Israel through the eyes of an oleh

I love making aliyah.

I say “making” and not “made” because I believe that aliyah is not a static one-time event that begins and ends when our plane lands in Israel and, for the first time, we don’t have a return ticket home.

I believe that aliyah is a process.  An exciting and inspiring process but also a humbling process that finds many of us olim taking a few life-steps back in order to learn how to live and survive in this new environment, that on the soul/emotional level is so familiar, is so much our deepest home, but on the everyday gotta-get-stuff-done-and-live-here level is so different than the worlds we left behind.  Aliyah is a process of learning all over again, of acclimating and acculturating, of celebrating our large and small accomplishments and feeling frustrated when it seems like nothing’s working.  Of forgetting at times why we even made aliyah.  And then remembering exactly why we made aliyah and knowing that any and all sacrifices and challenges we experience along the way are more than worth it.

With that in mind, and in honor of Yom Ha’Aliyah, I take you through a typical day of my life here in Israel.  As an oleh.  Because as olim, we see things that native Israelis don’t.  We notice those moments that others either take for granted or don’t even see.  We kvell over Jews openly being Jews in the Jewish state.  We smirk at the humorous mannerisms of sabras.  And we get emotional witnessing our children growing up in this land.

So here’s a day in the life of this oleh:

6:00- Wake up.  From the bathroom window, I hear the beginning sounds of construction workers getting ready for another day.  How early are they legally allowed to begin?

6:20- On my bike heading to the train station.  20 people on electric bikes whiz by me.  I’d like to see how fast they can ride on a regular bike.

6:35- On the platform waiting for the train to Tel Aviv.  Wondering why no one is really dressed like they’re going to work.

6:40- On the train.  Pass a woman wearing pants and a tank top saying Tehillim.  Sitting behind her is a girl wearing a long skirt with her face buried in her siddur, rocking back and forth.  Across from her an Arab woman wearing a hijab reading her free copy of “Yisrael HaYom”.  I think to myself that my Hebrew will probably never be as good as hers.

6:42- Take out my tallit and tefillin to start my morning prayers.  No one stares.  No one questions.   At the next stop a guy already wearing his tallit and tefillin gets on and sits next to me.  We look at each other and smile.

6:55- Look around the train.  All kinds of wires are dangling from the train’s outlets.  97% of the passengers are looking either at a smartphone, a laptop or a Kindle.  Some are simultaneously using two of the three.  The dings of WhatsApp messages ring through the air.

7:15- Waiting in Tel Aviv for my next train.  Every Hebrew announcement is followed by an English one.  In the English announcements, the Hebrew names of cities are said with the thickest, most-American sounding accent I have ever heard.  Wondering if my Hebrew sounds like that.

7:20- On train. Someone’s listening to a YouTube video without headphones.  I wait for someone to say something to him, but no one does.  I wait longer.  Someone, in their beautiful native-sounding Hebrew, will for sure say something to him.  But no one does.  So I, the person on the train with the least developed Hebrew, get up from my seat and ask him to put on headphones. Miraculously he does.  He saves me from having to argue with him in Hebrew.

7:40- A guy sits next to me.  He’s got a tattoo of the Shema on his arm.

7:50- Ding. I get a new WhatsApp message.  I notice there are actually 37 new messages in the WhatsApp group from my daughter’s 2nd-grade class.  From this morning alone.  I choose to ignore them all.

8:00- Get off the train in Hod HaSharon and start my 15-minute walk to where I work at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel.  On the way pass a huge traffic jam.  In recent years they built about 25 new apartment buildings in the area but they didn’t think of widening the roads to accommodate the increase in cars.  Glad I’m walking.

8:02- Pass a fruit stand.  Overhear two older men, one with a kippa and one without, arguing over whether or not you can use a dud shemesh on Shabbat.

8:03- Pass the owner of the one store in town that sells pork opening up his shop. Before entering, he kisses the mezuzah.

8:05- Phone rings.  Person is speaking Russian.  Wrong number.

8:06- Phone rings again.  Person is speaking Arabic.  Wrong number.

8:07- Phone dings (dings not rings).  Text message from my 10-year old son (from my wife’s phone) just saying hi on the way to school.  In Hebrew.  I smile.

8:10- Stop at the bakery to pick a little something.  They already have sufganiyot for sale (of course).    I pick up a bagele and stand on line.  Someone blatantly cuts me.  I have a quick debate in my mind if I should say anything or not.  I decided that it is my duty to say something.  So with my unique blend of former-New Yorker and current-Israeli attitude, I say clearly and proudly, “Mah, Ani Lo Kayam??”  The person steps back and stands behind me.  I smile.

