Not long ago, my wife and I passed an important personal milestone — the tenth anniversary of our Aliyah. There is so much to be said about what the past decade has meant to us in terms of the quality of our lives, the beauty of our homeland, and our fulfillment as Jews which could only have been fully realized here. When we look at our grandchildren, we feel enormous happiness and pride and are filled with gratitude for the blessings bestowed upon us by Hashem.
The anniversary has prompted me to think a lot about the circumstances surrounding my grandfathers’ decisions to leave the land of their birth, Poland, and move their families to America as compared to our own journey of aliyah. In the simplest of terms, I think of it as them having run away from something, while in our case we were running towards something.
My grandfather Manes Mischel, who lived in the area of Peremyshlan near Lvov, found himself forcibly conscripted into the fighting between the forces of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia in WWI. Jewish soldiers forced into the fighting were frequently discriminated against, denied basic rights and made into scapegoats. When the opportunity arose, he deserted and later fled Poland with my grandmother and much of the extended family.
My grandfather Samuel Gottesfeld was an established manufacturer and partner in a factory in the southern Polish town of Zalesczyki, near the Romanian border, where the family had lived for decades. Antisemitism was always present, but by the mid-1930s he recognized the looming threat of the Nazis, left his family and found work in New York as a furrier. The eagle and swastika stamps of the Third Reich in his passport document his travels through German seaports and were an omen of what he was to face in the period leading up to the outbreak of WWII in September 1939. Fortunately, his foresight in obtaining US citizenship allowed him to work and save so that he was able to obtain visas and send for his immediate family. They escaped right before the outbreak of the war but almost all the remaining extended family perished.
In my eyes, both my grandfathers took heroic steps to ensure the safety of their families. They fled to America, established themselves and raised their families in freedom and safety. How different their experiences were from that in their homeland, and how different from my own.
Raised in a relatively traditional and highly Zionistic household, central to our family’s thinking was honoring our history and our roots – it shaped our lives and how we behaved. But for my parents and grandparents, the notion of living in Israel was hard for them to envision. We had a small handful of survivor cousins who made their way here. We did everything we could over the years to remain connected to them and to be supportive, but to join them here?
My first visit to Israel came as a college student in 1971, when I was a kibbutz volunteer on Rosh Hanikra. The experience changed my perspective forever. I understood that Israel was where I belonged. At the same time, it raised my awareness of the emerging destructive trend of secularism and assimilation among so many of my friends back home. I was strongly tied to my grandparents and parents in a first-generation American kind of way. However, it became more and more obvious to me that weakening Jewish affiliation, inadequate religious education and the increasing numbers opting out through intermarriage were sowing the seeds of the spiritual disaster that has now overwhelmed the vast majority of the American Jewish community.
The discussion about Aliyah began in our home following a post-graduate year that we spent in Israel on the Sherut La’am Program in 1976-77. As we deepened our commitment to religious observance in those years, I initially satisfied myself by thinking that if we were to provide our children with a comprehensive Jewish education, something we both lacked growing up, and if we backed that up with a home life that reflected the importance Judaism held for us in our lives, that this would be sufficient to assure the future of our family. Over the years, however, I came to feel quite differently given the assimilation on a massive scale that we were witnessing around us, particularly among family and close friends. I came to appreciate Aliyah as not only a mitzvah, but a duty and a responsibility to assure the future of my family.
Our Aliyah evolution took many years, complicated by our family ties and responsibilities. In the 1990s we made a pilot trip to Israel to explore Aliyah options under the auspices of Tehilla, a religious Aliyah support organization that preceded today’s Nefesh B’Nefesh.
Something I clipped and saved from one of their brochures resonated with me for many years before we made our aliyah, but now I really understand this:
“Aliyah is not immigration. It is the act of ascent to the Jewish State from the Diaspora, with the goal of building the Jewish Nation. Aliyah is a process that begins with the discovery of one’s true Jewish identity and the realization that fulfillment as a Jew requires living and participating in the Jewish Nation State.”
And that to me is the real point. Today, a decade into our Aliyah, I know with complete certainty that living a full Jewish life can only be achieved here in Israel.
I agree with Rabbi Stewart Weiss, who wrote recently in a Jerusalem Post essay that “the essence of our push for Aliyah must always be an Aliyah of no ifs, ands or buts” …… and that “while coming to Israel to evade and avoid danger is certainly justified—indeed, the majority of our immigrants came to Israel to escape oppression or poverty—it is eminently preferable to make Aliyah for positive reasons; that sends a message that Israel is a heaven, and not only a haven.”
Rabbi Nachman Kahana, in his book “With All Your Might”, goes further:
“We who have returned to the Land of Israel in love, are continuing to forge ahead in the authentic Jewish history that was so violently and cruelly disrupted 2000 years ago. No obstacle will impede our determination to restore the former glory of Am Yisrael as God’s chosen people- neither enemies from within, or those from without.”
Despite the antisemitism that always existed in the New York City that I grew up in during the 50s and 60s, and the trend of relentless assimilation over these past decades, in the end it was the draw of all that is good about Israel that mattered the most to us. As my son Eliezer reminded me this past week, we all must hope to “return to our land with pride and joy, with a straight back and our heads held high, not running from persecution but rather running to the land of our fathers.”