As an American Jew, Where Is My Home?

In her first Rabbis’ Round Table blog, Rabbi Mindy Portnoy, author of ‘Ima on the Bima: My Mommy is a Rabbi’ and one of the first female rabbis in the U.S., describes her inner struggle of serving the American Jewish community while longing to be in Israel.

"We're bringing you home," the Israeli soldiers and medics told the injured survivors of the terrorist bombing in Bulgaria last week. At that moment, tears welled up in my eyes: a reminder of Gilad Shalit, of the hostages in Entebbe, of Theodor Herzl's remains being brought from Vienna in 1949, of my oleh son saying to me once, "Israel always brings its people home".

Home. As an American Jew, where is my home?

I went to Israel for the first time in the summer of 1971, and I stayed for a year. I had no relatives there, my parents had never traveled there. I knew no one else on the program at Hebrew University. Not yet.

Tourists and students (Birthright and other trips) often come back from Israel talking about how transformative a trip it was. I, too, fell in love - with the land, the people, the complexities and the traditions. I made lifelong friends and short-term acquaintances (including of course, an Israeli boyfriend for the year). One of my Israeli friends was killed in a tank on the Golan during the Yom Kippur War.

I would return to Israel for future trips, including another full year as a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem.

My son has now lived in Israel for almost three years, living and working in Tel Aviv, and completed his army service this week. He knows my Israeli roommate from 1971 (and now her family), as well as the sister and niece of my deceased friend. The cycle continues.

Twice at the conclusion of my stays in Israel, I consciously made a decision to return to the United States to throw in my life's lot and purpose and future with the American Jewish community as a Jew and as a rabbi.

I have never been quite sure I made the right choice. I thought that I could contribute more as a Jew, as one of the earliest female rabbis, as an American with loyalties to Reform and Conservative Judaism (having grown up in the latter) here in my land of birth. My parents (may they rest in peace) were not getting any younger; it would be difficult to leave them.

I wanted to be some kind of Jewish leader, teacher, scholar, and role model, and unlike my rabbinic colleague, Kinneret Shiryon (the first female rabbi in Israel), I did not feel brave enough to take on the whole Israeli religious superstructure and become a rabbi in the State of Israel. Being a woman rabbi (a rabbi at all) here seemed challenging enough. I was not wrong about that.

Throughout the years, it has not been easy for me, psychologically, when I return to Israel as a tourist. As much as I believe every Jew should visit Israel at least once in his or her lifetime, for me personally it has always seemed like a compromise. A rabbinic friend of mine made aliyah recently because it was "what she always wanted to do," but she has left her family behind. And I have always felt that the real test of one's loyalties is, for those who have children, where and how one raises one's family.

The Mishnah teaches, "It is not incumbent upon us to finish the task, but neither are we free to evade it." Despite my professional and personal successes here in America, and the contributions I feel I have made to the continuity and content of contemporary Judaism, I sometimes feel I have evaded the real task. I truly believe that what happens in and to Israel in our own era is most determinative of our people's future. The revival of the Hebrew language is one of the miracles of our time. Israelis struggle every day with questions about being Jewish and what that means in situations that can have life-or-death implications.

Although I believe deeply in the importance of a thriving Diaspora, in my heart, I know Israel is the core.

I am now 60 years old, and like the poet Yehuda Halevi, "my heart is in the East, and I am at the ends of the West." I am very much at home, and yet also not at home. I am still ambivalent about the choices I have made.

I am still a wandering and a wondering Jew.