Come to Israel for Sukkot and there are many things you’ll see at night on Ben Yehudah Street, Jerusalem’s premiere recreational thoroughfare. You’ll experience outstanding cafés and mouth-watering restaurants, families with strollers and tourists buying souvenirs. Wait till night and you’ll see American teenagers taking over the street, many of them drunk and wandering aimlessly. You’ll see friends guiding their inebriated colleagues home, navigating broken glass and discarded bottles. But one thing you will likely not see are their Yeshiva and program heads, responsible for their supervision. Yes, the kids are alone, away from Mom and Dad and away from nearly any kind of responsible supervision.


Welcome to the Israeli-American
religious-industrial complex where a year abroad for many American youth means
enrolling in a program that costs their parents upwards of twenty thousand
dollars and is supposed to enhance their religious commitment, but in reality,
is just a year-long opportunity to drink and behave like hooligans.


Let me be fair. There are countless
American Jewish youth who avail themselves of the opportunity to study the
great Jewish texts and immerse themselves in serious study and religious
reflection. They emerge immeasurably enriched by the experience and infinitely
more attached to the Jewish state. But for the hundreds who gather nightly on
Ben Yehudah the idea of spiritual uplift is about as distant as Jerusalem is
from Malibu.


About four years ago I wrote a series of
columns in the Jerusalem Post that expressed how disturbed I was to witness the
drunkenness and loutishness on Ben Yehudah. The columns were roundly criticized
by year-abroad Israeli Administrators and American High School teachers who
press their students to go study in Israel. I received hate mail from people
telling me that I am dampening parents’ enthusiasm for sending their children
to study in the holy land. But low and behold, after a few months a slew of
columns by other writers began decrying the same torrid scene.


Every one of my children, upon coming of
age, studied in Israel and I currently have two daughters living there. But I
made it clear to all of them. If they are not in serious programs of study and
religious commitment, or if they abuse the privilege of being in the Holy Land
by acting in a non-holy manner, I would take the first plane to Israel and
bring them home.


I am currently in Israel working on a TV
series for the Israeli market using Jewish wisdom to heal broken homes. I have
already experienced some of the hesitation that non-religious Israelis have for
the orthodox, essentially accusing us of being hypocrites, preaching one thing
and practicing another. The last thing we need is a bunch of spoiled American
kids with Yarmulkes getting hammered nightly on the streets of Jerusalem to
prove their point. Where are their Yeshiva heads to pull their students back to
their dormitories and enforce responsible curfews? Jewish ritual is designed to
instill Jewish values and blowing thousands of dollars a year on booze and
throwing up in public is neither Jewish nor virtuous.


But the religious-industrial complex is a
problem that transcends wayward youth. In essence, American Yeshivas sometimes
betray a greater love for donor dollars than Jewish values. While walking with
a few of my children to the Priestly blessing at the Kotel last Sunday, a
friend of mine, who is a donor to Aish Hatorah, invited me to witness the
moving spectacle from Aish HaTorah’s rooftop, with panoramic views of the Old
City. Aish had invited their wealthiest donors for a fancy breakfast to witness
the blessing. I was aghast and humiliated when one of the organizers suddenly
came over to me in public and told me I had to leave because, while my friend
had procured an invitation for me, the same was not true of my children and
they were not welcome. But my communal embarrassment and bruised ego aside,
here is a Yeshiva whose stated purpose it is to bring non-religious Jews back
to their tradition. To do so they must understandably raise millions of
dollars. But must they sell their soul in the process?


My first thought was to promise the
organizer that if they allowed me to remain I would be a hedge fund manager in
my next life. But then I remembered the sweet countenance of my Rebbe, the
great leader of Lubavitch, who stood on his feet for endless hours every Sunday
giving dollars to rich and poor, successful and desperate, mentally whole and
mentally challenged, so that they would know that they were important and
commit their lives to virtuous ends. I understood that my chosen profession as
a Rabbi was not less than that of a businessman, however the organizers had
made me feel. The Jewish community has at times erroneously elevated two
artificial elites. The first was the aristocracy of the learned. The second was
the nobility of the wealthy. The Rebbe obliterated both by declaring that all
Jews, even those who could not read Aleph Beis, were equal to the greatest
scholars, and that the most impoverished of Jews was as deserving of love as a
Rothschild. Let us embrace his message lest we become corrupted by wealth.


Before my banishment one of the Aish
Rabbis walked over to me at the reception and congratulated me on a recent
column where I decried the extravagances of opulent Jewish weddings and Bar
Mitzvahs as a betrayal of Jewish values. He told me he was of a mind to preach
the same to his donors but was reluctant to criticize them for fear of
alienating them. But liberating people from material competition is a blessing
rather than an offense.


I love Israel and Judaism with every
fiber of my being and have devoted my life to their promotion and defense. But
both are premised on the dream of a nation whose values of G-d, family,
spiritual living, and peoplehood are so precious that we are prepared to live
and die for them. And if we, the religious, don’t practice what we preach then,
pray G-d, who will?


Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is
the international best-selling author of 23 books and was the London Times
Preacher of the Year at the Millennium. As host of ‘Shalom in the Home’ on TLC
he won the National Fatherhood Award and he was awarded the American Jewish
Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. Newsweek calls
him ‘the most famous Rabbi in America.’ He has just published ‘Renewal: A Guide
to the Values-Filled Life.’ Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.


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