Today, 40 years ago on October 16th, 1979, I boarded an El Al flight to Israel in order to attend the WUJS (World Union of Jewish Students) Program that included a six month Ulpan (intensive Hebrew language) and Judaic studies and then six months of volunteering within the framework of Sherut La’am, a volunteer program for overseas visitors.
I told my parents and Professor Stanley Davis, a professor from Boston University where I attended, who had just offered me a job to be his research assistant in organizational behavior, that I would be back in a year. Professor Davis had just offered me a job for $12,000 a year – I thought I was the richest person in the world – I was definitely intent on returning to the States!
Well, that plan certainly changed! I’ve never looked back and I have no regrets despite feeling badly about Professor Davis, my mega salary and especially my mother! As she poignantly likes to say, I’m happy for you and proud of you, but I’m very, very unhappy that you live so far away!!
I learned Hebrew, struggled through the grammar and mastered the syntax structures, although the correct accent eludes me to this day. Forty years later, no one ever confuses me with being a veteran Israeli once they hear me speak Hebrew with a distinct American accent. Still an immigrant on a certain level; I guess I always will be.
After the Ulpan and Jewish studies, I moved to Zefat with three other volunteers in order to volunteer. (One of those volunteers is also celebrating her 40th anniversary in Israel today). I’m not sure how I managed those days without ESPN sports, Whatsapp or Facebook all on my cellphone. Israel has certainly changed over the last 40 years! So, without my cellphone close by, during the six months in Zefat I started speaking Hebrew, meeting Israelis and reading about Jewish History. I picked up the book, “The History of the Jews” by Ben Sasson, and 1600 pages later put the book down and knew that this was a game changer. It became crystal clear to me that Jews have been persecuted for so long, by so many different countries and that the price of not having a State and an Army had left us vulnerable and powerlessness. The idea of being a Hillel Director or analyzing the organizational structures of American businesses resonated no longer. I didn’t reject these things, nor my parents. Rather, I was fascinated by the idea of the Jews returning to history, establishing a political polity and taking responsibility for defending itself and every other aspect of state building. I didn’t want to support Israel, as important as that may be. I wanted to become an integral part of Israel, no matter the price involved of being apart from my family and Professor Davis.
Consequently, I decided to make Aliyah and, at the age of 27, volunteered for the Army. I served in the Armored Tank Division for a year and a half and then did 15 years of reserve duty. I got married, had three kids and began a career as a community worker, Federation professional and social work educator. Later I moved into the field of health and fitness becoming accredited as a fitness trainer and Thai Massage therapist. I observed up close Israel morph from a country that one had to wait seven years for a telephone land line to one that now has more cell phones than people. I put on a gas mask during the Gulf War, was enthralled with the idea of Oslo and peace with the Palestinians only to be inflicted by a political PTSD syndrome. The Second Intifada altered the political and emotional landscape for me, so I moved politically from Left to Center, along with many other disillusioned Israelis who learned not to trust the Palestinian political leadership. I also learned that while it’s good to have power, power can be abused. Israel is good, but we need to be much better. We need to be more compassionate and empathetic to all its citizens – Jewish, Arab, Christian and Moslem, without exception.
My professional career had its share of ups and downs, as did my personal life. I learned that one can give one’s soul to an agency, but sometimes agencies don’t have souls. I painfully learned that my son’s tortured soul was unable to cope with life when he chose to complete his life by suicide.
I learned to ride through the vicissitudes of life with all its searing pain and multitude of blessings. I ride up the Jerusalem Hills on a mountain bike often struggling to make it up the hill, sometimes falling, but always determined to get back on the bike and move forward. Much like my ride the past 40 years living in Israel.
There have been a lot of ups and downs, but it’s been a great ride. I feel privileged to live in the State of Israel the past 40 years. To my parents and Professor Davis, I’ve missed you the past 40 years, but I have no regrets. Deciding to live here was one of the best decisions of my life.
Forty and counting.