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Made in the USA

Friday, 3 January, 2020 - 8:19 am

As recent events indicate a sharp rise in anti-Semitic attacks in our beloved United States, we wonder what the future looks like.

As the conflict between the United States and Israel with terror-sponsoring Iran deepens, we wonder what the future looks like.

As we enter the 2020s, when a majority of Jews in America are already second or third generation Americans, we wonder what the future looks like.

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In this week’s parsha Vayigash, we learn of an emotional reunion. Yaakov, the father of the Twelve Tribes, comes down to Egypt and is reunited with his son Yoseph. He had long believed his son was dead. Having been recently informed that Yoseph was alive and was indeed the ruler of Egypt, Yaakov was infused with renewed energy.

Upon embracing Yoseph, he exclaims, “I will die now, since I have seen your face, that you are still alive.”

Why did Yaakov need to set his eyes upon Yoseph, and only then declare that he could finally pass on peacefully? Was the knowledge that his son was alive not sufficient?

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In 1965 the Lubavitcher Rebbe made an observation about the parallel between our current Jewish existence and the situation in Yaakov’s exile into Egypt.

The story of Yaakov's descent to Egypt has been replayed in more recent history in the immigration of the Jewish community from Eastern Europe to the United States after World War II. Religious life in pre-war Europe was one of palpable spirituality. Many large Jewish academies existed; Torah scholarship was widespread. The physical structures of Europe's Jewish institutions may have cost a fraction of what similar institutions did in the United States, but they more than made up for by their spiritual innocence and passion, which American institutions sorely lacked.

This is why European Jews only reluctantly immigrated to the United States, fearful of the spiritual desert that it was. Only when life became untenable in Europe did the Jewish community finally descend en masse to "Egypt," to the heathen soil of America.

But just as Yoseph had preceded Yaakov and his family to Egypt so that he could sustain them in the years of famine, so too, the relatively small number of Jews that lived in the United States prior to the mass immigration sustained their brethren in Europe after World War I by helping them rebuild their institutions and providing for their physical sustenance. Furthermore, just as Yoseph prepared Egypt so Yaakov would have a place to set up a place of study, so too, the Jews in America paved the way so that the Jewish community could be rebuilt with the immigration that followed World War II.

But the only way this could work was if the immigrants, and even their children, would retain the memory of the spiritual superiority of Jewish life in Europe. They would have to yearningly and lovingly recall the special atmosphere of the synagogue, the house of Torah study, and the Torah school for children. Furthermore, they would have to remember the old world not just by writing books about it and observing annual memorials to a "lost world," but rather by rebuilding it in their own communities and for their own children.

Fast forward 55 years from that talk.

Just last week over a million Jews proudly celebrated Chanukah at public menorah lightings.

Just this week over 90,000 Jews gathered in MetLife Stadium to celebrate Torah study. Granted, the study of Daf Yomi is not a Chabad custom, but it is nonetheless a remarkable testament of Jewish commitment to Torah.

Challenges indeed remain to Jewish life in America. But, make no mistake, Jewish life is thriving and the Torah is here to stay.

When the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe arrived in America, he famously declared, “America is not different.” This meant that we could and would rebuild and establish Torah and Judaism is America just as it was in the past – and more!

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This is the reason Yaakov waited until actually seeing Yoseph to declare that he was now able to pass on. Until then, he knew Yoseph was physically alive. But, he was fearful that the Yoseph in Egypt was not the Yoseph that he had raised. Perhaps Yoseph was a Jew in name only. Perhaps the grandeur of power and the allure of Egypt had gotten to him.

If that were the case, Yaakov still had a lot of work ahead of him. He could not die just yet. He needed to stick around to ensure a Jewish future.

But, when he met Yoseph and saw that he was indeed an observant Jew, loyal to Yiddishkeit in practice, then Yaakov knew the future was guaranteed. Now, he could confidently pass the torch to the next generation.

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Like Yoseph, it’s indeed possible to live in the palaces of culture, to play vital roles in society, to succeed professionally – and remain dedicated, observant Jews.

The key is in our hands.

We will ensure the future of Judaism. We will make our grandparents proud.

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