Thursday morning December 27, my wife, Chani, and I arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport on Israel’s signature airline El Al. We made it official: at long last, we were coming home. In that moment, we realized our life-long dream of aliyah.
Aliyah is the Hebrew word for “ascent”, a “going up” of sorts, as when you are called to the Torah for an ”aliyah” and read a blessing on the bimah, a raised platform.
For us, Israel’s appeal is - beyond the biblical imperative “to settle in the land” (Numbers 53:33) - a tug at our heartstrings. We are children of Holocaust survivors. The state of Israel emerged in the shadows of the Shoah, and rose from its ashes. It stands today as a luminous testament to the implausible resiliency of the Jewish people. Chani’s father survived Auschwitz in the Great War that was not so great, and her mother endured the nightmarish hell of Majdanek. Together, they snaked their way to Israel in 1947 by way of Cyprus. Chani’s father was conscripted into Israel’s then fledgling army right off the boat at Haifa, and fought in the War Of Independence. Chani and her older brother, Mark, were born there. For Chani, then, aliyah was a true homecoming. And for me it was about being a small part of a pulsating, imperishable miracle.
Making aliyah is no small feat for anyone at any time. For us, it meant leaving long-held, fulfilling jobs, treasured communities, and cherished friends that we have cultivated for the better part of our adult lives. Pulling up our stakes and setting root in a foreign land thousands of miles away is a difficult proposition, to say the least. You must also reckon with the deeply painful separation from family that you leave behind - parents, children, siblings, and other dear family. It is so very hard, fraught with feelings of longing, guilt, and regret. And, yet, when you think it most overwhelming and impossible, a light appears to illuminate a path forward.
This nebulous light source takes many forms. It could be a kind word or a friendly smile at Israel’s Interior Ministry, which manages your immigration protocol, a friendly hand extended by a new next-door neighbor, or an especially memorable Sabbath experience at synagogue on your first weekend as an “oleh chadash” (new immigrant).
The Talmud teaches that a spur to repentance is the act of moving from one neighborhood to another, as the unsettling feeling that inevitably accompanies the move is a foundation for humility, the Rosetta Stone of the penitential paradigm (Tractate Rosh Hashannah, p.16, folio a). Imagine, then, moving from one end of the world to another. For this prideful American used to being a much ballyhood center of attention as a congregational rabbi, humility is perhaps just what the doctor ordered, and is an indispensable helpmate to the aliyah process.
In the Holy Land, rabbis are a “dime a dozen.” I don’t stand out anymore. I am “everyman.” And, while this is an evolving adjustment, I really believe that it suits me well, and will help me grow in new and positive ways going forward. After more than a generation of being very much in the public eye, Chani and I see the blessing in this new, quiet chapter in our lives.
I mention here the notion of adjusting. Acclimation to an entirely new environment - new language, new culture, new people, even new ways of relating to G-d with congregational rabbis largely absent from the scene, and religious services typically run by cadres of learned volunteer laity - is a “trip”, to be sure.
Every day brings new surprises, like when I went the other day to downtown Jerusalem, right off Jaffa Street, a main thoroughfare. On one side of the street, I saw the markings of modernity: a spanking new, sparkling, state-of-the-art train servicing a bustling, fast growing metropolis. On the other, down a narrow cobblestone alley, I found an antiquated shoe repair shop in an awful state of disrepair. I needed new heels on my shoes, and the shop steward - a friendly, engaging man nearing 80 years old - obliges me immediately, and fixes my heels, polishes my shoes, and adds taps, all for a very reasonable 60 shekels (approximately $17). What I got in the bargain, more than the shoes, was a “talking to at the woodshed” from a wise, old man preaching the ills of living anywhere but in Jerusalem. He pushed his “Jerusalem only” agenda, and then took my phone number, endeavoring to seal the deal. He clearly had an ax to grind, but no apparent motive other than to sing the praises of that “golden city on the hill” that had been a safe haven for him since he left Tashkent for the refuge of Jerusalem more than 30 years earlier.
This brings me to my next point. It is about the proverbial “melting pot” phenomenon that is our homeland today. Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics suggests a total population of approximately 8 million people - nearly 6 million of whom (75 percent) are Jewish, 1.6 million Arab, and nearly every ethnicity, race, and nationality known to man in the mix. It boggles the mind how this little sliver of land the size of New Jersey can embrace such incredibly rich diversity. While the country is riven by conflicts of all sorts - between religious and secular, sfardi and ashkenazi, Jew and Arab - I see a remarkable coming together of peoples across all lines and strata. This is exemplified by our 21-year-old daughter, Elisheva, who made aliyah with her sister, Shifra, nearly two years ago. She is in her second year at Tel Aviv University’s School of Nursing. Her class of 40 numbers 26 Arabs. She studies, works and shmoozes with her Arab classmates, and their obvious differences do not define them.
Israel is so small, yet her people seem to think “large.” Israelis are always striving. The recent best seller “Start-up Nation”(2009), written by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, addresses the miracle of Israeli economic entrepreneurship and innovation. As we endure global unrest, volatility, and retrenchment in the face of a sweeping economic slowdown throughout much of the world, Israel boasts an enviable economic growth rate. This is so, despite its relatively paltry numbers, existential issues that it encounters daily on all its borders, and its mere 64 years of existing as a state - a mere speck of time in the larger scheme of things.
The Israeli notion of “living large” manifests most especially in the new immigrant’s inventive adaptivity and flexibility in the pursuit of a living. I suppose that I am a case in point. Following in the footsteps of a surprisingly large number of olim professionals - doctors, lawyers, accountants, dentists, engineers, educators, financial consultants, and others - I will be continuing to develop an elder law practice in White Plains, New York, with my son, Ariel - something that would never have been possible a generation ago. However, today, with the Internet, sophisticated phone lines, and the relative ease of international travel, this paradigm of living in Israel while maintaining business interests stateside is fast gaining wide currency.
In “aretz” (the ultimate land), as its citizenry affectionately calls Israel, everybody lives “large.” Nothing seems impossible. Its issues and its blessings are framed on a grand scale. The world too seems ever and always captivated by Israel’s allure. It is very much a centerpiece of the global conversation.
To think that this land is now in our grasp, that we can now boldly claim our toehold in aretz, join our three children here with us, and look forward to rolling out the welcome mat sometime soon for our three children who still live in the states, is an unimaginably blissful feeling. As for all of our friends and family spread out all over the map, just remember that one of the most wonderful things for which Israel has always been known is its unabashed hospitality. When you want to visit someone, you needn’t make a formal appointment. Just stop by and say hi, and you are welcomed with open arms.
Ely Rosenzveig, received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University in 1984 and earned his law degree at University of Michigan School of Law, Ann Arbor, in 1985. He has served in the pulpit rabbinate for nearly 30 years, the last 16 of which he served at Congregation Anshe Sholom in New Rochelle, N.Y., a modern Orthodox congregation from which he retired in August 2012.