'I Rarely Leave Israel. It's an Ideological Thing. There's Nothing for Me Abroad'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: Two Israelis who love their country unconditionally

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Eyal Freedman.
Eyal Freedman.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Eyal Freedman, 22; lives in Ma’aleh Adumim, flying to New York

Hi, where are you off to?

New York. I came here early, to renew my passport.

Is it a last-minute flight?

Sort of. In principle, I don’t fly anymore, I leave the country less; it’s an ideological thing. From my point of view, there is nothing for me abroad. I stay in the Land of Israel, my people is here, and my country. I was abroad a great deal as a boy. On every vacation we flew to the United States to visit my grandparents, and I had my fill. After high school I attended a yeshiva, became stronger religiously and decided that I have no further reason to leave the country. If something happens and I have to fly, then fine. But not for pleasure. There are pleasures in Israel.

Then why are you flying now?

My grandmother died a few years ago, and my grandfather has been alone for some time. Because of the he can’t be in contact with people. Loneliness isn’t something that’s good or healthy, so I’m going to be with him.

Do you get to spend much time with him?

We have a very good bond, thank God. I love being with him. He’s a lawyer, he hardly works now but he used to tell me about his cases and his clients. He likes to say that he studied law at Harvard. And I tell him a little about myself, about Israel, how the family is doing, how things are at the yeshiva.

Did you know in advance that you wanted to go to yeshiva after high school?

After high school, most people don’t really know where they belong, so I investigated and explored. Before the yeshiva, I wasn’t all that plugged in religiously, but there you’re occupied with it all day and you explore, so in a natural way you become connected to it. I discovered that I was finding myself there.

Do you find a connection between the studies and reality?

I find many things that parallel reality, and everything falls into place for me. Take coronavirus, a small virus that is causing the world to shut down – where does it come from? I believe that there’s Divine Providence and that there’s a plan. It’s clear that everyone has free will, but there’s a direction we’re headed in as a society and as a world. In the end, we are nothing.

What do you like about your studies?

The learning makes me alive; it gives me a lot of mental power to act with. I feel that during the periods when I am less connected to learning, those powers are not as strong. It’s also a type of learning that gives you a great many tools.

Is there anything you studied that has influenced you in particular?

There is a book by Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, a book of morality. It talks about nekudat habechira, the “point of choice.” How every person is born into a different reality, a different family, and grows up in a different environment, but the Holy One, blessed be He, does not measure a person by the place he has reached. Rather, he sees what the person has coped with and what his point of choice is. Let’s say there’s a person who wrestles with getting up for morning prayers. There are days when he does and days when he doesn’t. So when he actually does get up to do it – it’s a far greater thing than for someone who always gets up to do it.

How does that relate to you?

What I learned is not to judge people, to understand that everyone comes from a different place. And also that the Holy One does not expect us to get to a certain place.

Do you have post-studies plans?

The years go according to lessons, so I am now on lesson 6. I did a hesder track [religious studies plus army service] of five years. The plan in the meantime is to stay in the yeshiva this year, too, and next year we’ll see. I plan for the moment.

What did you do in the army?

I was a noncom dealing with soldiers’ conditions of service in Netzah Yehuda [the Haredi infantry brigade]. Most of the guys in Netzah Yehuda dropped out of the Haredi education system and enlisted in the army and need a lot of assistance and therapy. There are a lot of stories there, God help us. It’s a job where what you do for them is all there is; if you don’t do it, there won’t be anything. I spoke with families of soldiers, with their parents. There are families where you can be a bridge, and families in which, even if the world collapses, the kid will not be allowed to come back home. So, everyone needed individualized care.

Is the yeshiva operating normally during the pandemic?

From what I understood, the plan is to start next week. Everyone is supposed to get tested at home, and whoever tests negative can come. We’re also divided into “capsules” and committed to remaining in the yeshiva for a month [each time we come].

