AliyahYom Kippur

Kol Nidre Sermon 5767 – Why We’re Making Aliyah

Elalairplane200 God willing, this time next year, Lauri and I, and our three youngest children will be living in Israel.  We won’t just be tourists or there on sabbatical, we’ll be citizens of the world’s only Jewish state.  The fact that we can do that – that we can go live in a Jewish country – is truly miraculous.

For most of the past 2,000 years, Jewish history was the story of one disaster after another.  In the year 70 Romans destroyed the Temple Jerusalem was laid waste.  In 132 the Bar Kochba revolt was brutally crushed, and with it died the dream of an independent Israel.  During the Middle Ages, Jews were massacred by the Crusaders on their way to “liberate” the holy land.  When Christian Europe was flourishing during the Renaissance, Jews were packed into ghettos.  In 1492, when “Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” Ferdinand and Isabel ordered the Jews of Spain to convert, flee, or die.  When the Enlightenment, and citizenship, came for the Jews of Western Europe, those in the East were being killed in pogroms, a foreshadowing of the horrors that would come later during the Shoah, when a third of the Jews then alive were slaughtered by the Nazis.

We were overdue for some good news.

And then, in 1948, a miracle happened.  A miracle every bit as great as the parting of the Red Sea.  A miracle which shows us that God truly has not forgotten His promises to the Jewish people.  In May of 1948, for the first time in 2,011 years, the land of Israel was free.  An independent Jewish state was reborn on the soil of ancient Judea.  More miracles followed.  Tiny Israel turned back the armies of Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan, won the War of Independence, and ended up with substantially more territory than had been originally granted by the UN.  And again our tiny country defeated vastly larger Arab forces in 1967, and yet again in 1973.

The modern state of Israel is the most wonderful, exciting thing to happen to the Jewish people in the past two millennia.  For 70 generations, our ancestors prayed for this day.  And the day has finally come!

And yet here we are, still sitting in Exile!  What an anti-climax!

Tonight I’m going to ask each of you to consider making aliyah—to “go up” to the land of Israel.

To become a citizen of Israel is the right of every Jew, and it does not matter whether you were born Jewish or converted—and for purposes of making aliyah Reform and Conservative conversions are just as valid as Orthodox ones.  Your Jewishness is your visa.  And you become a full citizen the day you arrive.

I want all of you to think about it, at least for a few minutes.  It doesn’t matter whether you come to shul every Shabbat, or only once a year on Kol Nidre.   It doesn’t matter where you are in your life, whether you’re just starting a career or retiring.  It doesn’t matter whether you are married, single, with or without kids.  Whether or not to make aliyah is a question every Jew needs to consider.  If the answer is no—if you make the conscious decision to continue to live in Exile from our ancestral homeland—clearly the choice is yours, but you should be clear about WHY you are making that decision.  Because whichever way you decide—to return to Israel, or to stay in Galut—it has profound implications for the nature of your relationship to Judaism, it has profound implications for your family, and I believe it has profound implications for Israel and the Jewish people.

Literally millions of Jews HAVE made the decision to pack up and move to Israel.  The early pioneers a hundred years ago were fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe. They were followed by Jews displaced by World War II and the Shoah.  Then in the 1950s came the Jews fleeing Arab persecution, and later, when Jews were finally allowed to leave the Soviet Union a million more came.  In more recent times Jews fleeing discriminations and poverty in Ethiopia have come to Israel, along with  Jews leaving the economic collapse of Argentina.  Forty percent of Israelis were born outside of Israel!

But through it all, there have also been Jews from the Western developed world.  80,000 Israelis were born in the US or Canada, another 20,000 were born in the United Kingdom, and many thousands more came from France and elsewhere in Europe long after the war ended.

It’s easy to understand why a Jew suffering from persecution, or living in a terribly impoverished country would want to make aliyah.

But why would a Jew from a safe and prosperous country like the United States make aliyah?   Why is our family doing it?

An economist would probably think I’m an idiot.  I left a high-paying job in Silicon Valley and racked up student loans for four years – loans I should get paid off right before I get my first Social Security check – in order to become a rabbi and earn a lot less money.  Now I’m going to leave my job as a rabbi – a job I really love – and will probably go back into work in high tech, except this time in Israel, for less money than I make as a rabbi in America.  And I’ll be paying higher taxes, too.

Am I meshugenah?!

Our children are excelling in school, they’re getting a good Jewish education, they have lots of friends here.  Yet we plan to uproot them from all that.  We’re going to send them to school in a place where they not only have no friends, they barely speak the language.

