‘Going Up,’ and Starting to Get Started



Last week, it rained. Okay, so coming from Philadelphia, I know that the fact that the skies opened up — a drizzle, really, at best — on a mid-October night is no big deal. But everything is different here, from opening a bank account to taking delivery of appliances. The same is true of the weather.

In a country where maps indicate rivers with faint dotted lines — most, you see, don't actually contain water every day of the year — even the slightest of rains, and the first of the new year at that, is seen as a blessing. So much so that at 2 a.m., the few die-hards traipsing along the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall could be heard screaming for joy from half a mile away.

Most of us already know that the Jewish state is different in almost every respect from the United States. Some would say it's one of the reasons so many Americans have chosen to make aliyah in the last few years. After all, where else in the world does the entire government shut down for Sukkot and Pesach?

'Streamline Our Bureaucracy'

But having spent a little more than a month as a newly minted Israeli, along with my wife, Tamar, and three children, I can safely say that Israel requires some improvement. From the way that drivers literally fight with police officers to how real estate agents act like they're doing you a favor instead of an incredibly expensive service, the Israeli chutzpadik spirit is in dire need of a good dose of savlanoot (one of the first words you learn here, "patience").

Maybe that's why the crowds cheered our Nefesh B'Nefesh flight when it arrived on Sept. 6.

Perhaps they were thinking, "Welcome Americans! Streamline our bureaucracy, please do something about making our economy more efficient. While you're at it, give us a fair election system that's more responsive to the people's will!"

Maybe not.

The truth of the matter — and I'm quite sure the same can be said for the rest of the 230 olim who were on our flight — is that we knew from the outset that life was going to be hard.

We didn't leave the Main Line for a life in the Middle East wearing rose-colored glasses. In fact, after seeing the outlines of the country from the window of our Boeing 777 — and the excitement of our 3-year-old daughter Esti who kept saying, "Look! There's Israel!" and snapping pictures with her little disposable camera — we had to take them off to wipe the tears from our eyes.

The upheaval we've been through over the past six weeks — spending countless hours at the bank, the health-care system, the post office, on busses, off busses, getting lost in the heat, and still not finishing the process of converting our drivers' licenses — has been the ultimate expression in Jewish unity.

The Jewish Agency shaliach who managed our aliyah, Michael Landsberg, has become a true friend, for instance. Back in January, he came out to our Bala Cynwyd apartment one night to answer any questions we had. And at John F. Kennedy International Airport, he ran over to give me a big hug and introduced me to his son.

That same familial spirit permeates everything here. In most dealings, whether it's at your cell-phone company or your synagogue, when you tell someone you're an oleh, their first reaction is, "Why?" And they're right!

Why would anyone give up a comfortable life they've known for a hectic one no one could possibly prepare for, even with a lifetime of trips and Hebrew classes under their belts?

Of course, those same skeptics provide the answer. By the end of the conversation, each one is showering you with blessings: Brochim habaim, tiyeh bari, b'hatzlacha, l'shana tova u'metuka. ("Welcome, may you have health and luck, a sweet and good year.") Brothers and sisters may fight, they might not even like each other. But they all love one another.

Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, the co-founder of Nefesh B'Nefesh — which all told brought seven plane loads of people, including one smack-dab in the middle of the Lebanon war, of immigrants this summer, comprising some 3,000 olim hailing from North America and Britain — told the terminal full of family and friends who had gathered last month to cheer us on in our arrival that so many Jews making aliyah was the proof of a new age dawning.

"Walking down the aisle of the airplane," he said at the conclusion of his organization's busiest and most successful season yet, "seeing an 85-year-old and a 5-year-old share this same process; seeing a couple who survived the Holocaust filling out their paperwork; seeing single olim exchange numbers — it is truly a time of redemption."

I would venture, though, that while his conclusion is correct, Fass' reasoning is a bit flawed. The fact that so many different people could throw their lot in with a nation that's been at war for more than 50 years isn't extraordinary. We're a religion, after all, whose adherents have been looking to Zion for millennia.

What is revolutionary is that while North American aliyah has historically been a drizzle compared to the absolute floods from the Middle East, Europe, the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, it's increasing. And in elevating themselves — the true meaning of the word aliyah is "going up" — they're elevating that last corner of the globe.

From where I stand, it truly is a blessing not just for Israel, but for all of the Jewish people.


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