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Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Why won't Israelis become synagogue members?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 45


There are close to a million former Israelis living in the Diaspora.  From post-army kiosk workers to Silicon Valley geniuses to top university academics and everything in between, there is nowhere in the world that you won’t find Israelis!  But one of the challenges that established Diaspora communities struggle with is: how do you get them to become synagogue members?  In Israel, religious life is state-driven.  Shuls are provided free of charge and so the concept of paying dues is completely foreign to them.  How do you change that mentality and get them to decide to join? 

Rava, and some say Rav Pappa, declared: Those who are making Aliya and those who are doing Yerida (emigrating from Israel), any child of Israel who sells his chamra (donkey) to Israel his friend (i.e. his Jewish friend): if a gentile should come and attempt to forcibly seize it, by law he must retrieve it for him.
Rashbam explains: If the purchaser is being hounded by a gentile who claims the donkey was stolen from him, the seller is obligated to assist the purchaser in seeking justice and the return of his donkey.

In the literal interpretation of the Gemara, chamra means donkey.  But on a deeper level, chamra also means substance or material.  In Modern Hebrew, the former meaning is the word chamor, the latter sense is the word chomer.   

In the literal meaning, Rava is teaching that if you sell your Jewish friend a donkey which is seized by a gentile, you have a duty to help them get it back.  But on an esoteric level, Rava makes a powerful declaration: The greatest contribution a person can make to Israel, his friend is to dedicate his chamra, his substance, material, his entire being.

What does that mean?  Rava makes his declaration both to those who are making Aliya and those who are doing Yerida.  Certainly, the greatest dedication of one’s being to Israel is to make Aliya.  How many of us are prepared to make that ultimate move for the sake of the future of the Jewish people?  There are no words to express our indebtedness to every Israeli citizen and especially those who have voluntarily made Aliya.

But the intriguing declaration is to those who have done Yerida, those who have emigrated from Israel.  Some people’s automatic response to ex-Israelis is one of disdain.  How could anyone choose to leave the Holy Land for life in the Diaspora?  That’s not Rava’s attitude.  Why?  Well, firstly, it’s a little hypocritical to criticize Israelis who have left – after all, did you ever live there?! 

Secondly, most of us could never hold a candle to the average Israeli.  Just think about the three-plus years they dedicated to the safety and security of the Jewish people on the frontlines of the battlefield!  They’ve put their lives on the line for us.  When I see an Israeli, I almost want to reach out and give them a big hug.  There is no way I could ever repay them for everything they’ve done for me and my family!

Now listen to Rava’s declaration: Any child of Israel who sells his chamra to Israel his friend, if a gentile should come and attempt to forcibly seize it, by law he must retrieve it for him.   Nearly every Israeli you meet sold their chamra – gave their entire being – to Israel, by virtue of their time served in the IDF.  For one reason or another, many later end up in the Diaspora, where the gentile world attempts to seize their chamra from them. 

What do I mean?  In Israel, it was easy for them to be Jewish.  Because everyone is Jewish.  Shabbat is a special day; whether or not you keep everything, it’s still called Shabbat!  Pork is hard to find.  Most Israelis fast on Yom Kippur and don’t eat bread on Pesach.  But then they leave Israel and all of a sudden they have to be conscious of their Jewish choices.  Unfortunately, many of them are simply ill-prepared to deal with the religious challenges of the gentile world around them.  And so Rava declares, if they’re losing their chamra, we have an obligation to retrieve it for them.

How? By reaching out to them and inviting them to get involved with Jewish life in our communities.  So why aren’t we doing it?  What’s stopping us reaching out to them?  Often, we get hung up on the fact that they won’t become synagogue members.  Maybe some of them will.  But most of them won’t.  Not today.  Not next year.  Probably never.  They simply have no shul-membership culture – to pay for religion is almost sacrilegious to them! 

So why invite them to take part in synagogue life if we know they’ll never pay synagogue dues?  Because it’s the least we can do.  No money in the world could repay them for the years they put their lives on the line for us.  That’s right: we owe our Jewish safety and security – even in the Diaspora – to the self-sacrifice they made.  They devoted their chamra, their entire being, to the Jewish people.  Now let’s be there for them if Diaspora life is causing their spiritual chamra – their Jewishness – to be stolen from them.  If that means giving them free membership in our shuls, isn’t that the least we could do? 


Every Israeli who put their lives on the line for the Jewish people is as holy as a Temple sacrifice.  We could never repay them for their incredible devotion to the Jewish people.  May we reach out and do what little we can to show our appreciation, by being there for them when they need our spiritual protection!