What kind of parents are we?!

We giving up our wonderful six bedroom, three and-a-half bath, three-car garage, Tudor-style Old Orchard house  – which will be for sale in a few months, by the way — to move to an apartment that’s maybe one third the size.

Are we masochists?!

We’re leaving a city where the only signs of anti-Semitism are events like last year’s  march by  out-of-town neo-Nazis, so unusual that it makes the national news, and going to a place where anti-Semitism is expressed with rockets and bombs.

Are we suicidal?!

So it’s not surprising that people would ask “why are you doing this?”

The short answer is two-fold: 1) the modern state of Israel is the most exciting thing to happen to the Jewish people in 2,000 years, and we want to be a part of it; and 2) Israel is our home.

For two thousand years our ancestors dreamed of the day we would once again be able to live in a Jewish state.  Our generation has the wonderful merit of living at a time when we can fulfill that dream.  For too many generations our ancestors mostly sat passively on the sidelines while history was made all around them.  We had supporting roles on the world stage – usually cast as the victims.  Now, once again, Jews are in charge of their own destiny.  That’s pretty exciting stuff!

Israel is not only the most exciting thing to happen to the Jewish people in 2,000 years, it’s the most important thing.  And as the Chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary said in 2003 article, Israel is a great and terrible blessing, a blessing granted to us, but not our grandparents.  Arnold Eisen wrote “What does one do, as a Jew, in the face of such a blessing? At the very least, if Jewishness is at the center of one’s life, one takes it with ultimate personal seriousness. One asks -more than once, at more than one stage of life -whether one should not be living there. Not out of guilt (though this guilt would not be unhealthy), nor out of obligation (though I feel a certain obligation), nor because aliyah is necessary to become a better Jew (it is not). One goes, if one so decides, because one physically cannot sit by and let other people blow it.”

“One cannot sit by and let other people blow it.”  Boy, that sounds arrogant, but as Eisen puts it, such arrogance is necessary when we engage in the work of tikkun olam, our collective drive to make the world a better place.  If Israel becomes a place we are not proud of, if Israel fails to live up to our ideals, the dream will die, and one of the pillars of Judaism will have been destroyed.  The Jews living in the Diaspora need an Israel we can be proud of, an Israel that is a light to the nations.

Israel desperately needs more Jews like us.  As Americans, we’re part of a society that’s made huge strides toward solving some of the problems that Israel’s still struggling with.

For example, Bedouins and Druze, loyal citizens of Israel who vote, pay taxes, and serve in the Israeli army, have neither equal rights nor equal opportunities.  The disparity between the Jewish and Arab education systems makes America’s so-called “separate but equal” schools look good by comparison.  Jews were in the forefront  of the American civil rights movement. We marched in Selma and fought in the courts, and some of us even gave our lives, not for our own rights, but for the rights of others.  Now we need to lead the way in Israel.

The environment in Israel is so polluted that when four athletes fell from a poorly-built bridge during the Maccabiah games in 1997, they weren’t killed by the fall but from being poisoned when they accidentally swallowed some of the water.

Jews from North America know what it means to live in a dynamic functioning democracy that affords protection for minorities and for the environment.  Israel needs more citizens who will lobby hard to fix the things that are wrong with Israeli society.

All Jews from North America could make important contributions to Israel, but there are some additional reasons why Israel needs more Conservative and Reform Jews.    We had a young Israeli woman staying with us last summer.  We brought her to shul and gave her her first aliyah; she enjoyed the fact that men and women could sit together and participate equally in the services, that both men and women could sing (which is not true in most Orthodox shuls).  If shul was like that in Israel, she said, she’d go all the time.  Our brand of Judaism can reach out to otherwise secular Jews, bridging the religious divide in Israeli society.

But let’s face it.  Not very many people are going to move to Israel because it’s good for Israel.  Most people ask “What’s in it for me?”

If you’re religious, then it’s a mitzvah to live in Israel.  And I don’t mean mitzveh, as in the Yiddish phrase your Bubba used to mean “good deed,” but I mean mitzvah, the Hebrew word which means commandment.

You probably know there are 613 commandments.  What you might not know is there is no agreement on exactly what those mitzvot are.  Ramban, Nachmanides, includes yeshivat Eretz Yisrael, settling the land of Israel, making aliyah, as one of them.  Rambam, Maimonides, does not include this in his list, but as Rabbi Garsek shared with me, that may be because it’s so obvious it doesn’t need to be listed – there’s no commandment to breathe either.  Rambam does include other commandments which cannot be performed unless you are living in Israel.

