Holy Land in Exile: The Torah MiTzion Movement – Toward a New Paradigm for Religious Zionism

Published: 
2008

Source: Religious Zionism: Future Directions (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 2008), 373-414

 

The Torah MiTzion (TMZ) is part of a broader phenomenon: the emergence since the 1970s – both within the modernist and haredi (traditionalist) Orthodox sectors – of the community kollel as a new framework for Jewish education.The community kollel can be described as a cottage industry within American haredi Jewry, with over thirty functioning programs and an average of four new start ups each year.The growth of these initiatives implies, among others, a change in focus away from collective ritual and toward individualized study as the method for strengthening Jewish life in America. My central contention is that TMZ points to a shift away from conceptions that until recently dominated Israeli Zionism in general and Israeli Religious Zionism in particular. This is reflected in its global character, its ambivalence in respect to promotion of aliya, or immigration to Israel, as well as in the cooperative Israeli-Diaspora nature of the project.

The Cleveland Torat Tzion Kollel (henceforth CTTK) had been created ten years earlier through a collaborative effort between Bob Stark, philanthropist and Orthodox activist, and the leaders of Yeshivat Har Etzion, one of the oldest and best known Israeli hesder yeshivas. Har Etzion committed to sending senior rabbis to Cleveland for two-year stints, along with a group of post-Army married students. There they established a study hall in a local day school that served as a base both for advancing their own talmudic erudition and for educational activities with the student body. In addition, they created an open beit midrash to ffer Torah learning opportunities in the evenings and on weekends for the surrounding Orthodox community. Stark provided the initial annual budget of $250,000 for the first few years.

Almost simultaneously, a similar framework was initiated by Har Etzion alumnus Rabbi Jonathan Glass in Cape Town, South Africa. Shortly after, the Torah MiTzion organization (henceforth TMZ) was inaugurated in Jerusalem. Under the guidance of founding executive director Ze’ev Schwartz, also a former Har Etzion student, it became a worldwide movement that today encompasses twenty two such Religious Zionist kollels. They range now from Moscow to Montevideo and from Melbourne to Memphis.Fifteen of them are located in North America, in addition to seven affiliated Jewish Learning Initiative (JLI) programs on major university campuses.

Conclusion: Torat Eretz Israel and the Transportation of Place

The shelihut (mission) of TMZ differs dramatically from the classical formula that focused almost exclusively on aliya. Not only is encouraging immigration to Israel low on the priority scale, the main focus of activity – as illustrated both from the Israeli and American perspectives – is actually on strengthening Jewish life in the diaspora. Like the haredi community outreach kollels, this is done primarily by creating a vibrant beit midrash that can attract Modern Orthodox children and their parents and in some cases unaffiliated Jews to Torah study. Without declaring so in words, the very structure and goals of TMZ’s activities in America neutralize any attempt to preserve negation of the galut as a serious element in the Religious Zionist worldview.

Not only has the diaspora gained greater legitimacy through TMZ, in the process Religious Zionism has acquired a new global character. The TMZ emissaries do not leave their sacred Israeli territory as individuals. They travel as small collectives called kollels, whose mandate is to cultivate a Religious Zionist atmosphere in a given Jewish community somewhere in the world. But these Israel-like environments are not created as appendages to the home territory that will necessarily facilitate the arrival of more Jews. This may happen in some cases but it is not the main objective. Certainly for the North American Modern Orthodox communities, the value of the Zionistic spirit of the emissaries lies primarily in its potential to reinvigorate the local environment. This process points to a move of Israeli Religious Zionism away from its territorial character. Instead, it acquires a cultural or spiritual ambience that shares much in common with the role that Zionism has long played in the lives of most American Orthodox Jews.

Surely the shelihim return home and on an individual level reassert their territorial Zionistic identity. But they are immediately replaced by others who sustain the Zionist enclaves that were established and continue the role of nurturing American Judaism with their Zionist spirit. Indeed, the term Torat Eretz Israel is quite accurate. A culture of the Land has been articulated that exists independently from the Land itself. As this network grows larger, the idea of a Torat Eretz Israel that stems from the Land but does not exist for it exclusively, becomes more real.

This, essentially, expresses the feeling that I had that day in September 2003 when I first entered the beit midrash of the Torat Tzion Kollel in Cleveland. Right in the middle of America I had come across a study hall whose sounds and sights I identified directly with Israel.

In this paper I have claimed that this seemingly surreal sensation was indicative of a broader phenomenon. Parallel to Chabad and “770”, TMZ reflects a new direction for Religious Zionism from a Land focused movement that encouraged those outside to come in, to a global network that is Land based but emphasizes Judaism’s “transnational” character, in which the Torah of the place is being transported to other distant venues.

Read the complete article here.

Updated: Aug. 28, 2019
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