Kol HaBirah shares experiences and advice from locals who recently immigrated to Israel.
Whether it’s for work, school, or other factors, the draw of the Greater Washington area to Jews from all over the world contributes to the community’s diversity and character. It should come as no surprise that members of our community who choose to make aliyah (immigrate to Israel) bring with them a rich variety of backstories and motivations. With all of their differences, one thing they share is a passion for their Jewish identity and the connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel and the Jewish State.
Stephan and Meera Miller, 33 and 32, were evangelical Christians before converting to Judaism four years ago. Raised in California and Minnesota, respectively, they made aliyah this month from Silver Spring, Maryland, with their two children. It was only the second time the Millers had ever been to Israel; the first time was on a pilot trip last summer.
“Converting to Judaism and making aliyah were both natural consequences of trying to live up to our ideals,” says Stephan, a computer programmer. “It’s our homeland, where Hashem made a promise to Abraham showing him the stars in the sky, where Isaac was bound on the altar, where Jacob saw the angels on the ladder, where David fought Goliath, and almost all other canonized Jewish history took place.
“After davening every day for its rebuilding and our return there, we’d need to have a really good reason to reject the gift of being able to live here,” he says.
When she first heard about people living in Israel, Meera, a stay-at-home mom, remembers telling her husband, “That’s great, but I’m not moving there.”
“I was already trying to adjust to being an observant Jew, let alone living in a foreign country,” she says. “What got me thinking more about Israel was meeting people I liked and respected who either were making aliyah or wanted to because they loved Israel. It made me start to think I was missing something.”
“I wanted to live with my people,” says Matt Adler, 31. “It’s not that I think Israel is Switzerland — there are problems here too — but in the end, when I live here, I feel safe. At least in Tel Aviv, my gay and Jewish identities are validated and I don’t need to constantly explain myself.”
Adler has a PR and social media business working remotely with American clients. (Multiple individuals interviewed for this article recommended retaining one’s American job by telecommuting, or working for American clients.) Born in DC, Adler grew up in Potomac, Maryland, and was living Bethesda until he made aliyah July 4.
“I’m a religious Reform Jew and am excited to connect with my community here. I also speak Arabic and am looking forward to getting to know the Israeli Arab community better,” says Adler. He also wants to find a Jewish partner; “it is really difficult to do so in the LGBT community in the U.S.,” he says.
In the past year, nearly 3,800 North Americans have made aliyah, according to Nefesh B’Nefesh Director of Pre-Aliyah Marc Rosenberg. Almost 1,400 are single olim between ages 18-30, and nearly 300 are empty nesters or retirees ages 55 and up. Seventy-five percent of the families identify as Orthodox, in contrast with only 35 percent all the singles. “We are seeing a greater increase in young people making aliyah in their 20s, with Tel Aviv and Jerusalem being the top two destinations,” he said.
“Neither of us are fluent in Hebrew, so having a community with a lot of Anglos was a must for us,” says Stephan Miller. “Everyone said that Beit Shemesh/Ramat Beit Shemesh was Anglo-central in Israel, so that was the first place we looked,” Friends recommended the area as very friendly and Torah-focused, and once they visited it seemed like a perfect fit.
One factor in the decision-making process for Rabbi Avidan Milevsky, previously the interim rabbi at Kesher Israel in DC who lives with his wife and five children in Ramat Beit Shemesh, was the American teenage transition to aliyah.
“I was not able to find any studies that deal with this topic, so I decided, with my background in psychology and adolescence, to conduct the study myself,” says Rabbi Milevsky. “One of the major findings of the study was that transition was easier for those who moved to Anglo communities.” The study was recently published in the Israel Studies Journal.
Rina Gold (not her real name) says she and her husband’s choice of community when they made aliyah in the 1980s as a newly-religious family was aspirational rather than reflective of their religious and cultural background. “We thought that by aligning ourselves with a more ‘chareidi’ community we would be making aliyah not just in the physical sense, but a spiritual journey as well,” she says.
“We didn’t understand that unlike in Baltimore, where men work in various professions but still consider themselves ‘ultra-Orthodox,’ chareidi culture in Israel is completely different.”