I’m in the camp that says making aliyah is a mitzvah.  The Torah seems pretty clear: in Numbers 33:53 we read:  “And you shall inherit the land and settle in it.”

In the Talmud in tractate Ketubot it says “A person should always live in Eretz Yisrael, even in a city of mostly gentiles, instead of outside of Israel, even in a city of mostly Jews, for someone who lives in Eretz Yisrael is like someone who has a God, and someone who lives chutz la’aretz (outside Israel) is like someone who doesn’t have a God.”  In other words, better to live in secular Tel Aviv than in Orthodox Boro Park.
In the weekday Amidah we say a prayer which includes the words v’kabtzanu yachad ma’arba kanfot ha’aretz, and “gather us together from the four corners of the earth.”  We pray for God to gather us together in Israel.  An observant Jew says this prayer three times a day.  How many times do you have to say something before you get the message?

Israel is the easiest place in the world to be a Jew.  Here in Toledo, if you want to keep kosher, it means going to Bakery Unlimited to buy bread, Giant Eagle to buy meat, and not forgetting to bring your reading glasses when you go to grocery store, because you have to read labels very carefully.  If you want kosher marshmallows, you have to shlep to Ann Arbor.  In Israel, almost every bakery is a kosher bakery, you have to go out of your way to find treif meat, and in most grocery stores you can buy anything on the shelves.  Kosher restaurants offer every kind of cuisine from Moroccan to Chinese to Italian.  And of course there’s the best falafel in the world.

Here in Toledo, it’s a struggle to balance family life with Jewish observance.    The kids’ soccer games, hockey matches, dance recitals, and track meets get scheduled for Shabbat.  Once the kids are out of the day school, their classmates’ birthday parties get scheduled for Shabbat and Jewish holidays. In Israel it’s not a conflict.  The soccer tournaments and high school plays won’t be scheduled on Shabbat and holidays.  Period.

Here in Toledo if you want your children to have a Jewish education, it’s an expensive proposition.  Day school tuition runs as high as $7000 a year per child.  And that’s a bargain – in other parts of the country you can spend $15,000 a year per child on day school tuition.  In Israel you can choose to send your children to either secular or religious public schools—in essence, day school is free.

If you are under the age of 27 when you make aliyah, you can get a Bachelor’s degree at an Israeli university for free.  If you’re under 30 and have a Bachelor’s degree, you can get a Master’s for free, the Ministry of Absorption picks up the tab.  If you’re a parent and concerned about tuition, resident tuition at Israel’s world-class universities is a fraction of the cost in the US – just a few thousand dollars a year.

And you can get your degree in English if you want.

An inexpensive education in Israel is nice, but it’s daily life that’s really special.  Shabbat in Israel is an amazing experience, especially in Jerusalem or other religious areas.  In Jerusalem, you can tell when Shabbat is coming.  There is less traffic on the streets.  The stores close early Friday afternoon.  A peaceful atmosphere descends on the city.

During the holidays you can especially appreciate what it is to be part of the majority culture for a change.

On Yom Kippur there are no cars on the streets of Jerusalem.  It’s eerie.  But there are hundreds of bicycles and skateboards—everyone lets their kids take advantage of the lack of traffic.

You walk the streets of Jerusalem during Sukkot, and it seems every house, every apartment has a sukkah.  If an apartment has a “sukkah balcony” it’s always mentioned in the real estate listings. You walk down the street and you hear singing, laughing, and enjoyment coming from every roof top, every scrap of a garden.  And in Israel, the weather is almost always very pleasant around Sukkot.

On Passover every grocery store in Israel goes “kosher l’pesach.”  In some neighborhoods they will have big cauldrons of water bubbling on the streets to simplify kashering your pots and pans.

Shavuot, a holiday little noticed here, is a night when the entire city of Jerusalem stays up all night learning Torah.  Walk around the streets at 2 a.m. and every few blocks you’ll pass a synagogue with people learning.  World-class scholars offer lessons open to the public at 3 a m.  And about 4 a.m. there is an amazing sight: streams of people join together, all walking towards the Western Wall to converge and pray at dawn.

And even if you’re totally NOT religious there are plenty of other good reasons to make aliyah.  For many Jews in Israel, simply living in Israel is the expression of their Zionism.  I had one Israeli tell me, “we don’t need religion, that’s for you Jews who live in Galut.”