8:11- At register.  My snack costs 4.40 shekels.  I give the worker five shekels.  She asks, “Do you happen to have 40 agurot?”  I smile.

8:12- As I am receiving my change, a friend of mine who just made aliyah calls. I can’t pick up.  A minute later my phone dings announcing the message he just left on my voicemail.  I smile. He’ll learn.

8:20- Get to work.  The guard at the gate has a newspaper, a Tanach and a Sefer Tehillim on his table.  Next to a pack of cigarettes.

8:25- At work.  Talking with a few of my Israeli colleagues.  One starts telling a joke in Hebrew.  I get a little nervous but I’m ready.  He gets to the punchline and…I understand the joke.  Yesh.  I laugh more in celebration of my understanding than the actual joke itself.

8:26- A second person starts telling another joke.  Going for two in a row.  He eventually gets to the punchline and… I didn’t get this one.  Everyone’s having a good hearty laugh.  And I take out my phone and walk away, pretending I just got a phone call.

8:28- Run into another co-worker.  A secular Moroccan woman.  Haven’t seen her in a while.  She’s excited to tell me about her husband’s trip to Uman for Rosh Hashanah.

8:30- Spend the day teaching high school students from America about Jewish History and modern Israel.  Have the awesome opportunity to share with them my love and passion for our people, this land and this country. (Shout out to my students!)

16:00- Start the long journey home from work.

17:00- My train from Tel Aviv is delayed 15 minutes.  Not such a big deal.

17:15- Train arrives. Doors open up and it is packed to the brim with people.  The people standing like sardines on the train look at us standing with longing on the platform.  We want to get on.  “There’s absolutely no room,” they say with a mix of anger and pride that they’re already on the train.  I and another person push our way on anyway.  I’m no freier.

17:18- After three minutes of moving, the train comes to a complete stop.  The conductor announces that there are electric issues with the train.  We are sitting on the tracks between stations.  Could be a total disaster if not for the fact that everyone around me is making jokes.  Everyone is laughing and having a grand ‘ol time.  It’s really unbelievable.  Am Yisrael Chai.

17:48- After 30 minutes of having a grand ‘ol time, one guy can’t take it anymore and screams out, “I’m getting out of here!”  He pushes his way through the crowd and presses the emergency button which sends the train’s doors flying open. He jumps off.  The whole train goes silent.  He makes his way to the side of the tracks and starts walking.

17:50- Two minutes later the train starts moving again.

17:52- We pass the man walking along the tracks.  Everyone waves to him.  He looks pretty upset.

18:00- As the train begins to empty, I get to finally sit.  Seconds later a man in his 50’s sits down next to me.  He starts talking to me.  For some reason he feels inclined to tell me that he is an atheist but that he likes to study Torah.  He then shows me a 200-page manuscript of personal insights he has written down on the weekly Torah portion and is going to publish.

18:45- Finally arrive home and sit down for a family dinner. Listening to my kids share about their day.  Have one of those moments when I realize that every sentence that comes out of my kids’ mouth is 50% English and 50% Hebrew.

19:00- My son’s friend calls. Asks if he could come over now for a play date.  Really??

19:30- My wife asks me to proofread a text message (in Hebrew) she is sending to our daughter’s friend’s mom to set up a playdate for the next day.

22:00- As I am beginning to pass out on the couch, I realize I needed to ask my daughter’s teacher a question.  Wondering if it’s too late to text.  A bit nervously, I send it.  She texts me back in 7 seconds flat.  I guess it’s not too late.

22:15- Go to sleep thinking about the incredible merit I have to partake in this extraordinary chapter of Jewish history–living in the land of Israel and in the State of Israel.  To experience the craziness of this place and the holiness of life here all at once.  I feel truly blessed. Can’t wait to see what tomorrow brings!

Akiva Gersh is currently working on a book that gives voice to the uniqueness of the aliyah process and to the inspiring, challenging and humorous experiences of English-speaking olim in Israel.  Be on the lookout for it in the near future!

About the Author
Akiva Gersh moved to Israel from New York in 2004 and has been working in the field of Jewish and Israel Education for over 20 years. In 2020 he founded @Israel to share his love and passion for Israel with students, schools and communities around the world through his online classes, courses and virtual tours of Israel. Akiva is also the editor of the book "Becoming Israeli" (, a compilation of essays that gives an inside look at the unique experience of making aliyah and the journey of acclimating to life in Israel. He also created a social media platform called "Vegan Rabbi" through which he teaches about Jewish teachings related to health, animal welfare and environmental stewardship. Akiva lives in Pardes Hanna with his wife Tamar and their four kids.