A Gilded Landsmanschaft
by Rabbi Elli Fischer
Certain elements are common to immigration virtually everywhere. Immigration is always fueled by flight from persecution and economic distress, always seeks lands of greater opportunity and freedom, and always entails a process of dislocation, disorientation, readjustment, and eventual integration.
Another universal feature of immigration is that immigrants tend to stick together for a generation or so. Upon arrival on the shores of a foreign country, often alone and penniless, immigrants tend to seek out fellow immigrants from the same region – the Yiddish word is landsmen – to for community, camaraderie, and aid. In time, immigrant communities form mutual benefit societies. Among Jews emigrating from Eastern Europe, these mutual benefit societies were known as landmanschaftn.
Aliyah, Jewish immigration to Israel, despite its added connotations of pilgrimage, fulfillment of centuries of yearning, and “ascent”, is no different. The vast majority of olim since the founding of the State of Israel have come for the same reasons that people everywhere migrate: not ideology or politics, but escape from very real dangers and distresses. Part of Israel’s raison d’etre is to be a safe haven for Jews everywhere. It has been the Jewish homeland in the sense of Robert Frost’s definition of a home: “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you.”
Consequently, Israel has also had its fair share of immigrant aid organizations. Although immigrant absorption warrants its own government ministry, individual immigrant communities have nevertheless organize themselves socially, geographically, and even politically; the third-largest party in the Knesset is began as a political “home” for Russian immigrants.
On a smaller scale, the institution through which smaller immigrant communities organized themselves was the synagogue. Set up to allow diverse immigrant groups to worship according to familiar rites, these synagogues occupied an important role in the social lives of these olim. One can still find basements and bomb shelters retrofitted to accommodate small synagogues that worship according to the rites of diverse communities, from Afghanistan to Yemen.
In some respects, immigrants from Western, primarily English-speaking countries do not come to Israel to find economic opportunity and freedom from persecution. They enjoyed these liberties in their native lands and usually experience a dip in standard of living upon making the largely ideologically or religiously motivated move to Israel.
Yet the relative affluence and ideology-driven motivation of Anglo olim tends to mask the fact that, in most respects, immigrants from English-speaking countries undergo experiences that resemble the experiences of immigrants everywhere. They, too, go through periods of disorientation and even regret before adjusting to the new reality. They, too, tend to stick with fellow English-speaking immigrants for a generation, recognizing that, like their grandparents before them, they are immigrants in a foreign country who depend on the mutual assistance of fellow English-speaking immigrants – their landsmen.
They, too, have their landmanschaftn. A far cry from the shabby storefronts and tenement basements that served as our grandparents’ landsmanschaftn, and even from the bomb-shelters and tin-roofed trailers that have served immigrant communities in Israel, English-speaking olim tend to construct big, beautiful synagogues in the relatively affluent neighborhoods where they settle. These synagogues serve as much more than a place to pray; they are, or aspire to be, the centers of these immigrant communities and the hubs of their mutual benefit societies.
As a member of one such community, I hope that my children will never have need for a landsmanschaft. The ultimate goal of immigration is integration into the new society, and so a successful landsmanschaft will have a short life span; although the immigrants themselves rarely succeed in fully acculturating to the host society, their children do.
And yet perhaps our children will retain something of their Anglo heritage. After all, Israeli society has turned out to be a cholent pot: not a melting pot in which the identities of the ingredients are homogenized, nor a salad bowl in which each element remains unaffected by the elements around it. In a cholent pot, each ingredient retains its identity even as it adds and absorbs flavor, scent, and texture from every other ingredient.
So maybe when the synagogues we build outlive their utility as landsmanschaftn they will continue to be the centers of an emergent Israeli community-consciousness. Just as the first synagogues – like the ancient one in Modiin, barely a kilometer away from the brand new one to which I belong – were largely “imported” from Babylonia by those returning to Zion during the Second Commonwealth, perhaps, through our children, we will teach something about the value of beautiful synagogues that also serve as centers of community life. Perhaps our Anglo heritage has something of value to offer the Israeli mainstream.
This Sunday, June 5, will mark the dedication of Kehillat Shaarei Yonah Menachem, a synagogue in Modiin that was founded, paid for, and is mainly populated by English- speaking olim. Attending the inauguration will be two of Israel’s most prominent olim: Natan Sharansky and Rabbi Shlomo Riskin. Time will tell what role this magnificent edifice plays in the lives of its founders’ children, who will be immigrants no longer. Or perhaps it will continue to serve as a safe space for English-speaking olim who continue to arrive. For now, though, it serves as the majestic hub of a somewhat unique immigrant community. It is our gilded landsmanschaft.
Rabbi Elli Fischer is a writer, translator, and editor from Modiin. He serves as a gabbai at Kehillat Shaarei Yonah Menachem.