Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Aliyah Question

There have been a flurry of blog posts written this past week or two about the aliyah question. First, Hannah Dreyfus wrote about her ambivalence toward making aliyah:
....the pronouncement of aliyah as an unequivocal ideal is quickly followed up by a laundry list of buts. My career. The language. Money. The precarious way of life. The foreign culture. The school systems.
An ideal, yes. Am I going? No...
Immediately following came what I thought was a tragic piece, written by Aryeh Younger, in which he unabashedly declares:
For me and many other American Orthodox Jews, we proudly see America as our homeland. We believe that American culture is our culture...
To me and the overwhelming majority of America’s Jews, we have no reason to apologize for living in America. I am proud to be an American, and I don’t see Aliyah as that “unequivocal ideal.” 
There ensued on my Facebook Timeline a 109-comment (and counting) thread about whether or not having zero desire to make aliyah is, as I termed it, tragic. One brave and persistent commenter, writing from her materially comfortable life in the US, cited a long litany of reasons why she and other modern Orthodox Jews are not even considering aliyah. Some of her reasons are based on misinformation (e.g. "will the rabbis allow my children to get married because I wasn't raised religious?") but some are completely understandable for those making a strictly rational decision.

It's my contention that the decision to make aliyah is not a decision that can be made on the basis of strict rationality. In fact, I'm not sure that for many olim, it's really a decision that we make at all. It rather feels like a decision that was made for us. 

By the Big Guy.

Two years ago, I wrote a post in which I noted that:
I am often struck, when friends and new acquaintances tell their stories of how they came to live in Israel, about how we are all guided here.  It's as if God handpicks us, one at a time, and sets us on a path toward this place.  It has long seemed to me that a significant percentage of olim are either converts or ba'alei teshuva like me.
For years, I've dreamed of writing a book filled with stories of olim who came here from distant places, both spiritually and geographically. While that book gestates within for a few more years, I would like to introduce you to two families whose aliyah stories particularly inspire me.

Getting The Call

I know olim who experience ending up in Israel as a somewhat random outcome. But there's another experience many olim recognize. Others refer to it as having your aliyah switch flipped on, but I refer to it as getting the call. However you term it, the experience feels something like this. You get an idea in your head that somehow, someday, someway, you are going to live in Israel. And that thought never leaves you. Whether it takes 6 months or 6 decades, THE THOUGHT NEVER LEAVES YOU.

Take the Morgan family. They made aliyah just a few days ago, after living in places most East Coast Jews have never even visited, among them Idaho, Nebraska, Utah and Wyoming. I was told that Baruch Morgan was a cowboy but that didn't fully prepare me for our first meeting. They were our Shabbat guests this past week and all three Morgans walked in wearing white straw hats.

Photo not taken on Shabbat.
As new olim often do, we traded aliyah stories, and, in so doing, we spoke about getting the call. I immediately recognized from their story that, even though they had been living very far from major Jewish population centers, Hashem handpicked this family and brought them Home.

Jewish Ancestors Calling You Home

Yoel and Yael Keren started life in Oklahoma as faithful Christians named Joel and Tracy. Although Joel and Tracy married as Christians, they were plagued by theological questions for which they could not find satisfactory answers. Tracy's intermarried Jewish grandfather encouraged them as they pursued conversion to Judaism through the Conservative movement in Oklahoma. As newly-converted Jews, they married a second time, this time under a chuppah. Tracy's grandfather attended their Conservative wedding and encouraged their aliyah, saying, "You go, and be good Jews, not like me." 

Fifteen months later, they made aliyah and began to study for a second, halachic conversion (which I think of as Jew 2.0). In August 2002, they stood together under a chuppah yet again (for those who are counting, this was their third wedding together) and began their lives as Orthodox Jews in Israel.


Twelve years later, now known as Yoel and Yael, they are both fluent in Hebrew, which Yoel speaks using the Tiberian vocalization that dates back to Second Temple times. They have an Israeli-born daughter in addition to their American-born son. Yael teaches English in an Israeli high school and, in addition to teaching occasional Torah classes, Yoel works for an organization that reclaims the Land of Israel for the Jewish people. Their Oklahoma accents and fondness for smoking meat remain, even while they continue to make their daily contributions to the Jewish people in the Land of Israel.

Rabbi Nachman Kahana taught me that the reason why aliyah, as in being called to the Torah, and aliyah, as in immigrating to Israel are the same word, even though they are pronounced differently, is because Hashem calls to each of us, individually, by name, when the time has come for us to return Home.

For those who view the aliyah question as Hannah Dreyfus, Aryeh Younger and my Facebook commenter do, it seems plausible to me that, perhaps, they have simply not yet been called.


Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Blessing of the Unearned Shekel

I have been among the lucky olim who, since finishing ulpan, has had work for most of the time I've been in Israel. Sometimes more, sometimes less. It's a blessing to have the ability to earn shekels and I never want to take that for granted. After I received it, I took a picture of the first paycheck I earned in Israel, skimpy though it was, to always remember my humble beginnings as a worker here.

So I have paid work, thank G-d, even though I don't yet have paid work that delights my soul.

More and more, I think that my real work is what I do for others. Kol haKavod to people who are, but I was never the "let me make you a meal and watch your children" kind of person. That didn't change when we made aliyah. But every day, Hashem sends me opportunities to help others in ways that are a better match for my skills and my nature.

Sometimes these opportunities are relatively small, such as answering questions about Israel for prospective olim or connecting one person to another or giving someone a phone number or lending new olim an air mattress until their lift arrives or teaching someone how to do a particular task on the computer.

And sometimes, they are as big as organizing an event that raises many thousands of shekels for tzedaka while helping the English speakers in my neighborhood find new books to read at very affordable prices.

As a major bookaholic, when we made aliyah, I came to Israel knowing I was going to have trouble finding enough English books to read. I did what most English speakers in Israel do. I bought a Kindle, borrowed books from friends and had family visiting from America bring books. But it wasn't enough to keep my book addiction fed. I went into a few used book stores in Jerusalem, but the books there were too expensive for me to consider that as a viable, long-term option.

I thought perhaps I would organize a small book swap. I imagined getting together about 20 women with 100 books so that we could trade with each other. Everyone would get something new to read and it could be a fun evening. I put out a call for people who had English books to donate to the swap.

In the first hour, I already had 100 donated books and I realized that this idea had much more potential than I had, at first, imagined.

The idea has grown to a major community event that takes place twice a year. I call it the Great Ma'ale Adumim English Book Swap and Sale. We collect book donations (we had 3000 books at the last swap), organize them by category and charge just a few shekels for each book. All the proceeds go to tzedaka.


But even more, as the event has grown, more hands were needed. There are now dozens of volunteers who help along the way - collecting book donations from those who don't have a car, bringing boxes from the local grocery to pack the books in, schlepping hundreds of cartons full of books, setting up tables, sorting the books into categories, cashiering and breaking down the displays. It's a great event that attracts a high percentage of the English speakers in our city, so it becomes a social outing as well. And everyone finds great bargains while raising thousands of shekels for tzedaka.





The night of the Book Swap, people always thank me and my partner for organizing it. But it's impossible for the Book Swap to happen without help from literally hundreds of people in our community - book donors, book buyers and the dozens of volunteers - working together to make it happen.

I don't earn a shekel from the work I do to make the Book Swap happen. But it's a blessing nonetheless. 

The blessing of the unearned shekel.