by David Newman
For many people in the Diaspora the connection with Israel comes in three forms. Either it is the constant barrage of media focusing on the conflict, or a once-in-lifetime bar mitzva or Taglit trip to the country, or the constant requests by Israeli institutions and organizations to donate funds. Fundraising has always been a big part of the Israel-Diaspora connection. It s often the basis for what is known, in the UK at least, of the Kol Nidrei appeal, where the sermon is turned into a fund-raising event on behalf of Israel.
This has changed in recent years, as many rabbis feel it inappropriate to exploit the occasion of Kol Nidrei, when so many people crowd into the synagogue, many of them for their once-a-year visit. The purpose of such fundraising in recent years has also taken on a wider objective, rather than focusing solely on Israel. The raising of funds for local community education and Jewish welfare programs is as important, some would say even more important, for the future of these communities.
Increasingly, too, donors are giving directly to causes with which they feel an affinity rather than to the large anonymous organizations such as the United Jewish Appeal, or the Jewish Agency, where funds are often distributed to causes which fall only within the gambit of the political preferences of these organizations, often dictated by the political structure of the Israeli government at any point in time.
Both the haredi and the Reform communities increasingly give directly to their own institutions, while Israeli universities, hospitals, yeshivot and other welfare organizations are all out there making a pitch for their own – equally worthy – causes. It is argued that giving directly results in more of the money actually arriving at the destination rather than getting swallowed up in local administrative and organizational costs of the fundraising bureaucracies.
But there are alternative ways of giving – some leaving a far deeper and lasting impression. One method with which I have become involved is the bringing of unused Sifrei Torah (Torah scrolls) to Israel. It is common to attend large synagogues in Diaspora communities which, when the ark is opened, are resplendent in rows of unused scrolls which could be put to better use. During the past 10 years I have been fortunate enough to bring a number of such scrolls from the UK to synagogues just starting up and which lack even their first or second Sefer Torah – the minimum a synagogue needs to be able to function on a daily basis.
Obviously one has to know which Sifrei Torah are worth bringing. Many of the unused Torah scrolls are unfit for use, or the cost of repair is just too great. However, it is common for many of the scrolls to require relatively small corrections to the tune of $2,000-$3,000. For a community receiving its first scroll, this is a relatively small amount when compared to writing an entirely new scroll, while for a donor, this is also a relatively small amount which enables a perpetual link with a young community in Israel. Choosing a recipient community is not always easy, given the demand for scrolls. There are many young communities springing up on a daily basis which lack even a single Torah scroll, while there is also a need within the IDF – many of the more remote army bases simply do not have scrolls available – especially to be used in the field. I have been fortunate enough to bring two scrolls from the London-based Federation Synagogues of Notting Hill (no longer in existence) and Ilford to my own community of Metar and to the neighboring Kibbutz Kramim, both in the northern Negev.
My criterion for choosing recipient communities is that they are new, young, do not have available resources and will be using the scroll on a regular basis. There is no point in bringing a Torah scroll from one place where it lies unused to another place where it will also remain collecting dust. After all, the whole purpose of writing a Torah scroll is so that it should be used, not simply to be adornments which are just taken out to dance with once a year on Simhat Torah.
It is an uplifting experience when, at the end of the day, two communities come together at a joint dedication ceremony and create an Israel-Diaspora link which will endure for generations and is not just based on money.
I myself experienced this uplifting when, some years ago, my younger son read his bar mitzva portion from a scroll which had been brought from the synagogue in London where his great grandfather had served as rabbi some 70 years previously. His grandfather (my father) surmised in his sermon that it was very possible that he was listening to his grandson read to him from the same scroll that he himself read from for his own grandfather (a Lithuanian immigrant to the UK at the end of the 19th century), nearly all of whose descendants are now resident in Israel.
Add to that the fact that the scribe informed us that this particular scroll was probably written in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s and was therefore probably brought to the UK by refugees fleeing the Nazi regime. If there ever was Jewish continuity, this was it.
There are many ways of giving and forging links between the Diaspora and Israel, many of them leaving a far deeper spiritual link between the donor and the recipient than the number of zeros in a checkbook.
David Newman is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.