Here is the progression of thought from my first time in Israel to making Aliyah:
- Israel is a piece of myself that I never knew existed.
- Israel is not only a piece of who I am but rather is intertwined with my Judaism to make up my core.
- Israel is my air. Coming to Israel for only a few weeks in a year is like being underwater 24 hours per day and only being able to come up for air for 10 minutes.
- I feel like my most complete self when I am in Israel.
I don’t remember at what age I first started learning about Israel, but I must have been very young. From Aleph School to Torah Academy to Talmud Torah on the formal Jewish education front, and Camp Teko to Camp Olami to Herzl Camp on the informal side, Judaism was a central part of my childhood. I remember songs about Israel at Camp Olami, awesome Israeli counselors and the IDF Army simulation every summer at Herzl.
For as long as I can remember I have loved Israel. But it wasn’t until I went on Birthright during my sophomore year at the U that I grasped the meaning of my love for Israel and Israel being the homeland of the Jewish people. Before going on Birthright, everyone who I talked to who had been on Birthright told me I was going to have the time of my life. So, I expected to have the time of my life but had no concept of what that meant. Having gone to Torah Academy for 6 years, attending Shabbat services nearly every week growing up, participating in NCSY, BBYO, and USY, I, naively, didn’t expect to learn anything new Jewishly. Since my first trip to Israel at the age of 19, I have learned that no matter how knowledgeable or educated you are, you always have more to learn.
On my Birthright trip, I found a piece of the puzzle that is me, that I never knew existed, and it was tremendously difficult to return to Minnesota the night before spring semester, having no time to absorb the life-altering experience I had just been through. I was thrust back into the hectic schedule of a student, surrounded by people who had no idea how I was feeling. I could not wait to get back to Israel!
When I graduated, I decided to do a volunteer program in Israel through Masa Israel Journey called Masa Israel Teaching Fellows (MITF). This program trains college graduates from English-speaking countries to be English teachers’ aides in the classroom. In Israel, the Ministry of Education requires English in school starting in fourth grade. However, the children are not separated based on English level, and teachers are expected to teach to all the levels within a 45-minute period. With 35 kids in a class, the task seems impossible.
During the 10 months that I lived and taught in Rishon LeZion, Israel, I had the opportunity to attend shabbatons and seminars organized by Masa Israel for Masa participants from all over the world. These shabbatons and seminars covered topics ranging from “Jewish Identity & Peoplehood” to “Security & Diplomacy” to “Leadership.” Participating in these optional seminars and shabbatons afforded me an opportunity to connect with other Jewish young adults, broadening my picture of Jewish life.
One component of every Masa program is Ulpan (Hebrew learning). Being in the ‘advanced’ class, about two months into my program, we had an assignment to write about what Israel meant to us. In my writing, I expressed how I felt more at home in Israel than I had anywhere else, even including Minnesota, where I spent my whole life. Minnesota is a wonderful place to grow up – I love the lakes, nature, the friendly nature of Minnesotans, and I even love ALL of the seasons. But I had never felt rooted to a land until I had been in Israel.
The warmth and openness of Israelis is a defining characteristic of the only Jewish state. Getting invited to Shabbat dinner by a stranger on the bus, or being helped by a couple who recognizes your dilemma of getting down a flight of 20 stairs with your two rolling duffel bags, backpack and carry-on, in the busy center of Jerusalem, or being given a brand new pot by the shop owner where you bought your linens because he heard your roommate say that there weren’t enough cooking utensils in your apartment of six adults – these are all things that rarely happen in America, but no one would bat an eye in Israel.
About halfway through my program I attended a symposium on Zionism in memory of Avi Schaefer, who had made Aliyah with his twin brother after high school, served in an elite unit in the IDF, and while studying at Brown University, was hit and killed by a drunk driver while walking home one night. At this symposium, we heard from many different people with vastly different stories. Something resonated with me that day – all of the speakers were sharing their Aliyah stories and what it meant to them to live, and raise their families, in Israel. It was at that point that I began thinking about making Aliyah.
I attended the Masa Aliyah Shabbaton, where I learned about Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that helps Anglos make Aliyah. We learned about benefits Olim qualify for, Ulpan (Hebrew) programs, and different universities and colleges. After completing my 10 months in Israel I returned to Minnesota and ended up working at the Temple Israel Early Childhood Center for two years and I taught a class on Jewish History and Modern Israel. Every single day since returning from my Masa program, Israel was on my mind.
Every subsequent trip to Israel (June 2013, June & July 2015, and February 2016), it became more difficult to leave. Either I would start tearing up boarding the plane or as the plane took off. Coming back from Israel the last time, I started crying while waiting in line to check my bag at Ben Gurion Airport.
The week after I returned from Israel, the Israel Center and Minnesota Hillel brought Benji Lovitt to campus for a comedy show. While I was driving him to the show, we were catching up, and I asked him about his journey to Aliyah. Benji was the staff person for my small group at the Masa Aliyah seminar in spring 2012, so he knew that I had been considering Aliyah. He proceeded to ask three questions that pushed me over the edge to make the decision: 1) What has been stopping you? My answer: Fear that I won’t be able to support myself. Benji’s response: You have a degree, you speak English fluently and Hebrew pretty well, and you are motivated. Fear shouldn’t be the reason you don’t make Aliyah. 2) What’s the worst thing that can happen if you try? My answer: I don’t succeed and I need to move back. Benji’s response: You’re not burning any bridges. You can come back whenever you want to. And question 3) If you don’t try, will you regret it for the rest of your life? My answer: YES!
Benji encouraged me about opening a file with Nefesh B’Nefesh, and he offered to help me along the way. He was touring around the U.S. at the time, and I didn’t really expect him to check in on my progress, but he did. Every couple of weeks Benji would message me asking if I had opened a file yet, and how things were going. I took my time filling out the Aliyah applications and paperwork, knowing that my Aliyah goal was December 2016/January 2017. It is a pretty straightforward, and guided, process for Jews from the US. When I was in New York in August, I had my Aliyah interview at the Jewish Agency For Israel office and submitted my request to be accepted into Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem for January 2017.
It really didn’t start feeling real until a couple of weeks prior to my Aliyah date. Work was very busy until my last day, trying to get everything done and to prepare my successor at work to ensure the smoothest transition. I kept telling myself I had two months, a month-and-a-half, 1 month, and then suddenly I only had two weeks left to see everyone, pack up my life, have necessary meetings. I managed to get everything done with the help of family and friends. After 2 and a half months of living in Israel, I am settled into my life and routine for now. I say ‘for now’ because I am still living and learning in Ulpan (an immersive Hebrew program), so it’s not exactly like real life yet. However, this week I started in a part-time position with Israel Experience, so life is starting to feel more normal. Additionally, because I am in a residential Ulpan with people ages 22-35, I am building a community of wonderful friends. I can’t wait to see what my life in Israel brings!