And in one way he was right.  Even if you’re not religious, you may care about Jewish culture, Jewish continuity.  You may care whether your kids and grandkids are Jewish.

Here in Toledo, your child is likely to be the only Jew in a public middle or high school class.  The chances are pretty high your kids will marry someone who isn’t Jewish.  After all, who are they going to meet?  And only about a third of the children of intermarriage are raised Jewish.  The intermarriage rate in Israel, on the other hand, is minuscule.

It’s a fantastic feeling to be someplace where you are part of an “us,” not part of a “them.”  Your kids will never come home from school singing “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or announcing they got the part of the Easter Bunny in the school play.  December 25 is just another day at the office.  You’re not going to be bombarded with Christmas carols from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.

Israel is a beautiful place.    In a space of a few hundred miles you go from the forests and mountains in the north to fertile agricultural plains, to the Mediterranean beaches, to the olive groves on the hills of Judea, to the Caribbean-style resorts of Eilat.  In January you can drive a couple of hours in one direction and go spa hopping at the Dead Sea, and a few hours in the other direction and go skiing on Mt. Hermon.  No wonder so many people fought over this little scrap of prime real estate.

A lot of people move away from Toledo because of the weather, especially when they retire.  Some of you will be heading south right after the holidays.  The weather in Israel is perfect.  Mild winters, with clear blue skies, and beautiful summers.  Year round outdoor café weather.  And unlike Florida, there aren’t any hurricanes!

And Israel is very safe.  You may laugh, but even in the worst years of the latest Intifada, the homicide rate, including terrorist attacks, in Jerusalem was LOWER than in any American city of a comparable size.  If you wouldn’t be afraid to live in Denver, you shouldn’t be afraid to move to Israel.  And as we learned on September 11 five years ago, “safe” is a relative term, even here in America.

When we lived in Jerusalem, we felt perfectly comfortable having our then-13 year old daughter and niece walk home from a friend’s house, half an hour away, at 10 at night.  And this is in the heart of Jerusalem, a city of 600,000, not in some secluded suburb.  Would you do that in any neighborhood in Toledo?  Our neighbors sent their five year old kid to the grocery store to buy rolls in the morning.  Could you do that here?  Women can walk throughout the city at any time of night and feel safe.  The only drunks on the streets are American college kids on Birthright trips, and they’re pretty harmless.

We’ve heard that some people are afraid to go into downtown Toledo at night.

As I said, “safe” is a relative term.

Being an Anglo, an English speaker in Israel, you’re part of a community within a community, one that will embrace you from the first moment you begin to explore the possibility of aliyah.  There are tens of thousands of “landesmen,” people from the home country.  We even had someone else from Toledo, Jay Traugott, make aliyah within the last year.  There are English language newspapers, English language theaters, English radio and TV shows.  All the Israeli kids learn English starting in elementary school.  And all the waiters speak English.  I strongly recommend learning Hebrew, but I have met people who made aliyah 20 years ago who still don’t speak much Hebrew.  It’s easy to get by.

Before we moved to Israel for the year in 2000, Katherine, who was then four, said, very seriously, “when we live in Israel we’ll be VERY Jewish.”  I thought it was cute, and it’s true, you do feel “very Jewish” just being there.  But more than feeling Jewish, when I’m in Israel I feel alive.  I feel like I’m part of history in the making.    I feel like I’m part of something larger and grander than myself just by being physically present.

And a survey has shown that living in that intense environment is very satisfying.  A survey was taken of how happy Israelis are.  83% reported being “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with their lives.  The author, Hillel Halkin concluded “Knowing what you are living for makes up for a lot of other things. This is as true of countries as it is of individuals. And 83% of us appear to realize that.”

If you have kids, however, I think the most compelling reason to make aliyah is so that your children will be Israelis.  A few years ago I was studying in Jerusalem at the Hartman Institute.  One evening three young ladies, soldiers in the IDF, came to speak to us.  Each of them was 20 years old, and each came from a religious background.  Two of them are on a hesder program, where they combine religious studies with military service for a few years.  I was blown away by the maturity, wisdom, and solid moral values of these three young ladies.  They work in a program teaching soldiers who came from disadvantaged backgrounds high school equivalency studies.  Which by itself also says something about the nature of Israeli society—their students were at the END of their service, not the beginning.  The IDF was sending these kids to school for six months to benefit society, not to benefit the IDF.  We are so obsessed with the security situation in Israel, I was really taken aback when one of them said “Security is not the most important issue facing Israel today.  There are so many issues regarding integration of newcomers, education, housing, etc., that people who decide who to vote for strictly on the security issue are not doing the right thing.”  The young lady who brought this up was clearly influenced in her thinking by having real contact with the disadvantaged segments of Israeli society that she had never really interacted with before…e.g., Druze who didn’t speak Hebrew, and didn’t have much of an education.  She had no idea there were people like that in Israel, and felt something really needed to be done.  I listened to them, and said to myself “I want my daughters to be like that!”

