Have You Seen My Alps?
Every day, as I walk into shul, I am confronted by a flyer hanging on the bulletin board, which greets me with, depending on my mood, varying degrees of annoyance. “SWITZERLAND”, the flyer declares. It then goes on to invite the synagogue membership (and, presumably, anyone else who happens to be interested) to join the Rabbi and his wife on a “Jewish heritage tour” of that European country.
Forgive my skepticism, but is there any—let alone any substantial—Jewish history to be found in…Switzerland?
The flyer promises “SCENIC AND FASCINATING SITES OF STUNNING NATURAL BEAUTY”; a stay at the “KOSHER HOTEL OF DAVOS”; “THREE DECLICIOUS GLATT KOSHER MEALS DAILY”; plus “SHIURIM AND MORE.” This all sounds like a wonderful, and wonderfully kosher, tour. But I’m still left scratching my head. How does all this qualify as “Jewish heritage”?
As it turns out, a google search of “Jewish Switzerland” gets 4 million hits. This compares to 13 million hits for “Jewish Jerusalem” and 37 million hits for “Jewish New York.”
Here’s what I came away with.
There are about 18,000 Jews in Switzerland, according to 2000 Census data. There are 38 synagogues. Ruth Dreifuss, a Jew, was president of Switzerland in 1999 (she served for one year, exactly). Albert Einstein spent his teenage years in Switzerland. Edmund Safra ran his banking empire from Switzerland. And…
Well, that seems to be about it. No baalei Tosafos, no famous acharonim, no major settlement after the Holocaust. Even among places with little Jewish history, Switzerland seems to have little Jewish history.
It used to be that Jews who wanted to travel in order to reconnect with their Judaism had one destination: Israel. Then, at some point, someone decided that it was not unreasonable to spend some time in Western Europe, walking the streets where the Rambam walked, looking at the house where Rashi lived. Jewish-themed tours of France, Spain and Italy became common.
More recently, the exotic locales of Eastern Europe have beckoned. In the past two decades, since the fall of Communism, Jews have made their way over to the Old Country to see what was there. The curtain had been lifted. Eastern Europe, which a few years ago was the stuff of stories and legends, something left completely to the imagination, was suddenly a plane ride away. Today, the pilgrimages to Uman during the Yamim Nora’im are legendary, but there are also smaller, lesser known destinations, such as the kever of the Noam Elimelech in Lizensk.
Personally, I am ambivalent. On the one hand I have friends who go to Uman for Rosh Hashanah every year. They tell me that it’s an unforgettable experience, something I must try at least once, a journey that will change my life. While still skeptical, the temptation is there, I admit.
In a not so similar vein, my former yeshiva takes their boys every year to Poland to visit the death camps. This, I am assured by the Mashgiach, has an undeniable impact upon them, inspiring many to recommit to a life of Torah and mitzvos. While I find it unfortunate that boys who come to Israel to learn Torah, must get back on a plane and visit Auschwitz in order to be inspired, I can't argue with the Mashgiach’s assessment. Apparently, there are some souls that are stirred to teshuvah by the dark horrors of the Nazi killing machine. Personally speaking, however, I’m fairly confident I’ll get through life without visiting Auschwitz and have no regrets about it.
Recently, another yeshiva I attended flew to Volozhin, to set up shop in the yeshiva "where it all began." They sat and learned, and heard shiurim from the rosh yeshiva on Reb Chaim's Torah. Their alumni newsletter and fundraising correspondence described the event in such rapturous language, you would have thought the Jewish people had returned to Sinai.
Again, I understand the nostalgia of such a trip, but let's not get carried away. The Torah of Volozhin is alive and well, thriving well beyond the borders of Belarus, in yeshivos from Brooklyn to Bnei Brak. There ought to be no need to hop on a plane in order to feel the thrill of Reb Chaim's Torah.
I am conflicted about these trips for another reason, as well. Jews are clearly giving financial support to people who are not necessarily lovers of Jews, and not that far removed from the butchery of the Holocaust. Is this justified?
But at least these places are legitimate, if somewhat unpleasant, destinations for thoughtful, searching Jews. And there is no doubting their credentials vis-à-vis Jewish history. But for a shul to organize a trip to Switzerland on the pretense of Jewish heritage? That simply strikes me as disingenuous.
Maybe I’m just envious because I haven't been outside of the U.S. in many years. Maybe I'm just kicking myself for not finishing my semichah and entering the Rabbinate so I could be the one invited on some of these tours as a guest lecturer. Maybe I fail to appreciate Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s concern that God would take him to task for not seeing His Alps.
But maybe we should ease up on the "Jewish heritage" moniker and just call these trips what they really are: kosher vacations. I'm not opposed to vacations. Everyone ought to assess their station in life and determine how much leisure, how much downtime, how much relaxation they need in order to propel themselves further and deeper into God’s Divine Service.
As for me, camping in Lake George usually does the trick.