From the Diaspora – with Love: My Gift to You

Dear Israel:  Today I send you a gift. Today I send you my son.

If anyone had ever told me I’d one day be sending my baby (my 28-year-old baby) to Israel, I’d have called the person delusional. After all, why would a kid who, by many accounts, was living “the easy life” want to pick up and go halfway around the world to live? Why would he want to leave family and friends? His job?

Those things may not have always been exactly what Josh wanted them to be, but they were constant (the family), predictable (the friends) and a job (the job). Why thrust yourself into the complete unknown, with no real sense of how you’ll live, where you’ll live… and how you’ll afford to live where you’ll live?

Some might call this irresponsible. (Some have, right to his face.) But I get it. Honest I do.


My son fell in love with Israel like so many young Americans do. It all started with Birthright. In ten days of running around the country seeing the sights in the company of like-minded college peers, he came back so turned on he practically glowed in the dark. My kid, who’d gone from Jewish day school, to a Catholic University (with an array of identity-crisis stops in between), had definitely drunk the Kool-Aid (or, in this case, the Limonana).

Say what you will, Birthright critics, about all that drinking and partying. The program works.

After Birthright, all Josh could do was talk about Israel. His thinking changed. He committed to dating only Jewish women. He stopped complaining about Kosher food (he didn’t convert his own kitchen, but he made peace with eating in mine — although that might have been less about religious re-awakenings than about free food). And he vowed to return to Israel.

And so he did, a few years later, as a participant in a Jewish Federation Mission to Israel.

This time he was again with young people (on one of eight buses carting around close to 300 Pittsburgh mission-goers). But they weren’t college people. They were “grown-ups,” men and women with real jobs, real commitments and a real love for Israel. Not a love born of good times on a wild adventure. A mature love, based on understanding, pride and a sense of Jewish peoplehood.

And, still, this kid of mine was drinking the Limonana.

He started talking about Aliyah.

Aliyah? Are you kidding? That’s no life for a nice Jewish boy! (Or, more accurately, it’s no life for a kid I’d like to see more than once a year.)

We didn’t try to discourage him. But we wanted to be certain reality had set in… that he didn’t imagine his flat would resemble his room at the InterContinental David Tel Aviv… that he didn’t expect to start each day with a lavish buffet breakfast of fresh cheeses and still-warm pastries… that he didn’t anticipate meeting up with friends for dinner and drinks at Mantra once a week.

He didn’t.

He had taken to the internet for endless hours, following the vacillating exchange rate, seeing how much apartment you can get for your money, figuring out which bus takes you where, and seeing which beloved foods he’d have to live without and which dollar store staples would have to make their way to him in someone’s suitcase.

Reality had set in — and he was still drinking the Limonana.

Then the family caught wind of Josh’s plans (it’s our way to make plans before people catch wind — to be so confident in what you want and far enough along in the planning that no one can talk you out of it). I steeled myself for the reaction.

But Josh’s excitement was palpable, tough to argue with. His dogged approach to navigating the bureaucracy was commendable, tough to argue with. His determination to start a new chapter of his life in Israel was truly admirable — belying strength and courage, I daresay, we all wished we had more of. Especially tough to argue with.

The reaction: bittersweet. It was a wonderful thing he was doing — why did he have to do it so far away?

Incidentally, the reaction from other circles was largely bitter without the sweet. “Israel? It’s so dangerous!” To which I replied, “The kid was car-jacked at gunpoint outside his apartment on Main Street*” (*High-rent yuppie district, name changed to protect the reputation of our fair city.)

So, what do I think of all this?

 I don’t worry for his safety (as I said). Although, based on some of the experiences he’s had so far, I sometimes worry for his sanity. (Just kidding. If all the other olim have learned to live with the bureaucracy, he can, too.)

I am saddened. It’s just so, so far away.

But, mostly, I’m proud. It’s no small thing to start again, far from everything you’ve known all your life. To learn a new language and adopt a new culture. To find work. To make a new life for yourself. It takes great will, strength and faith — in yourself and in something bigger than yourself.

So, Israel, I send you this gift. Please take care of it, nurture it and help it be all that it can be.

I’ll be coming over to make sure you do. Just as often as I can. Whether invited or not.

About the Author
Ellen Roteman is Director of Marketing Communications for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh