Exactly one year ago today, I took the plunge and made Aliyah. That flight into Ben Gurion was the culmination of a fairly long process for me, starting with generally disliking the heat, dust and Israeli pushy-ness when I went on Israel Machane, moving through to learning during my time on Torani to live with the heat, dust and Israeli pushy-ness, whilst appreciating the warmth and the welcoming nature behind Israel’s prickly exterior.
Then came the long years spent as a Boger in Bnei Akiva going on about Aliyah to anyone who would listen. Then I thought I might go in January ’15. Then I decided I might as well go July ’14. Then came the forms: Name – Jonathan Sherman, date of birth – 25/10/88, do you believe Jesus is the Messiah – errrmmm…no? Then came the interview at the Jewish Agency:
“So you want to go to Ulpan?”
“Are you crazy!? That’s like in a month’s time!”
“Errm…sorry…I had exams?”
Once that all got sorted it was a simple matter of packing my life into 3 suitcases, saying goodbye to my friends, and watching the World Cup.
So how has it been over the past year? I was lucky to have a “soft landing”, spending the first 5 months of my Aliyah in Ulpan in Jerusalem. This was meant to be 5 months of intensive Ivrit lessons, but in reality the lessons only took place in the mornings, which gave us the afternoons to sort out our new lives in Israel, and the evenings to socialise and form lasting friendships. After a month off, I then joined the army. To cut a very long story short (and the story could probably form its very own post), I have signed on for a total of 3 years as an officer in the Air Force. I am extremely excited to take on this challenge and do my part to contribute to the security of the State of Israel.
That’s the easy part. But the question I get asked in Israel more than any other is why did I make Aliyah? It’s not an easy question to answer but I’ll give it my best try. I think there are 3 main reasons:
Firstly socially – I’m not going to lie, in England I had an averagely sized group of friends. These are friends that I’ve had for years, some from school, some from Bnei Akiva, we all went through our gap years together and we all went through various universities together. But I was pretty sure I more or less knew all the Jews of a similar age and religious level as myself in England. In Israel however, I’ve met hundreds of young Jews, with a similar outlook on life and religion, from all over the world: America, Australia, South Africa, Holland, France, Canada, Brazil, Mexico…even Paraguay and Venezuela!
Secondly – the quality of Jewish life. This is the obvious one, but it goes further than just everywhere being Kosher and feeling comfortable in a Kippah. It’s about Shabbat never going out later than about 8pm, it being sunny at Succot, Minyanim on the train, one day of Yom Tov, no work on Fridays and buses wishing you a Chag Sameach.
Thirdly – ideological reasons. The religious Zionist ideology, which I was exposed to through Bnei Akiva and my time in Yeshiva has three main principles. The first centres around the eventual redemption of the Jewish people and the coming of the Messiah. Late 19th century Religious Zionist Rabbis such as Yehuda Alkalai and Zvi Hirsch Kalischer came to the realisation that the redemption will unfold in a gradual manner. One of their sources is found in the Talmud Yerushalmi:
And once R. Hiyya the great and R. Simeon ben Halafta were walking in the Arbel valley at daybreak, and they saw the first rays of dawn as the daylight broke forth. Said R. Hiyya the great to R. Simeon ben Halafta b. Rabbi, “[Like the break of day] so is the redemption of Israel. It begins little by little and, as it proceeds, it grows greater and greater.” (Berachot 1:1)
As opposed to the classical view at the time, that the redemption would be brought about solely by an act of G-d, these thinkers separated the beginning and end of the process. Initially, human initiative will start the process, which will be a natural one, but the ultimate redemption – the end of the process will be brought about by G-d. I think we can say that this view is most certainly being realised in the State of Israel as we speak – as we say in the prayer for the State, it is ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו – the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.
The second tenet of Religious Zionism is the promotion of the fundamental value of Jewish unity. We are familiar with this from such statements as “כל ישראל ערבים זה לזה – All Israel is responsible for one another,” but the key point is to achieve this unity through Eretz Yisrael. We actually learn this lesson from Haman in the Purim story, as he introduces Achashverosh to the issue of the Jews:
וַיֹּאמֶר הָמָן לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם-אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים בְּכֹל מְדִינוֹת מַלְכוּתֶךָ
And Haman said to King Achashverosh “There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples, throughout all the provinces of your kingdom.” (Esther 3:8)
When we are scattered throughout the world we are easy prey to those who would see us destroyed, but the secret strength of the Jewish people lies in our unity. However, although we see glimpses of it from time to time, the true unity of Am Yisrael will only be revealed if we are all together in one place.
The final principle of religious Zionism is the inherent holiness of the Land of Israel to the Jewish people. There are a large number of ideas that support this point, e.g. Israel has extra mitzvot attached to it, such as Shemittah, and there is a quote from the Gemarrah that says it is preferable to live in an idolatrous city in the land of Israel than a holy one outside the land. But the one that speaks to me as a Jew living in the modern world is the following Gemarrah from Sanhedrin 98a:
- Abba said: There can be no more manifest [sign of] redemption than this as it says: “And you, the mountains of Israel, will produce your branches, and you will bear your fruit for My people Israel, because they are about to come.”
When the land begins to bloom, then the Redemption is close as the Jewish people are about to return home. This link between the people and the land is manifest right now. When Mark Twain visited Palestine in 1867 he had this to say:
“….. A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds… a silent mournful expanse…. a desolation…. we never saw a human being on the whole route…. hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.” (The Innocents Abroad, p. 361-362)
Yet now, in the 67 short years since the return of the Jewish people to their land, the land has flourished and, whilst acknowledging its issues, the state has developed into a powerhouse of technology and a world leader in medical innovation.
Having said all this – or maybe because of all this – there was really only one deciding factor for me. The Jewish future is not in England, no matter what the United Synagogue may claim. The Jewish future is not even in America, where so many Jews still live. The Jewish future is being played out and will continue to be played out in Israel. So for me, as the classic Bnei Akiva analogy goes, I wanted to actually play on the pitch of Jewish history rather than just watch idly from the stands.
The assessment one year later? Still living the dream…and loving it.