Essay: Why I made aliyah

TEL AVIV (JTA) – People often ask me why I left my family, friends and country to move to a place wracked by war and where salaries are less than half what I could expect to make for comparable work in the United States.

There’s no short answer.

Since my first trip here at the age of 16, Israel always has held a very special place in my heart. During that trip, which I took with my mother, we both volunteered in the Israel Defense Forces for three weeks through a program called Sar-El. I was stationed up north, on Mount Hermon, with a Golani infantry unit.

There I was, a 16-year-old American Jew surrounded by Israeli soldiers only a few years my senior, stationed next to the Syrian and Lebanese borders. We filled sandbags and lined bunkers, laid barbed-wire fence, helped clean and repair weaponry, and mingled with the soldiers in the evenings. I even learned to fire an M-16.

However brief, those three weeks laid the foundation for where I am today. Following that trip, I returned to Israel four times before making aliyah, with each trip a different “Israel experience.” I traveled on a youth group tour program, volunteered in the military, taught English, studied Hebrew at ulpan and volunteered on various kibbutzim.

Each experience opened my eyes a little more to various facets of Israeli society. And each time I returned to the United States, I longed to be back in Israel.

I planned to return to Israel someday as an oleh chadash – a new immigrant – but the timing just was never right. I worked a few jobs, went to graduate school and had girlfriends, but I was never entirely able to commit myself to living in America. I joined a synagogue and became an active member of my local Jewish community, but my heart belonged to Israel.

Then, almost a year ago, I realized I had reached a now-or-never point. So I opened up an aliyah file with the Jewish Agency, completed my Nefesh B’Nefesh application and on July 9, 2007 boarded a plane to Ben Gurion Airport.

It may sound cliche, but I’ve never felt so at home as I do here in Israel. Though I love America and believe it is a great place to be a Jew, in Israel there is a sense of collective being that I never experienced in the United States.

Jewish holidays are national holidays, finding kosher food is a cinch and Hebrew is the lingua franca. Being Jewish here is the norm rather than the exception. These things and more give me a sense of belonging in Israel.

The Zionist experiment is undoubtedly a remarkable event in Jewish history. To be a part of it is an honor and a source of pride. As a strong believer in Jewish historical ties to the Land of Israel and the need for a strong and secure Jewish state as a safe haven for Jews across the globe, I feel that contributing to Israel’s well-being is imperative for me.

Nonetheless, there are many ways a caring Jew can contribute to the health and prosperity of the people of Israel. One can pray and study Torah, serve in the IDF, work for a pro-Israel lobby, give charity or start a high-tech company and help the Israeli economy. Even the mere act of raising a Jewish family constitutes a remarkable contribution. Ensuring that future generations of Jewish men and women remain Jewish is the foundation for the future of the Jewish people.

But for me, living in Israel – and, God willing, raising my children here – is the ultimate way to help the Jewish people.

Every loaf of bread I buy here, every paycheck from which taxes are taken, every day spent living here is a true act of Zionism. It’s a statement to the world: “Am yisrael chai,” the Jewish people lives, and we shall remain in our historical homeland.

Living in the epicenter of the Jewish experience simply is too important to pass up.

In the months since I moved here, I have improved my Hebrew skills at Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem and developed a close-knit group of friends, many of whom are experiencing the same trials and tribulations of the oleh.

We have learned that the bureaucracy here is as bad, if not worse, as everyone says. I have learned to avoid dealing with any government agency, if at all possible. But all in all, making aliyah has been a positive experience. I made friends, found a home in a terrific city and after five months of diligent searching landed a great job as an equities analyst for a financial high-tech company.

Ultimately I cannot give a concrete answer as to why I am here. I am not a religious Zionist who believes unequivocally that God commanded the Jews to settle the Land of Israel. I am not a secular Zionist who believes Zionism is the cure to anti-Semitism. And I am not an anti-American expatriate glad to have forsaken his home; I deeply love America.

But I know, and I feel, that living here is right. This place, where I feel more Jewish than I ever did living in the United States, is home.

NEXT STORY