On Nov. 5, the Cranston Public Library hosted a panel discussion on aliyah (the Hebrew term for Jewish immigration to Israel) from Rhode Island. The discussion coincided with the opening of a photo-text exhibit by Shai Afsai, based on extensive interviews he conducted in Israel and America with Rhode Islanders who had made the decision to move to Israel.
The panel was moderated by Prof. Adam Myers of Providence College (who was born in Israel and moved to the U.S. at age 7), and included Afsai, local Jewish historian George Goodwin, Rabbi Barry Dolinger of Providence’s Congregation Beth Sholom, and local Jewish educator Miriam Abrams-Stark (whose daughter made aliyah).
The event, made possible by a grant to Congregation Beth Sholom from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, drew over 100 people. The panelists discussed numerous aspects of aliyah among Rhode Islanders, including the motivations for making aliyah, the challenges of settling in Israel, the difficulties of being far away from family and the impact of aliyah on the local Jewish community.
Dolinger articulated a strongly pro-aliyah perspective, mentioning that he has seriously considered moving to Israel, and confessing to wishing that he could also relocate his entire congregation there. Goodwin presented a more ambivalent point of view. While broadly supportive of aliyah, he indicated that he would like to see as much enthusiasm from the Orthodox Jewish community for the prospect of revitalizing Newport’s historic Touro Synagogue as for the prospect of moving to Israel. Dolinger countered that American Jews have a misguided emphasis on maintaining buildings and historical legacies, and that efforts to breathe new life into the Touro congregation would, unlike aliyah, be an artificial move doomed to failure.
Afsai took issue with the notion that aliyah represents a loss for diaspora communities. He argued that American Jews often see themselves as sustaining Israel with their support, but that the reverse is true: diaspora communities are actually held together by the existence of the state of Israel, and most would not be able to sustain themselves today without the religious and national focus Israel provides. Abrams-Stark discussed her daughter’s decision to move to Israel and the conflicted feelings she had about the matter. As a mother, Abrams-Stark wants her daughter nearby and to be able to see her as often as possible. But she and her husband provided their daughter with a strong Zionist upbringing, one that emphasized the importance of living in Israel, and they are proud and supportive of their daughter’s move.
Myers provided a contrast to the stories of the people featured in the exhibit. As someone who came to the U.S. from Israel as a child and has chosen to remain in the U.S. as an adult, he simultaneously expressed his admiration for the idealism of the young emigrants from Rhode Island and with his concerns about the current state of Israeli society.
A spirited discussion followed the panelists’ remarks, with attendees posing challenging questions and offering personal anecdotes. The hope is for more opportunities for productive communal dialogue around Jewish subjects in the future. The authors are currently collaborating on a follow-up project about Israelis who have settled in Rhode Island.
Shai Afsai lives in Providence. His photo-text exhibit “Aliyah from Rhode Island” opened at Cranston Public Library in November. Adam Myers teaches political science at Providence College. His political commentary has appeared on NPR, WJAR (Channel 10), and WPRO.