Rabbi Joseph Wernik Calls on
American Conservative Jews to Rededicate Themselves
to Experiencing Israel and Learning Hebrew.
Rabbi Joseph Wernik, Head of the Department for Zionist
Activities in the World Zionist Organization, Member
of the Executive of the World Zionist Organization and
Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency, and Chairman
of the Masorti Movement in Israel, spoke to AMTON on
a recent visit to New York. Rabbi Wernik, made aliyah
to Israel 30 years ago as a young Jewish educator, with
his wife Miriam. Rabbi Wernik spoke to us with the zeal,
enthusiasm, and commitment of a still recent oleh.
Clearly, Klal Yisrael owes Rabbi Wernik much gratitude
for the work he has done and continues to do for Israel,
the Jewish people, and the Masorti Movement. Following
are some highlights of our meeting:
You left a promising career in
the U.S. to settle in Israel. How did it all begin?
It was not a sudden decision. I had grown up in a Zionist
youth movement (Young Judaea). As Jewish Zionist activists,
my wife, Miriam, and I felt that we wanted to help create
what was evolving in Israel. We wanted to be a part
of what was happening, and we wanted our children to
grow up being a part of the Zionist state. In early
l968, I was offered a job with Young Judaea in Israel.
We had sleepless nights because we had great satisfaction
in what we were doing in N.Y., I as Rabbi in charge
of Education at the Park Ave. Synagogue and Miriam as
a teacher at Wagner Jr. High. But we felt that if we
were going to do it, this was the time. Our first son
was born that December, and we made aliyah nine
months later. On August 26th, we celebrated our 30th
anniversary in Israel. Since then, we started the first
TALI school on French Hill, with others, and we helped
build the Masorti Movement, and I have been involved
with the Movement right along.
It's well known that the road
to aliyah is usually fraught with difficulties
language, culture, separation from family and
friends. People say that almost every oleh goes
through a period of depression at some point in the
first year. Did you experience difficulties as an oleh?
There's always a euphoria when you first make aliyah,
then you go back to the routine, and a down period often
sets in, and then you finally adjust to reality. It
wasn't easy to make a living there. We had one young
child and then another. We didn't come with lots of
savings. But we were "coming home" and I think
we had the spiritual baggage "to make it",
with all the difficulties. We also had a lot of friends
for support. At the end of our first year, we moved
to Ramat Eshkol. Our building was all olim, people
who had left the U.S.A., and made aliyah about
the same time, all without family, and we were a support
group for each other. It was wonderful. It was around
l970. We were the first building in Ramat Eshkol. There
were no roads yet, and you could hear the coyotes outside.
Plus, we were fortunate two years later, after our daughter
was born, Miriam's brother came to visit us and stayed
and married in Israel. Then her folks who used to visit
once or twice a year, made aliyah, too, in their
70's. So Miriam's whole immediate family has been there
with us, which is wonderful, and our children have had
their grandparents, aunts, uncles and other relatives
In the last AMTON, we read an
article by Charlie Kalech, describing how he and Debbie
Perla started a "garin" (group) here
in N.Y., about 10 years ago, all of whom then moved
to Israel together. Initially, they received support
services through your intervention and leadership, until
newer olim came, mostly from the former Soviet
Union, needing more services. Are there enough support
services for new American olim?
They were and are an exemplary group, how they independently
started their own "garin", and they
succeeded. They have established themselves professionally
and socially. They found their way. Show me more groups
like this today and we'll help them, too!!! We're supporting
a lot of Zionist activities. Through Tnuat AM and MaroM
we are reaching out to congregations, students and young
adults all over the world. Tnuat AM is doing a lot of
exciting things: lecture series, study programs, conferences,
this newsletter they're really spreading out.
What I'd like to see now, is more peer leadership. We
have young people involved, and now we need to see them
taking more initiative.
If you could do or say anything
you wanted to American Jewry from a big Bully Pulpit,
what would you say?
First, I wish that everyone would think of the centrality
of Israel in their lives and would rededicate themselves
to learning Hebrew. The importance of the Hebrew language
as a Zionist force is the dominant unifying force for
Jews all over the world. Second, I would like to strengthen
educational activities about Israel and Israel experience
programs. Everyone needs to search for his/her options
as a Jew and one of these options should be aliyah.
Aliyah has to be out of knowledge, out of experience.
That's why I say "aliyah b'shlavim"
(aliyah in stages) where a person goes first
for a summer, then a whole year, and then, hopefully,
settling in Israel.
Israel is now 51 years old, the
state is established. Is there still a role for Masorti
(Conservative) Jews in Israel today?
Indeed, yes! We need new North American olim
(immigrants) to continue building Israeli society, to
help us in the struggle for pluralism. By pluralism,
I mean an openness to study and learn, not just religious
pluralism but pluralism as a value, where people have
a right to express different points of view. And this
is what democracy is all about. North American Jews
have such a contribution to make in this regard because
of the American history of democracy, freedom, and tolerance.
We're struggling with these issues in the Knesset, the
Supreme Court, in the media. It's still very much an
uphill struggle. We need you to JOIN US, LIVE WITH US,
BUILD WITH US!!!
Conservative Jews in the U.S.
run a gamut in level of observance from very observant
to not very observant. Do you think one's level of observance
makes a difference in terms of adjustment for an oleh
No, it doesn't make any difference. But I would say
that people who make aliyah should find out where
our kehillot (congregations) are, because this
can give them a boost to getting absorbed. When individuals/families
or congregations make contact with our shaliach
(Hezi Nir), not only do they get practical information
about aliyah, but also links to us. When we know
when people are making aliyah, we can be in touch
with them, help them.
Do you have any other advice for
Start learning Hebrew as soon as possible. Without
Hebrew, it's very difficult. Don't wait till you get
to Israel! And of course, visit Israel, make a pilot
trip and come to one of our congregations on Shabbat.
To the "uninvolved"
the name "Conservative Judaism" is often misleading
because of the connotations of today's political and
religious conservatism in contrast with the inherent
evolutionary nature of Conservative Judaism. Do you
think the time has come to change the English name from
I believe that the best name for our Movement is "Masorti"
which expresses our closeness to tradition. This is
what we're all about and in Israel and Europe, this
is what we call ourselves.
Final thoughts about Zionism for
the 21st Century?
It's not about the political Zionism of Herzl
anymore, it's about Ahad HaAm (spiritual) Zionism.
We should be a light, not only to other nations (ohr
l'goyim), but to ourselves and our fellow Jews around
the world. We need to create in Israel a Jewish Zionist
society that educates its young people to feel a commitment
that they are partners with world Jewry. We must imbue
our young generation to help ensure the flourishing
of world Jewry with a dynamic, spiritual Israel as the
Top of page | Back
to Ideology Of Conservative Aliyah |
Newsletter main page | Spring
2000 main page