By Karen Brunwasser
It took me 12 years to accept that aliyah was something I could and should try.
From the moment I fell in love with Israel at age 16 on a family Bar Mitzvah trip, I tried to reroute my heart toward other, more convenient passions. By 28, the pull was so strong that I found a therapist to help reconcile my desire to be in Jerusalem with feelings of guilt and sadness at the prospect of leaving friends, family and America behind.
In therapy, I finally acknowledged my dream as legitimate, not frivolous, and understood that I had to try, even if I’d only discover that life in Israel was not for me.
The decision itself was liberating, and I began the aliyah process with a confidence and excitement that stayed with me for years after arriving in Israel.
Almost 14 years in, aliyah has been a step to realizing additional dreams.
Ten years ago, I channeled my love of Jerusalem into the creation of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, which today is a large arts organization that produces the award-winning Mekudeshet Festival and plays a meaningful role in the city’s touted cultural renaissance. I found extraordinary community in Jerusalem’s thriving civil society, and count among my friends and partners Palestinians, ultra-Orthodox, national religious and secular folks like me who work together on behalf of a more vibrant, tolerant and creative city.
Most importantly, I’ve built my own family with my husband and 3-year-old daughter and another child is on the way.
Though aliyah has been good to me, it does come at a high cost: I’ve never gotten over living 6,000 miles from family and friends.
It’s like an automated payment deducted month after month, year after year, from my emotional bank account. There are months when the distance bothers me less, and there are days, every once in a while, when I wonder if it’s worth it. I miss things — milestone events like births and deaths and weddings, but also moments I never factored in, like the 2008 Phillies World Series parade or the final play of the 2018 Eagles Super Bowl victory, or how much I’d miss home while watching them by myself online.
I do my best to mitigate the costs.
Work brings me to the states several times a year. For the most important family and friend events, I hop on a plane (many warned me that moving to Israel would mean never earning a good living or affording travel; they were wrong). I’m lucky to have devoted, semi-retired parents who spend months each year in Jerusalem and now know their way around the Machane Yehuda market better than all but the most veteran of tour guides.
My best advice to new olim is to embrace discomfort in the short-term to feel comfortable over the long term. That is, there are no painless paths to learning Hebrew, to navigating Israeli bureaucracy, to connecting to Israeli mentality or making Israeli friends. Only by forcing myself to interact with Israelis when I didn’t understand much and couldn’t express myself as I’d wanted to did I eventually achieve breakthroughs. Today, I work, write and even lecture in Hebrew.
The choice to make aliyah is a deeply personal one, and success probably has as much to do with luck and chemistry as it does with Zionist commitment. Aliyah works best for those who love Israel for the real place it is and the real people who live here. Reality here can be messy, infuriating and often heartbreaking, but it’s even more extraordinary than the dream.
Karen Brunwasser made aliyah from Philadelphia with Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN). Nefesh B’Nefesh, in cooperation with other agencies, has facilitated the aliyah of more than 57,000 North Americans to Israel.