Vernon Kurtz

My First Four Weeks in Israel

Four weeks ago, my wife and I alighted from an El Al plane from Boston at Ben Gurion Airport and were met by a representative of Nefesh b’Nefesh. We were new olim and were starting a new chapter in our lives. For 43 years I was a Conservative rabbi in Chicago in two wonderful congregations, with 31 years as senior rabbi in a large synagogue in the northern suburbs. I had decided to retire and together my wife we were moving to Israel.

As I stated to one of my teachers, “The dream has been fulfilled.” As students in the early ’70s we had discussed making Israel our home, but it took almost 50 years to make it happen. In the meantime I had a successful career in the pulpit, involved myself in many community activities, chaired Zionist organizations, taught in academic institutions, and worked on behalf of our tradition, our people and our land, both as a professional and as a volunteer. Now that I had decided to retire it was time to fulfill our dream.

Our decision was made easier because one of our daughters had made aliyah after graduating college in the States. We had bought an apartment 10 years ago and used it each time we came to Israel for professional work or vacation. We are both quite proficient in the Hebrew language, which has made our absorption much easier.

At the airport, we were given our official documents with many instructions on how to proceed further in acquiring full citizenship with all its benefits and responsibilities. We took our free cab ride to our apartment in Jerusalem and there were met with welcome signs, smiles and hugs by our daughter, son-in-law and four grandchildren.

So what have we been doing these last four weeks? Some of our time has been used to straighten out our apartment, purchase some items for our new life in Israel and continue the bureaucratic process – changing our status at the bank, going to the Jerusalem municipality to claim our rights of a reduction of the arnona – the real estate tax – as new olim, joining a kupat holim – our health care provider, and the like.

At the same time we were becoming involved in our new country and in our new city. As a member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency I attended their June meetings, as a board member of the Jewish People’s Policy Institute I was present at their board meeting, we attended evening lectures, and walked the streets in the beautiful Jerusalem evenings. In particular, we enjoyed our walks to the First Station, the renovated train station, where we heard a rock concert, an opera performance and watched Israeli dancing on successive nights. We met friends both from Israel and those who had traveled from abroad and wanted to see us. For the past 10 days, I have been a student at the Hartman Institute, where I am a Senior Rabbinic Fellow.

Wherever we went we were welcomed both privately and publicly with a warm greeting: “Welcome home.” “If there is anything we can do please let us know.” “Are you available for a Shabbat meal at our home?” Each Shabbat we attended a different synagogue, mostly because our host for lunch was present at the services that morning. Each Shabbat we were welcomed with an Aliyah, a special prayer, a song, and a special welcome in the Shabbat announcements whether we were known to the community or not.

But what made me know that we made the right decision to move to Israel and to make Jerusalem our home occurred during the first week here. The annual Festival of Lights was held in the Old City. During those few days the Old City is lit up with lights on the walls, special displays of decorative art can be found both within the city walls and outside them, and music and food is everywhere. We had been there in previous years but this time it was different. This was our home city. We walked around enjoying not only the scenery but the people. And there were many people – young and old, religious and secular, Arab and Jew, black hat and multi-colored. We were enthralled with the scenery, the people and the creative artistry. But that was not the end of it. As we were returning to Jaffa Gate through Mt. Zion, it seems we made a wrong turn. Instead of staying on the correct path we found ourselves at the grave of King David. Here were pious people praying and studying, here were men and women who were tourists and regulars, paying their respects to the ancient king of Israel. Here were those who believed that this was actually the grave of the King of Israel and those who just enjoyed the legend.

This to me this was the miracle of Israel and the beauty and sanctity of Jerusalem. We had veered from a spectacle of light in the 21st century to a place venerated as the grave of one of the great kings of Israel 3,000 years ago. One wrong turn and we found ourselves placed back millennia in history. One more turn onto the correct path and we were back in the present. What a privilege to be alive today and to witness both events within a few meters of one another. It was at that moment I realized we had made the correct decision of moving to Israel, and especially to Jerusalem, as we begin this new chapter of our lives.

“The dream has been fulfilled.” Now it is our task to help ensure that the dream and its present reality are one and the same.

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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