Almost exactly forty five years ago, my mother and grandparents stood anxiously at the airport in Austria, barely able to believe that it was real. After spending their entire lives living under the Iron Curtain, freedom was finally within grasp. Freedom to pursue their dreams, freedom to be who they were, without having to blush. Freedom to be proud of who they were- Jews. Thanks to the selfless and persistent efforts of their brethren abroad, they were finally free to come home to their homeland, to Israel. However, the sudden allure of being given the opportunity to immigrate to America made the choice an ever so difficult one- where to come home to? Israel or America?
Unlike most families that took the time to discuss and decide in advance where they would start their new lives, my family was still in limbo as they arrived at the airport. My grandfather, enamored by the appeal of Marlboro cigarettes and Chevrolet Impalas could not pass up the opportunity to move to the country he had always dreamed of and read about. My grandmother on the other hand was adamant about moving to Israel. She felt a debt of gratitude to her people, who had worked so tirelessly to grant her freedom. As a result of the movement to free Soviet Jewry, she felt that she was a part of something greater than herself. She was part of a people, who cared about her, and she cared for them. Moving to Israel was just the natural choice for her. As they stood at the airport quarrelling, bickering, and moving suitcases back and forth between lines, my grandfather said one phrase which ended the discussion: “They won’t accept us there anyway- we aren’t religious, so no one wants us in Israel.” And with that my grandmother gave in and moved her suitcase towards the line for New York.
How comical and pathetic. If only they knew what Israel was really like. Standing at that airport in 1976, my grandparents changed the entire trajectory of their lives based on the assumption that Israel was a religious theocracy that would not accept them due to their lack of knowledge of religious practice. While nothing could further from the truth, today hundreds of thousands of Jews are making the same mistake in America, but in reverse. Let me explain.
Despite COVID and the political, social and economic upheavals that are engulfing the United States today, the mere thought of mass Jewish immigration to Israel from the US, still feels like a very remote possibility. Most Jews in America would exhaust all other possible relocation options first before even giving Israel an afterthought. Florida, Texas, Canada, New Zealand- anywhere but Israel. That being said, there is a very rapidly growing demographic of Jews that has just recently started to consider the possibility of moving to Israel down the road- for the first time ever. I am referring to the “Chareidi” Jews of America- the yeshiva world. They feel threatened physically and economically, while also feeling alienated politically. Of all demographics in America, this may be the one that is most likely to make the move and succeed. While many in these communities are beginning to take a serious look at this possibility, as a whole, they aren’t quite there yet. What’s holding them back are assumptions that are not too different from the assumptions my grandparents made at the airport in Austria.
Perhaps the greatest fear and assumption amongst the American Yeshiva world is that if they move to Israel, their children will inevitably go “off the derech”- that they will abandon their religious faith and practice. This community invests tremendously in their children, and their children are their greatest “assets.” So it’s understandable that ensuring that their children are protected, nurtured and given the tools to succeed and grow spiritually is of utmost importance to them. Most religious Jews that I have spoken to in the US about the prospects of making Aliyah have cited this factor as the main reason for not making Aliyah- they are simply not willing to sacrifice their children’s spiritual and educational wellbeing for any sort of religious or nationalistic aspirations of coming back to their homeland- Eretz Yisrael.
What is fascinating is that most of the people whom I have spoken to, have never actually done any serious research about what kind of chinuch-educational- opportunities exist here in Israel. Most have never spoken to families that have moved here with school age children. Most have never spent time in or experienced communities of American religious Jews who are living and thriving here in Israel. While many have come here on vacations and for short term learning experiences- their understanding and experience of what actually exists on the ground here is extremely limited to Ramat Eshkol and the Waldorf Astoria. Most have not taken the time to do any significant research and are content relying on the false assumptions and stereotypes that they have heard through the grapevine.
Their assumptions are based on speaking to people that have either never actually lived here or the minority that did not succeed and moved back to the US. They have not made any real attempts to get information from people and families that actually have succeeded and are loving (almost) every minute of it. They have not had conversations with families that can attest that the atmosphere of wholesomeness, simplicity, spirituality-ruchniyus– that children absorb here are incomparable to what they can get anywhere else in the world. They are happy to remind themselves that Lakewood is “safer” and “better” for their children than Tel Aviv and Rishon LeTzion. They are forgetting that there are dozens of communities that meet all of their religious criteria and offer a better environment for their children here than where they currently are residing abroad. They never took the time to spend a Shabbos in Ramat Beit Shemesh, Ramot, Rechovot, Neve Yaakov, Tel Tzion or Maale Amos.
If only they would… If only they cared enough to try… to make the phone calls, to speak to the right people, to get the guidance from people in the know. If only they cared enough to pray for the opportunity to come and live here, just as they pray for health, for children, for parnassah. If only they did their hishtadlus- practical effort, they would find that it is a tremendous upgrade in their lives, as thousands of people living here can attest. But most importantly, it is within their grasp…but only if they truly want it.