Have You Seen My Alps?


alpsBy CJ Srullowitz

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.

CJ Srullowitz is a financial advisor in New York City, and blogs at www.luleidemistafina.blogspot.com


  1. I share the spirit of these lines, and love your style.

    But the way I look at it is: If some people need to get away and feel luxurious once in a while, rather then covering your Yarmulka with a cap and go to sea world… etc. etc. isn’t it better to give it some Jewish taste, even if there isn’t much taste there???

  2. i never saw such an ad and probably most of the readers here didnt either, its something you should take to your shul president or rabbi to complain about, not to write an article about it

  3. If you could afford it, it’s time to expand your horizons. Go out see the world. Whether it is for vacation or for heritage. It will make your your own appreciation for G-d and His Torah more meaningful.

  4. For your information, Switzerland was were the FAMOUS STERNBUCH FAMILY did miracles with Hashems help to save thousands of Jews during the Shoah!

    Horav HaGoan R’ Yitzchock Dov Kopelman SHLITA, the LAST TALMID OF R’ SHIMON SHKOP, and the man credited with smuggling R’ Shimon’s manuscripts out of Communist Russia lives in LUCERNE, and heads a yeshiva there for almost 50 YEARS!!!

  5. So there isn’t any major Jewish heritage to be found in Switzerland. It’s a mere marketing scam so what who cares? Ask the NY Times to post your article see what they say. Better not to run a story than something like this

  6. Great write up.
    BTW, Tznius is a serious problem wherever you go in the summer.
    The South Pole might be an answer in this season, & it has breath taking vistas too.

  7. You make an excellent point!!!
    Im surprised we dont all go to Lake George, after all there where dozens of ballei tosfos and even more achronim who lived there. Ah and the postwar communities there, are a must see. After all considering a google search of “Jewsih Lake george yields 311,000 results thats almost as much as “Jewish Switzerland”

  8. Obviously, good points.
    There are those that benefit from these trips, I understand, or at least they think so. Other people may not. It’s and individual decision that one makes.

  9. you are missing some vital historical information. get a load of this; when the yidden were on the way in to golus after the churban beis hamikdash they went through SWITZERLAND! there is still a road around one of the mountains called devils road or something like that where there is markings on the mountains from that time. Can you imagine walking along the same road where our ancestors walked on the way to golus around two thousand years ago, it brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it. i will try to get you more info, i dont remember the exact location or year.

  10. One of the Rishonim, Rav Yitzchok mizurich, also called the “smak mizurich” (because of his notes to sefer mitzvos koton) lived in Zurich, Switzerland over 800 years ago. The Jews were expelled from there due to a libel that they poisoned the wells. In any case, a few years ago, a few appartments in the old city of Zurich were discovered, which had Jewish writings on the walls etc., and also the yeshiva of that Rishon.

  11. You Jealous?!! You say you don’t have problem with the Mashgiach BUT you really do! You have problem with the Mashgiach, Rav Hirsh and every one else…….You have problem with any trip….. Just seat home and do your blog, you are close minded that haven’t see the WORLD out there. I’m assuming your kids are out of derech or they are almost on their way, Good Luck!

  12. Kinah, I heard recently that if someone gives someone a curse chas v’sholom it boomerang back to them.
    Even anonymous people are real.
    Watch your words. Because someone had a hard time understanding an ad luring people to Switzerland, his kids will go off the derech? What type of perfect parent are you?
    Don’t ever assume the gehinom someone goes thru with a kid off the derech. May Hashem spare you and the man who wrote this article from those tzoros

  13. Kinah, if you must insult such a fine writer, please learn to speak and write English properly first. Also, doesn’t your name, “Kinah” actually mean “jealousy?”
    Just something to think about.

  14. We are interested to know what is the source of the saying:”have you seen my alps?”. Where does it come from? Where was it written?