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Happy Anniversary

Today, June 19, my wife Bryna and I are celebrating an anniversary. To our family and close friends this statement may seem rather odd. They know that two days ago, June 17, we celebrated our 49th wedding anniversary. But, indeed, today is an anniversary. Three years ago today, June 19, 2019, we arrived at Ben Gurion international airport and with the assistance of Nefesh b’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency for Israel we walked out of the airport 90 minutes later as Israeli citizens with our teudot zehut, our Israeli identity cards in hand. We were new olim embarking on a new path in our lives.

On leaving the airport we were given our free cab ride to our apartment in Jerusalem. There we were met by our daughter, son-in-law, and four grandchildren who had traveled from Modiin to greet with us with welcome signs, huge smiles and warm hugs. When one of our granddaughters asked my wife how long our Aliyah had been in the planning, my wife responded 45 years. It was 45 years ago that we had been students in Israel as part of my rabbinical school training program and we had thought of making Aliyah. Instead for 43 years I served as a pulpit rabbi in two Conservative congregations in Chicago. Those were good years and I felt satisfied that I had accomplished a good deal, although never quite enough, in my service to the congregations and the Jewish community.

Now it was time to retire and there was no doubt in our minds that we wanted to live out our dream and live in the State of Israel. How fortunate we have been to see our dream realized!

Now three years later did we make the right decision? What a three year period it has been. A month after we arrived I tested out the Israeli health system when I suffered an unannounced heart attack. Thankfully, it served me well and after a period of hospitalization and rehab, I felt fine and was back to my ordinary activities. A few months later the world was hit with the corona virus. We had expected to travel to North America periodically to visit our family. For about 36 months that was impossible. For years we had recited “Next year in Jerusalem” at the end of our Pesach seder. In 2020 that occurred. What was unexpected was that the seder consisted of only the two of us, as we were under strict orders not to be with others for the holiday. Corona is still with us, but we are learning to live with it, thanks to an aggressive vaccination program. We in Israel were among the first to receive the vaccinations which allowed us to travel only a few weeks ago to spend time with our family.

We experienced a war in Gaza and heard the first air raid siren in Jerusalem which brought the war a little too close for comfort for us. For the next while we were glued to the news on television to watch in real time rockets emanating from Gaza, the IDF responding in kind, and riots in some Israeli cities. We continue to be concerned about terrorist actions in Israel and the possibility of a nuclear armed Iran. We still live in a dangerous neighborhood.

So, the real question is: after three years do I feel like an Israeli? The answer is yes and no. I have voted three times (with a fourth a real possibility); I have learned to deal with the Israeli bureaucracy (in most cases); and I live by the Jewish/Israeli calendar. My Hebrew, while not perfect, is good enough to get by in almost all cases. I have even learned to yell in Hebrew as I try to keep my temper and language in check. However, I will probably always be identified as an Anglo since my Hebrew Israeli accent is not up to par. Some even begin to respond to me in conversation in the English language when they notice my accent. I have learned to continue talking Hebrew and in most cases we make ourselves understandable to each other. I still have problems with understanding some of Israeli culture as I did not grow up here. We enjoy watching the TV program “Eretz NeHederet” and appreciate all the political jokes. However, when they move into cultural symbols, known to most native Israelis, we are sometimes lost. Hopefully, that is simply a matter of time and immersion in Israeli society. We are a work in progress.

Three years after our Aliyah we feel very privileged to live in the State of Israel and the holy city of Jerusalem. It has been a dream of our people for 2000 years and we are fortunate to be able to realize it. We are the first generation in 2000 years that does not know a world without the State of Israel. What a privilege! What a challenge! And what a burden!

A few weeks ago I was invited back to my congregation and I delivered the sermon on Shabbat. This is what I said to my former congregants: “We have just celebrated 74 years to the independence of the State of Israel. Our leaders tell us we are strong militarily and economically and are a resilient society. In truth, we know there are many challenges ahead of us including the ongoing concerns of security, the gaps between the haves and have-nots, the issue of religious pluralism and the lack of civil discourse among our leadership in society at large to name only a few. Yet, let us appreciate the fact that there is no better time to be a Jew as for the first time in 2000 years we have our own independent state and can chart our own history.”

For many years I held leadership positions in the Zionist movement in the Diaspora. I was both the US and global chairman of MERCAZ, the Zionist organization of the Conservative/Masorti Movement; I served as chairman of the Aliyah Council of Chicago; and was president of the American Zionist Movement. Three years ago I realized the dream and vision of all the organizations – Aliyah to the State of Israel and involvement in Israeli society not from afar but up close. Hopefully, over time we can add our contributions to that society. We will always have our feet in both Israel and North America, but we are thrilled to call Israel our home and look forward to many more anniversaries of our Aliyah date in health, happiness and most of all in peace.

About the Author
Rabbi Vernon Kurtz is Rabbi Emeritus of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park Illinois, an 1100 family congregation which he served for 31 years. He is past president of the international Rabbinical Assembly, MERCAZ USA and MERCAZ Olami, and is a member of the committees of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish People Policy Institute. He is also past president of the American Zionist Movement and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute. He is the author of Encountering Torah - Reflections on the Weekly Portion. He and his wife Bryna made Aliyah in June 2019.
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