August 9-14, 2022 | 13-17 Av 5782
I was never a Zionist. In fact, through much of my life I didn’t even realize I had any connection to the Land of Israel. I naively thought it was simply a country, like any other, that happened to have Jewish people living there.
I first met Israelis while on a Caribbean cruise with my parents. Their names were Guy, Gil and Yafit and I was enamored with this sibling trio, their dark skin and accented English peppered with Hebrew words. Then during one of my first jobs after college, a tall man named Gil (not the same one as the first time) walked into my office and after some small talk I learned he was from Israel. I was surprised that he had such light skin, blue eyes and blonde hair, as I had a stereotypical view of what Israelis look like. But I was intrigued about this place and something within me began to stir.
Years later I would meet my Moroccan Israel friend Eti, and although we have very different personalities, we immediately clicked. Over the next few years I was infused with Israeliness through her, picking up some Hebrew words and a better understanding of the term Sabra (cactus). Israelis are hard on the outside with lots of chutzpah, but for the most part they are warm, open and generous with their time.
Growing up, my connection to Judaism included attending temple services and Sunday school. I loved the spirituality and poetry of the English prayer book and, when alone, spoke out loud to the G-d I read about in there. As I got older, I felt drawn to learn more, to dig deeper. As a teenager, like many teens even before the digital age, I was often sad and lonely despite having friends. My faith and frequent communication with G-d was of some comfort to me, though I never shared this with anyone until much later. In college I took Hebrew as my language elective from a bristly Israeli woman and hosted a memorable Seder with a motley crew of college friends. But there was always a stirring, an uneasiness within me, in part from the trauma infused by my epi-genetics. My childhood rabbi, upon sharing my desire to go deeper, suggested I become a rabbi. But I started having children and kept the unfinished application in a file.
Danny and I attended a JLI class at the local Chabad, and then a couple spiritually infused Shabbat meals, and that would change our course in life. I knew we had experienced a bit of something magical and wanted more. Over the next 15 years we continued to learn and do more mitzvot. And I continued to write as a journalist for secular and Jewish publications about my religious and spiritual journey here on Earth.
Over the years learning with my chavrusahs Shaindy, Miriam, and others, I began to long for the Holy Land I repeatedly read about in the Torah. And in the Jewish communities we lived in, especially Atlanta and Potomac, people were often making Aliyah. A childhood neighbor that Danny and I knew, Jay, graduated from an Ivy League college, made Aliyah, worked as a scientist in Israel and raised a beautiful family in this elusively mysterious land. And we both have cousins who moved to Israel — Danny’s cousin Ari and his wife Sophia live in Tzfat. And my cousin Kerry lives with her husband and four boys in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
The Hebrew word Aliyah translates as “elevation” or “going up.” It is, in fact, used both for being called up to the Torah reading and for moving to the Land of Israel.
Our Talmudic sages say that the Land of Israel is higher than all other lands, which means that the Holy Land is the most suitable place to relate and connect to G-d, and the primary location to lovingly engage in the observance of G‑d’s commandments. In other words, to go there is to be elevated, to go up to a higher level.
It is for this reason that anyone “making Aliyah,” or moving to Israel for the right reasons, is moving “up” in the world. It is the land in which our holy Patriarchs and Matriarchs lived. It is the land upon which the Holy Temples were built. And, with the advent of the Messianic era, it is the land where the Third Temple will soon be rebuilt. It is truly a holy and elevated place.
Around 2010 I started to actually think about and research moving to Israel, and 2012 was the first time I filled out a Nefesh B’Nefesh application for Aliyah. But we didn’t pursue it then, and instead we continued to try to find our place in various Jewish communities in the U.S.. As we learn in the Torah, the Jewish people had 42 encampments before reaching the promised land. Wandering is in our DNA. So is seeking G-d.
Fast forward 10 years later — we learned about the Naale Elite Academy program in Israel and applied for our older son, Alex, to go. He was accepted after a long and thorough day-long interview process with psychologists and educators that included questioning Danny and me, as well as getting to know Alex individually and as part of a group. Though my heart was conflicted, we decided to send him across the ocean to Israel for the first year of this three-year program. You can read more about that here.
During the group send-off at the Miami airport, one of the other moms mentioned to me that this was the ultimate Zionistic show of our support and love of Israel, and this statement really struck me. I hadn’t consciously made such a declaration. While I was learning to recognize my love of the Land of Israel, I wasn’t sure how I felt about the modern State of Israel. And I certainly had never considered myself a Zionist or felt that anyone needed or cared about my support.
During Alex’s year in Israel amidst the pandemic, he struggled and I cried often. There came a pivotal moment in December when we learned that not only could he not visit us as planned, the borders closed and my husband couldn’t visit him either. I was moments from booking a flight to bring him back to Miami (which meant pulling him out of the program), when I closed my eyes, paused, and spoke again with the G-d I’ve come to know and love throughout my life.
“What should we do?” I asked.
Sitting there at the dining room table with my husband, the message came into my heart and mind quickly and clearly. I looked up and said, “We have to let him stay.”
And that moment may be the one that would most change our family forever. Because Alex stayed, and he thrived. I later learned that the underlying point of this international program is to entice families to move to Israel. It worked, because I couldn’t imagine sending him away another year without us, but I also knew there was no place better for him to be. Which meant we had to go, too.
