Our Lech Lecha and What We Left Behind

I will not cry today, I resolve as I open my Chumash to learn the parsha. I can’t. I have a busy day ahead of me and after learning the first aliyah yesterday, I spent much of the day in tears. I need to get it together. 

I had imagined it would be poignant to learn Parshat Lech Lecha a mere few months after our aliyah but I could not have imagined the strong current of emotions that I would find from one phrase in a verse; a phrase that had never really felt so meaningful before but that I now realize truly encapsulates our journey and the warring directions of my heart. 

Anyone who knows me from way back when, knows that my heart and mind have always been in Israel. I’ve wanted to make aliyah since I was 12 years old and my first email address was zionist15. When I was 16, I was teased and called “Prime Minister” because that’s what I wanted to be when I “grew up”. As an adult, I channeled my love for Israel by hungrily reading anything about Israel’s history and fascinating (crazy?) politics and sharing my passion with my students. While I loved teaching history and advocacy in the classroom and running programs about Israel at school, my greatest love was taking my students on trips to Israel; explaining the people behind the street names, chasing my students up mountains on hikes while reminding them that they were exploring their inheritance on foot (and getting a mitzvah per every 4 amot of walking) and sharing meaningful stories and poems from Israel’s wars and rich history. When I was in Israel, I felt alive. When I boarded a plane to leave after these trips, I would feel a piece of me die a small death. The best way I can describe my feelings for Israel is a phrase used in the Torah to describe Yaakov’s connection to Yosef: נפשי קשורה בנפשו- his soul was enjoined with his son’s- those are always the words that encapsulate my love for Israel. My soul is connected to the land. Our aliyah was a long time in coming and many have expressed to me they were surprised it didn’t happen earlier. 

But I learned a new love during our years in America and that’s why it took us so long to make the jump. For the past 8 years, we lived in Charleston, South Carolina where my husband served as a shul rabbi and I worked as the Director of Judaics of our community school. During our time in Charleston, we were privileged to be part of so many journeys. We initially arrived at a shul with very few young families, a scant amount of observant people and many members who belonged because of a familial connection. Somehow, during our time in the community, young couples appeared from nowhere embarking on a journey in their Judaism, faces that had long been absent from our shul started to appear at minyan and Kiddush and the voices and joyful noise of young Jewish children once again started to fill our shul. 

Our experiences in Charleston were straight out of an inspiring book that you read and sometimes wonder if the author is exaggerating the story. We watched people who had hardly been to shul since their bar mitzvah start coming to minyan to say Kaddish, and subsequently become connected and even key players in our shul. My husband had the honor to officiate at weddings of people whom he had learned with and helped bring closer to Judaism. I was privileged to bring women to the mikvah; at heights like after long-sought out conversions and before weddings, and at lows- like when I cried with them after debilitating pregnancy losses (which made subsequent celebrations after births even more special). My husband and I were at deathbeds to witness the love and pain of couples who had been married for sixty years, unions which only death could separate. We sat with couples who had lost children and cried with them as they desperately tried to understand how this could happen and wanted the comforting spiritual solace that for some reason, a rabbi’s presence can bring. We befriended an Israeli who was a self-avowed anti-religionist and we were astounded when before we left, he decided he wanted to make a bar mitzvah for his son at our shul. We got to experience poignant symbols of renewal at our shul, like when my husband named a baby after his great-grandfather; a man who had been a builder of our community and one of the first funerals my husband had officiated. This man’s death had been the impetus for a conversion, an unbelievable growth process and a wedding that our entire community had witnessed and been moved by. Now it had come full-circle when his name was passed on to his great-grandchild. When you are a part of journeys the way we were privileged to be, you truly become like family. 

When I say that it was gut-wrenching to leave, I mean it. Avram was privileged to take “הנפש אשר עשו בחרן”- the souls that he was a part of building in Charan, with him to Eretz Canaan when he embarked on his journey. We were not. And to leave the souls that we feel so connected to was and is, so difficult. 

Ultimately, we left Charleston because there is no Jewish high school there and my oldest daughter was graduating 8th grade; we felt it was important to keep our family together. We agreed that if we had to leave Charleston, there was nowhere else in the world we would want to be other than Israel, even if it meant sacrificing the careers we loved. It was a sacrifice but it also a fulfillment of a dream.

Nearly three months after our arrival, I am filled with euphoria to be here. My husband and I go for walks at night and explore new areas and I can feel the giddy smile on my face (beneath my mask). I watch my children learn in Hebrew (on the computer) and hear them sing songs with their teachers praying for rain and there are tears running down my face with the joy of the education I can give them here that I could not in America. I go for hikes overlooking the gorgeous scenery that belongs to me as my birthright and I have to pinch myself that I am here. I walk to the Kotel to daven on Rosh Chodesh and I cannot believe Jerusalem is only a short drive from my home. There is no clock ticking with a departure flight awaiting me; for the first time in my life, I am not monitoring El Al’s website, jumping to grab a ticket. I never have to leave and it is the greatest feeling in the world. My soul has been reconnected with its roots; after 39 years, I’ve finally come home. 

But just as in the case of Avram, who had to leave his birthplace, his family and his roots behind, aliyah comes with sacrifice. Ours was leaving our community and the meaningful work that we got so much fulfillment from. I am unbelievably happy and grateful to be here, in the place that Moshe Rabbeinu begged to enter to no avail, the place that my grandparents dreamed of moving to. But with its great joy, Lech Lecha isn’t always easy and there is certainly a pang for all that we left behind. 

About the Author
Ariela Davis, a native New Yorker, is the Rebbetzin of Charleston, South Carolina’s historic Orthodox synagogue, Brith Shalom Beth Israel, and the Director of Judaics of Addlestone Hebrew Academy, Charleston’s Jewish day school. She is the wife of Rabbi Moshe Davis and the mother of four children.
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