t’fillin – a few months before his bar mitzvah, Haim’s son put on t’fillin for the first time at the Western Wall. There were several other minyanim at the Kotel that morning made up of people from his neighborhood. Each day Haim told me of someone else he saw from the Five Towns, someone else who was arriving or who had just arrived, of another oleh to Israel or someone who lived here and worked in New York, commuting back and forth. What used to be a world away seems interconnected.
But Haim still longs to live in Jerusalem. He said this over and over on his trip. Although he has tried to come to Israel every couple of years it is getting more difficult as his family grows and the American economy, especially he tells me the medical profession, is suffering. The cost of being Jewish is high. With five day school tuitions to pay for, Haim told me that six kids is usually the breaking point; that’s when people make aliyah. “I hope to retire here,” Haim said, “but If we can’t make ends meet, we’ll make aliyah.”
I thought it was ironic. I had always thought that if things did not work out economically in Israel, I could always go back to America and here was my American counterpart, a wealthy Long Island doctor telling me that his back-up plan was to make aliyah!
While both of us agreed we could not make any predictions, listening to Haim’s description of how difficult it is to be an observant Jew in America, even in his idyllic community concerns me. When considering day school tuition, the cost of synagogue dues and summer camps, being an observant Jew in America is turning into a luxury that most families can not afford. While the United States government may guarantee the legal right of freedom of religion, Jewish institutions continue to make an observant Jewish lifestyle prohibitive for many.
Some communities are beginning to deal with this by offering alternative models for Jewish communal institutions. There are more inclusive communities which do not require dues ranging from Lubavitch to alternative post-denominational centers. There are experimental public charter schools which teach Hebrew as part of the curriculum and offer religious studies after official school hours. Even some of the well-established Jewish institutions are aware that cost has become a barrier to being Jewish. Several Jewish Federations and most synagogues in the Conservative Movement are offering free Holiday tickets to young people without a synagogue affiliation this year (see http://projectreconnect.org).
With the Israeli economy strong, the public schools teaching a Jewish curriculum and a kosher butcher in most supermarkets, observant American Jews are making aliyah literally by the planeload. As they come, my hope is that they bring with them the American values of pluralism and a strong work ethic to temper the attitude of the religious establishment here.