Around this time, I read a book that had been sitting on our shelf for years — Becoming Israeli by Akiva Gersh. Each Shabbat Danny and I would read these stories with the kids, learning the intimate, sometimes poetic and other times heartbreaking, stories of people who had made Aliyah. I also read passionate and intelligent posts from FB friends Elioykim Cohen and Lauren Isaacs that really engaged my mind and soul in thinking more about Israel.
And that’s when we began the NBN application again. At first I just filled out the preliminary documents, the easy ones. I knew there was a slew of more intense paperwork and processing yet to come. One Sunday afternoon after I finished this first phase of the application, I played a video about Israel for Danny and the kids as tears streamed down my face. And that’s when the planted seeds began to really sprout. We began working together more intensely on the process, though we didn’t have a timeframe yet.
We scheduled a call with our Jerusalem-based NBN advisor, and while I shared with her a vague romanticism about my heart and soul being in Israel, she matter-of-factly tried to instill in us some of the realities involved in this monumentous decision. It has to be a choice based on emotion and logic, I quickly realized, guided by the heart as well as the brain. Still, our son is going to high school there, so we weren’t wavering. At first we thought that our Aliyah date would be the next summer, but we realized that there was no reason to wait. Dalia is going into 7th grade, and upper school in Israel is grades 7-12. She’s just at the threshold of when we were told it can be more difficult for kids and teens. And since she was 100-percent on board and excited about going, and has already made friends there, that further fueled our motivation to take this window of opportunity. Dovid, at 10, just said goodbye to his best friend who moved away, and he is excited for our family adventure (as long as we can bring our dogs, which isn’t a simple task).
And then everything else just started falling into place. It’s been lots of research and planning, while I feel the Hand of Hashem guiding us along the way. Each time we share with someone about our pending Aliyah, their eyes seem to light up and we receive encouraging words, a blessing, and sometimes advice. It’s been a en emotional and intense experience, as we work through all the details and decisions, from background checks to apostilles to visas. I tell people that we take it one document, one task at a time. Finally, early Sunday morning on August 14, the 17th of Av, we received our official Mazel Tov email from the Jewish Agency for Israel.
There still are so many decisions to be made and things to research, and I feel a mix of heaviness and excitement. Though we are many months into the process, this is my first time sitting down to write about it. Even with just the words I’ve written, I feel a sense of calmness setting in. I sometimes forget that I’m a writer. I’m many things, of course, like all of us. First, I’m a Godly human who exists regardless of any labels. On this journey I’ve been a daughter, a sister, a cousin, a wife, a mother, a friend. But I’ve also been a writer, always trying to express my thoughts and feelings with words. Even before I owned a computer, I’d fill lined journals or pieces of paper. Now there feels like so much to share.
During the process I’ve researched the long and dramatic history of this land. Much has been written about this by others. I’m learning about everything I can, from the heartbreaking removal of Jewish communities from Gaza to the devastating destruction of both Holy Temples.
I have been speaking with so many people who have chosen to live in this place. Doctors and lawyers and poets and artists, teachers and architects, moms and dads, grandparents, teenagers — people from literally all over the world who have now converged on this relatively tiny strip of holy earth. It can only be described as the real-life ingathering of exiles, as we, the Jewish people, have been driven from our indigenous homeland and then every country since that we’ve ever temporarily called home, from Spain to Ukraine, Cuba to Germany. In the U.S., too, we are visitors. A light unto the nations, as we develop communities and share the light and love of G-d and Torah wherever we land temporarily.
But now, for the first time in two millennia, we have this window of time. Practically speaking, we have the ability to transfer our jobs, we have free education, affordable housing (even though housing prices are increasing in Israel, the places we are looking still don’t compare to what we have paid in Jewish communities like Miami). NBN pays for our flights, we receive free Ulpan for five months to learn Hebrew, there’s an Olim coordinator who is paid to help people like us. There’s even free temporary housing if we need it.
Beyond the euphoria that will inevitably come from returning home, back across the ocean that my great-grandparents crossed, it will be beyond hard in so many ways. Layers of decisions and fatigue, sadness and regret. I am leaving behind my oldest child, my parents, my cat and the land of my birth.
טובה הארץ מאוד מאוד
But as it says in our Torah, “The land (of Israel) is very, very good.”
The past few years I have worked on myself so intensely, trying to strengthen my mind spiritually and mentally. I’ve had support during this process, and it’s been painful and beautiful. Though I know now with confidence that I/we can do hard things, there are still moments of sinking fear as I awake at 2 a.m. in the darkness of my bedroom, and then see the text messages that came in as my contacts in Israel start their day.
Danny and I have also worked on our marriage, as all couples should do. We have been meeting with a brilliant counselor who lives in Israel and is helping us work through details large and small, from effective communication to buying a car in Israel.
As I look up now at the sky and clouds and the sun setting over Miami, I imagine someday soon seeing a sunset over the Mediterranean. I imagine raising children and then, please G-d, grandchildren in our Holy Land, living where Jews are meant to be. I envision sharing my thoughts and experiences as a Jewish woman returning to the home of my mothers – Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah. Each Friday night as I light my Shabbat candles, I say their names, which are part of the blessings said by Jewish women around the world for many generations. And I look to these holy women now for support and imagine their neshamas guiding me each step of the way.