Twenty years ago today, on October 15, 1998, I made Aliyah at age 20 from Manchester, UK. That’s right. I have officially spent half my life (if you don’t count our three-year hiatus in the US, which I don’t, because I was pining for Israel every single day…just ask my husband) in this country. The timing of my 20th Aliyahversary couldn’t be more perfect and poignant, coinciding this year with parshat Lech Lecha in which Gd orders Avraham to leave Ur Casdim where everything is familiar to him, and move to the land of Israel, where everything is unfamiliar.
Every Rosh Hashanah, I use a Birnbaum machzor (prayerbook specifically for the holiday) which I received as a gift on the occasion of my Bat Mitzvah. Aside from the sentimental value of using the same machzor year in year out since age 12, there is another reason why I feel so deeply connected to this particular machzor. On the inside page can be found the doodling and melodramatic scribbling of a twelve-year-old girl who wrote in calligraphy: “I want to live in Israel. אני רוצה לגור בישראל”.
It is difficult for me to understand my preteen yearnings to live in Israel but my desire to make Aliyah was deeply ingrained in me before I even had the vocabulary to articulate why. As a child Israel spoke to my senses. I remember the sweetness of inhaling the country. I remember the feeling of safety and love when seeing a chayal in green on Egged buses. I remember looking at the palm trees and thinking this is home. I remember being in Ein Gedi and thinking how breathtakingly beautiful our country was. I remember loving the sound of Hebrew roll off my tongue as I eagerly learned the language and eventually went on to take Modern Hebrew A’ Level in the UK.
Returning to the Torah portion of Lech Lecha, when Gd instructs Avraham to” go forth from your native land, from your father’s house, to the land that I will show you,” it is understandable why Avraham would be anxious. The stress that accompanies moving and change is enormous. Not only is Avraham requested to relocate, but he has to leave everything that is comforting and familiar in his life: his birthplace and family. Gd promises him that it will be OK but honestly that is not much reassurance when all you are faced with is the unknown.
So why does Avraham yield so eagerly to Gd’s commandment to make Aliyah? If we look at the Hebrew words that make up Gd’s instruction, we read “Lech Lecha” which means “go for yourself.” Gd is telling Avraham: Do this for YOURSELF. Leave your comfort zone. True, you have no idea what awaits you in this country. True, you are leaving security behind. But make this leap and you will see the benefit for YOURSELF. You will see what you are capable of; you will be responsible for future generations of Jews settling the holy land; your name will be associated with bravery and courage.
Nothing about my decision to make Aliyah at the age of 20 made any sense. I had no immediate family in Israel. I did not have a circle of friends in Israel. I loved languages – in particular French – but as wonderful as universities are in Israel, you don’t move to Israel if you want to develop your French.
So why DID I make Aliyah? I did it for myself. I did it for my unborn children. I had no idea what life had in store for me at age 20. But I wanted a life that would not force me to compartmentalize different areas of my life, where I could practice my Judaism openly among fellow Jews. Did I think it would be a life without fear? Without bouts of loneliness? Without financial challenges? Even as young as 20, I wasn’t so naïve to think life in Israel wouldn’t be fraught with challenge. But it was the challenge that injected meaning, color, and vivacity into my life. I was moving to a country promised to my people – a country where I could wear my religion on my sleeve without fear of humiliation or persecution. I was moving to a country where your people become your immediate family.
I didn’t know at age 20 that I would fall madly and deeply in love with Jerusalem, a city that captivated me with its soul, magic, and light. I didn’t know at age 20 that I would meet my soulmate who had arrived in Israel from Elizabeth New Jersey just a month before me. I didn’t know at age 20 that I would give birth to three beautiful sabras who despite having to contend with somewhat clueless immigrant parents are a credit to their country. I didn’t know at age 20 that I would be spending three extremely painful and heartbreaking years outside of Israel. I didn’t know at age 20 that despite the unlikelihood of us coming home, we would arrive back in Israel as Toshavim Chozrim, just three years later. I didn’t know at age 20 that I would end up working for an organization dedicated to bringing Jews home.
And yet I came. Lech LECHA. For myself. Because life is not about being stagnant. Life is not about clinging to the familiar. Life is about growth even if it means sacrifice. Life is about meaning even if it means vulnerability. Twenty years later, I am still pretty much a foreigner. Just ask my children. But my heart belongs to Israel and I bless the day twenty years ago when I followed the path of “Lech Lecha.”