So you will learn Torah by Zoom?

Yes, I will attend the classes via Zoom. I have a lot of friends who have started to study electrical engineering and mechanical engineering, and they are also learning by Zoom. I think that to study Torah by Zoom is easier.

Daniella Berger.
Daniella Berger.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Daniella Berger, 27; lives in Jerusalem, arriving from New York

Hi, what were you doing in New York?

My parents live there, so I fled there from the lockdown in Israel. Before that, I hadn’t seen my family for more than a year.

And what brought you here?

I grew up in a religious and Zionist community, and all my life I learned that Israel is the home of all the Jews. I visited here many times, I spent a year here after high school and decided that I want to make aliyah. I thought I would stay in Israel, but I wanted the experience of an American university. So I made aliyah after university.

What did you do when you arrived in Israel?

I interned in the Knesset for MK Aliza Lavie [Yesh Atid]. I helped her with matters concerning Diaspora Jewry; I wrote articles for her in English. Afterward I did a program in which I worked in the Foreign Ministry for 10 months. But then I decided that I hate sitting in front of a computer all day long, so now I’m doing a course for tour guides.

How was your work in the Knesset?

In college, I did an internship in [the U.S.] Congress, so it was interesting to see how different it was here. The congressional office I worked in had 12 staff members, and that was considered a small staff. And then I came to the Knesset, and the MK had two staffers and me. I worked directly with the MK, which wasn’t even close to what I did in the United States. I remember the first time I saw everyone shouting at everyone else in one of the Knesset committees, and I burst out laughing. That’s something that would never happen in the U.S.; it’s such a different atmosphere here, a lot less formal.

Can you see yourself going into politics?

I wouldn’t rule it out. My Hebrew is very good, and I’m still learning the language, but I don’t think I could work in a job that’s completely in Hebrew. I would like to have the possibility to wield some influence, because I feel I could contribute. Especially when everything we see these days is corrupt.

So why did you choose to become a tour guide?

I worked a lot with Jewish communities and with the Masa and Birthright programs. I was in charge of the whole team abroad, so I worked a lot with tour guides, too. I always wanted to do something for Israel with my life. I like to share with people why Israel is so important to me. I feel that being a tour guide is a cool combination between being an ambassador and showing people the country.

Why is Israel so important to you, actually?

It’s my home. As a Jew, I believe that there is no other place that belongs to me in the same way. I don’t feel connected to the United States in the same way. I am grateful that I grew up there and had a good life, but I don’t feel that it belongs to me or that I have a part in it. It’s very different living as a minority in a country that doesn’t belong to you. I feel that in making the transition here, I am taking an active part in the history of Judaism. I am very idealistic.

Do you think there are things here that need changing?

Of course. I don’t even know where to begin. For example, everything that’s happening now with the coronavirus. There are experts who say one thing, and the government doesn’t listen to people’s needs. It’s a disaster. They are mixing politics into a health crisis, and nothing makes sense. For example, my flight stopped in London. When we landed in Israel, I was told I needed to self-quarantine, but those who returned from London on the same flight didn’t. It’s true that Britain has been a “green” country for the past two days, but New York is also not “red” at all – there are fewer sick people in New York than in half the green countries. It makes no sense.

You have to decide whether everyone needs to go into quarantine or not. They’ve been saying for seven months that they’ll set up a testing center at the airport, so why hasn’t it happened yet? Fifty countries have succeeded in doing that, and Israel is one of the last. We’re behind in everything.

So how is it that you still love Israel so much?

I don’t change my mind about Israel’s importance according to who’s in power, because that changes. It’s the same in the States. Trump is not America, and America is not Trump. He is the president now, and I’m not saying that there are no problems with that, but it doesn’t change the foundation and the values on which America was founded. It’s the same here. But I feel I have more to lose here, because there is no other Jewish state. I wouldn’t leave because I don’t like something, I would stay and try to change it.

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