In February I flew to New York for 50 hours to attend the Kosher Food and Wine Experience and spend a short time with some of the writers that I have become friends with since my reincarnation as a food writer. As I mingled with the foodies, almost everyone I met was stunned that I had flown in to the event from Kansas and almost instantly asked me how it become home.
Although I’ve shared my experience of the close-knit community, low cost of living, and ease of Jewish life time and time again, I’ve never stopped to write about how we ended up here. There’s no doubt that we’re proud of our community and think this is a great place to raise a family, but there’s more to this story than affordable housing within an eruv.
I’m sure I am going to offend someone by inferring that there was something divine about our journey away from Israel, but I believe our transition from Jerusalem of Gold to the Yellow Brick Road really was meant to be.
It all began a few months after my wife and I got married when I parted ways with full-time employment so that we could travel. The day before leaving for our month-long Australian honeymoon we got word that we had been hired to spend the summer in Kansas to run a summer program for teenagers from across North America. For six weeks, we would do community service work, pushing our comfort zone to live the mantra of tikkun olam (repairing the world), day and night.
Disappointed that we were being sent to “the middle of nowhere” rather than the Texas program that we had hoped to run, our request to change locations was politely dismissed and Kansas was to be our destination. Fast forward three months and we’re en route to MCI for the first time, unaware of the impact that six weeks would have on our five-year-plan.
Stepping off of the plane, the air was warm and the overcast sky had a green tinge to it. This was explained by the tornado watch that was in effect (“Don’t worry!” I was told “it’s only serious when it’s a tornado warning”). The next day we met our staff, one native to Kansas, the other from Maryland. Both had tremendous assets that made our summer a success. Spending shabbat together before the participants arrived, we quickly became a team and were ready to welcome sixteen teenagers from across North America to our temporary home.
Over the weeks that followed we worked on three homes with Habitat for Humanity, volunteered at food pantries and got to meet people from all walks of life. We were living in a makeshift dorm at a local synagogue and driving to the local JCC, for daily showers. We worked hard during the week and explored other Mid-Western communities for shabbatot.
We became the classic “summer camp” family, only the story didn’t end when camp was over.
Each of us looks back on that summer feeling that our lives changed direction. Our “kids” have grown into leaders of the future, finding their way to become presidents of Hillel, fundraisers for charities or continuing to donate their time to build homes in India, Latvia and beyond. Our young teenage participants have grown into young adults with a strong sense of social responsibility and Jewish identity. Each of these sixteen “kids” left their impression on Kansas City and changed my life forever.
My wife and I left Kansas City having learned that we were to be first time parents. Our life in Israel was just fine and although we knew we wanted to move out of Jerusalem, we were considering communities nearby. At the time, we had no intention of moving to the US. I don’t really know what happened in the year that followed, but before I knew it, we didn’t get on that return flight to Israel at the end of our summer visit to Los Angeles.
We returned to Kansas to make sure the city we loved wasn’t a summer romance, only to be found again by clicking through Facebook photos and blog posts. When we got back to the Midwest, the sky was bright and we’d found that the community we’d enjoyed for six weeks had grown, and was as inviting as it was the day we left.
By the time our baby boy turned two years old we were living in American’s heartland in the midst of a community that is warm and welcoming. The cost of living saves us pennies on the dollar compared to a similar life in any other city or country I have lived in (seriously, ask me about property prices!). Our social calendar is full of activities thanks to our growing community. We arrive at shul each Shabbat and there are strollers lined up outside with at least 60 kids under the age of 5 in the play room. I’ve lost count of the number of “young couples” that have made Kansas their home since we unpacked our boxes.
In my experience, Jewish life in the diaspora is very different from life in Israel. We found a gem. We found a growing community that cares about each and every member. There’s no shortage of kosher food, and we even have annual kosher BBQ festival. Sometimes I pull into the driveway of our four-bedroom home and wonder how this all happened. I daydream and wonder about the parallel life our friends are living in Israel. I talk to friends in New York or California, suffocated by their cost of living, and I am so grateful for the community and life that we are building.
When I made aliyah I expected it to be forever. Clearly, G-d had other plans for me.