While Gold says people were nice to them, they still felt they marginalized within their chosen community because her husband not only worked but held a job in a secular field.
“One day my son came home from school and asked my husband if he worked. My husband was surprised by the question and when he answered yes, my kindergarten-aged son looked very upset. My son told my husband tearfully, ‘My rebbi said that whomever works is lo shaveh (worthless).’” After five years (and multiple schools), the Golds made the difficult choice to move back to America.
It was a conversation with her daughter years later that cemented Gold’s resolve to return to Israel with her husband as grandparents. “My daughter chided me,” says Gold, when when she bought cemetery plots for herself and her husband in Israel. “‘Mommy,’ she said, ‘it’s a mitzvah to live in Israel, not to die in Israel.’ Out of the mouth of babes.”
“People are amazed that I could even think of leaving the grandchildren, especially since we have no relatives whatsoever in Israel,” says Gold.“But when those three teenaged boys were kidnapped from Gush Etzion a few years ago, it changed me completely. For one, I saw how all factions in Israel united. People went out of their way to be kind to one another, to lift one another up. Although spurred by tragedy, it showed Israel at its greatest human potential; and I realized, as a believing Jew, that I wanted to be an intimate part of that.”
Gold and her husband moved back to Israel as toshavim chozrim, returning residents. They currently live in a community in the Galilee and are very happy, she says.
Yoni Subin, 19, recently finished his year-long mechina program before beginning his service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as a new immigrant. His mother actually made aliyah when she was around the same age, “but it didn’t take in part because times were so different back then,” Subin says. “There was no Nefesh B’Nefesh or Lone Soldier Center to turn to when you had a problem or issue. She was by herself.”
“What really helped me feel at home in this country were the weekends where I would go to a family’s house, eat Shabbat dinner and sleep,” he says. “Another thing that helped me feel at home was my few English-speaking friends. My mechina was 90 percent Israeli and my ten or so fellow students from America, Canada, and South Africa really kept me sane.” Now living in Kibbutz Beerot Yitzhak, near Petach Tikva, he feels like he has a place of his my own.
Things he has found challenging about life in Israel have been the amount of bureaucracy, the language barrier, and the army. Even so, “I feel like this is my land and where I belong,” he says.
“I really just felt that [aliyah] was something I wanted to do, and that at a young age like myself it was the easiest time to do it. I have no obligations, no job, no wife or kids to take care of. I am the most flexible that I’ll be for the rest of my life, and I wanted to start it here,” he says.
“I think ideally it’s good to have either close family or friends if possible,” says Meera Miller, but she thinks it “says something inspiring about the Jewish community that as long you pick the right ones, you will inevitably make amazing friendships and create support for yourself.”
None of the people interviewed for this article said the recent terror attacks on soldiers and civilians make them fear for their safety.
“One of the things that’s really interesting is Israelis talk a lot about politics, which is similar to DC, but I don’t get the same sense of anxiety” about terrorism, says Adler. “Things in the U.S. feel new and raw, but if you live in the Middle East this is part of the situation.”
Both Gold and Rabbi Milevsky said that making aliyah doesn’t have to be the right choice for everyone. “Once you get Israel it’s easy to develop a superiority complex because it seems so obvious that one belongs here,” says Gold. “But having been there and done that and failed the first time around, I see that life here is very different and complex and it may not be for everyone.”
“I do think it is very important for every Jew in the U.S. to develop a love for Israel and a desire to at least visit Israel, no matter what his or her affiliation or connection to Judaism,” she says.
“Every Jew has his or her important role in serving the Jewish and broader world community,” says Rabbi Milevsky. “But if you are considering aliyah, it’s definitely important to do your homework, make sure it is financially viable, and make sure you have considerable support here in Israel to connect you to a social network.”
“I hope American Jews, especially progressive Jews, consider making aliyah because this place has a lot to offer,” says Adler. “It is a difficult decision and can be a stressful process. At the same time, I’ve had such life-changing and affirming experiences here already that I think it’s worthwhile.”
For all its problems, says Adler, we do have another home: one where the street sign says “Judah the Maccabee,” and the parking garage says “Boachem l’shalom,” “Come in peace.”