No longer a tourist

On the heels of the 2,000-year-old dream, I have a new one: To foster respect in Israel and help close the gaps in our society
Our family in Israel. (courtesy)
Our family in Israel. (courtesy)

I remember going door-to-door as a child in Northeast Philadelphia, with a pushka (charity box) in hand, collecting coins for Israel, then under attack by neighboring Arab countries during the Six Day War. I sang the songs of the halutzim (pioneers) — Artza Alinu and Zum Gali Gali — marched in Israel Day parades, received JNF tree certificates for my bar mitzvah, and dreamed about the distant, promising, magical state of the Jewish people.

This connection to Israel was, for many Jews of my generation, more than just an inspiration, but a source of identification with the Jewish people and our traditions. My journey took me to Yeshiva University, 22 years in the pulpit rabbinate, a decade of teaching at YU, the founding of JSafe to fight abuse in the Jewish community, and more than a decade as the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America. As a young man, I studied at BMT, one of the original gap-year Torah study programs, taught, advocated and lobbied for Israel, and made sure to pay a visit a countless number of times, feeling guilty whenever I stepped through passport control on my way back to the States.

The North American Jewish community is a vibrant and significant one. Jews have achieved much success and have thrived there in all areas of personal, religious, business, and public life. Not without its challenges and difficulties, it has truly been a Goldeneh Medinah (Golden Country). I have been privileged to serve this community, through the RCA and in pulpits, schools, and communal organizations, for more than four decades. Making the decision to move to Israel was not an easy one, but Israel called.

Last week, my wife Rachel, my daughter Bobby, and I had the privilege of joining the 3,340,000 immigrants who have made aliyah since the founding of the State of Israel. We are joining Rachel’s daughter Shuli, who made aliyah in 2017 and served as a lone soldier, as well as my children, Yolly and Sam, their respective spouses, Yaakov and Sari, and five of our grandchildren (two more on the way!) who made aliyah last summer. We came along with 63 others on a Nefesh B’Nefesh group flight from New York. While all of us share much in common, each of us is unique, with our own stories and motivations and dreams. Our story is now another entry in the great saga of Jewish history and Jewish destiny.

The biblical promise that began with Abraham, the Torah obligation to settle the land, the unrealized dreams of millennia of Jews in exile, the mandate of a modern Jewish state for all Jews, and the ability to link my destiny with the dynamic and historic destiny of our people in our Land, all led to this moment. I look forward to no longer turning to the right for the “foreign passport” line at Ben Gurion Airport. I am no longer a stranger in a strange land.

My long-awaited dream has turned into a reality.

Despite the many visits we have made, and the family and friends we know and love, we know Israel as tourists, not residents. We will speak Hebrew with an American accent, and live our lives accented as well. We know we are coming to Israel during a challenging time in the public square, one marked by deep political tension and polarization — but when is it not a challenging time in Israel? Despite our avid reading of the Israeli media, we are humble enough to know that there is much for us to learn, and we can’t wait to start. But, we come with the hopes and the dreams of 2,000 years, and the commitment to make a contribution to closing the gaps in Israeli society and helping foster mutual respect, dialogue and unity.

Many exciting things await us in our new home. For now, I’m looking forward to engaging with the land of Israel. I can’t wait to take walks with Rachel through the streets of Jerusalem, to sip coffee under the lemon tree in our new garden, and to reconnect with family (Aunt Tzibby, we are coming for dinner!) and friends, both old and new.

Of course, I will continue to learn Torah, engage with Israeli culture on the ground and, finally, explore the land — not as a tourist, but as a resident.

About the Author
Rabbi Mark Dratch was the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America from 1993-2024 and founder of JSafe (The Jewish Institute Supporting an Abuse-Free Environment). He made aliyah with Nefesh B’Nefesh in July 2023.
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