Once upon a time, making aliyah required a much greater level of commitment.  The people who made aliyah in the 1940s and before were pioneers.  Israel was a backwards, barren, impoverished country.  People lived hand to mouth, in tents and shacks, clearing the swamps and planting seedlings in the wilderness. They didn’t even have a TV station until 1968!  Today Israel has a modern, developed economy, with high speed wireless internet in the cafes, and the largest concentration of technology businesses in the world outside of Silicon Valley.

One of the most powerful reasons for making aliyah is the feeling you get in Israel that we’re all family.  Our youngest child, Devorah, was born in Israel during the year we spent there.  Lauri took her for a checkup at a clinic one block from our apartment.  On the way, a guy jumped off a garbage truck—which in itself is pretty cool, living in a place where even the garbageman is Jewish—he jumped off the truck and pointed at Devorah, and starting lecturing Lauri in Hebrew.  She finally figured that the guy wanted her to cover up Devorah’s elbow, so she wouldn’t get sunburned.   That episode for me so captured the Israeli “sabra” character: a little gruff perhaps, but sweet underneath.  You really get to feel like we’re all family.

And our family wants us to come home: it’s never been easier to make aliyah.  An organization called Nefesh b’Nefesh provides financial help to Jews from North America who want to make aliyah.  Grants can be as high as $25,000 US for a family, and can be used to cover moving costs, pay off student loans, purchase new appliances, etc.

The Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and the Jewish Agency will cover your expenses for five months while you go to ulpan to learn Hebrew and look for work.  You’ll get breaks on your mortgage and your taxes.  You’ll get subsidized help with re-training if you need it.

If you’ve been to Israel, you know what I’m talking about, and there’s a pretty good chance you have at least momentarily thought about what it would be like to live there.  If you have not yet visited Israel, you owe it to yourself to spend some time there.

There are many ways to visit Israel—on a mission, part of a group, by yourself.  The Toledo UJC is planning a community mission in October of 2007.  If enough B’nai Israel people want to go, I’ll be happy to lead a congregational trip.  And if you’re fortunate enough to be between the ages of 18 and 26 you can go for free on a Birthright trip.  How can you turn down a deal like that?

The Talmud promises that anyone who walks four cubits in the land of Israel is assured a place in Olam Haba, in the World to Come.  That’s a pretty cheap insurance policy for the afterlife!

There’s a rabbi in New York who took 50 families with him to Israel this summer.  A large part of the Bukharan community in Queens made aliyah en masse.  I’m not quite that ambitious, but Lauri and I would be delighted to have some other people from Toledo join us on our Nefesh b’Nefesh charter flight to Israel next summer.  And of course, the plane ticket to Israel is also free.

A handout with information about making aliyah can be found on the table in the hallway.  I would of course be delighted to talk with any of you individually if you have any questions about making aliyah.

And whether you make aliyah or not, I hope that in the future I will be able to welcome  many of you in Israel.  It’s been an honor and a privilege to be your rabbi for these last few years, and I would love to maintain a connection even after I’m living in Israel.

This year in Toledo, b’shana ha’ba’ah birushalayim, next year in Jerusalem.

G’mar chatimah tovah, may you be sealed for a good year,


Reb Barry

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

2 thoughts on “Kol Nidre Sermon 5767 – Why We’re Making Aliyah

  • Just some warnings… beware that people will be welcoming, but most won’t care that you made aliyah, they’ll just look at you like you’re crazy – so don’t let that get to you. Also, the beauracracy troubles aren’t just exaggerations.. they are very real and require you to be overly ascertive and patient. And lastly, most schools you send your kids to are going to be zoos. You either have to just accept this or send them to a private school.

    But overall, it will be a great personal decision. You will grow in many ways you would not expect, and will learn to see Judaism in a whole new light.

  • Melissa J. Jones

    I appreciate what you wrote about “our collective drive to make the world a better place.” I believe this holds true for all people throughout the world.

    One thing I am working on, as the parent of two teenagers I adopted from Asia and Europe some years ago, is to help my children grow into caring and aware citizens of the world. My wish for them is that they do what is in their hearts to help.



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