The Fight, The Hurt
rowing numbers of Israeli youths are leaving the
Jewish state once their mandatory three years of
military service are up. World Jewry had better
wake up to this problem before it's too late.
The stress and danger of battling terrorism at every turn has
caught up with Israel's fighting forces, leaving more honorably
discharged 21-year-olds emotionally spent. The result is inde-
cision about their future and a weak bond with Israel.
They know why Israel had to step up to defend against
Palestinian terror over the past 34 months — terror that has
killed at least 824 Israelis and foreigners. But they clam up
when asked why the Jewish soul resonates in
a tiny, desert land that covers less than 1 per-
cent of the Arab-dominated Middle East.
Many of these Israeli fighters head to Los
Angeles to unwind, but decide to stay. They
forsake their homeland for the allure of L.A.
— and the shield from terrorism it provides.
"It's one of the greatest, most perplexing
and most hurtful phenomena of this genera-
ROBERT A. tion," says Rabbi Baruch
And he should know.
rabbi, who studied in the yeshivah world of
Lakewood, N.J., is founder and dean of
MAOR, a Los Angeles outreach program
largely for secular Israelis. Los Angeles is
home to at least 250,000 Israelis, many
young and vulnerable, the rabbi said.
Rabbi Gradon shared his unsettling
insights with 16 community members
Monday at a lunch-and-learn session co-
sponsored by the Yeshiva Beth Yehudah's
Partners in Torah program and the Detroit
Numbers Don't Lie
"You have Jewish children who serve in a Jewish army in a
Jewish country, many in the higher units, exposed to danger
for years and years — real danger, putting their lives on the
line — and the minute they finish their service, they scramble
out of the country and don't want to go back," Rabbi Gradon
His soft-spoken demeanor contained a powerful message
about soldiers, pilots, sailors and others in the Israel Defense
Forces — as brave and as proud as any fighters. At least 245
of them have died in the terror.
"So we must ask ourselves, 'We've created a Jewish home
after 2,000 years so that Los Angeles should have a Jewish
population of 250,000 Israelis?' That's a big export," the rabbi
He said New York City has the same number of Israelis, or
more. Other hot spots are Bangkok, Sidney and Rio de
Janeiro. About 2,500 Israelis, in contrast, live in Detroit.
Why do so many young people who put their lives in jeop-
ardy for Israel have so much trouble making a lasting connec-
tion with it?
Israel is at risk partly because it hasn't made a commitment
to helping fighters who are war weary go home and rejoin the
workaday world. Where's the scholarship-assisted education?
Or the subsidized housing? Or the low-interest loans? Where's
any concrete sign that Israel wants them for more than fight-
Rabbi Gradon thinks the new exodus springs partly from a
lack of knowledge among many fighters toward what Eretz
Yisrael — the Land of Israel — represents for Jews. His theo-
ry is intriguing. Israel hasn't done a good job teaching its
fighters, or Jews in the diaspora, why Eretz Yisrael is so impor-
"We've got to make people care," Rabbi Gradon said.
Rabbi Gradon, an L.A. resident since 1982 and the spiritual
counselor of the Kollel Bais Avraham in Los Angeles, said the
Torah teaches that God gave Eretz Yisrael to the Jews as their
eternal home. It's the one place Jews don't have to worry
about their identity or fear the effects of assimilation.
Jews in the vast reaches of the diaspora have, at one time or
another, been targeted, isolated and hated because of their
beliefs. Today, Jew hating is popular in many parts of the
Rabbi Gradon calls Eretz Yisrael "a domain that is unique."
"Everyone has to live somewhere," he said. "Why is Israel
for the Jews any different than Spain for
the Spaniards or Japan for the Japanese?"
"g- As he spoke, I began to understand why
the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel
g. is so fundamental to who we are as a peo-
n* ple — a people that has survived 2,000
years of exile, oppression and angst.
Eretz Yisrael is the place where God is
"It's a place where the spiritual fulfillment
of a person is possible at a level far higher
than anywhere else," Rabbi Gradon said.
The picture he was painting was taking
How could it be that a generation of
Israeli fighters has so many who are bereft
of Torah's simplest lessons or the basic con-
cepts of Judaism — and as a result can't explain their
historic right to Eretz Yisrael?
Alan Hitsky, associate editor of the Jewish News, said the
rabbi moved him to contemplation. "He made me think
about my own commitment to Israel, or lack of it, and how
various groups in our Jewish community relate or don't relate
to it. It certainly is a worry for the future — for Israel and for
In Israel, the new olim, the new immigrants, get govern-
ment assistance before newly discharged soldiers with only
$25 in their pockets — and that's a tactical error, Rabbi
"The government should say to a young army person exact-
ly what it says to a potential immigrant: 'We'll do something
to help you feel connected.' Where's the appreciation? What
will it cost, $30,000 per person? You know what it means to
lose a person forever in terms of the investment and training?"
He added, "Many of these young people feel very hurt and
intimidated by the future. They aren't respected in the way
they should be."
Of equal concern for me is their' lack of tools to appreciate
what it means to be Jewish. Rabbi Gradon's outreach found
the lack of Jewish learning among the key factors that drove
these "new" veterans from the very land they were willing to
I left Monday's lunch hour steeped in thought but pining
for answers. ❑
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