Friday, May 10, 2013

Yom Yerushalayim / Haifa as Israelis

This time of year in Israel, you can't really go a week without a holiday.  This week we celebrated Yom Yerushalayim - the day that celebrates the unification of Jerusalem after the 1967 war.  One year ago on this day I announced to my students and school community that I would be leaving Chicago to pursue my dream of aliyah.  This is what I told them:

Yom Yerushalayim 2012/ 5772

Following the 1948 War of Independence, Jerusalem was divided. The Western half of the New City became part of the newly formed state of Israel, while the eastern half, along with the Old City, was annexed by Jordan. During this time period, many ancient synagogues, libraries and centers of religious study in the Old City of Jerusalem were ransacked or were totally and deliberately destroyed.  For the next 20 years, Jews were denied access to Old City and no Jews prayed at the Kotel.

In early June, 1967, East Jerusalem was captured by the Israel Defense Forces during theSix Day War.  Jews all over the world celebrated the event as the liberation of the city, Jerusalem was once again unified.  Today we commemorate this day, dubbed: Yom YerushalayimJerusalem Day , to celebrate this momentous victory. 

While the Six Day War, the unification of Jerusalem and the return of the Temple Mount and the Kotel to Jewish sovereignty ushered in a new era in Israeli history, it also marked a turning point for North American Jews. 

For American Jews it marked the beginnings of Israel as a major communal concern and made it a central part of the communal agenda.  Prior to 1967, Israel largely had been the concern only of a small group of Zionist activists. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, wrote in a recent article: "The Six-Day War made us all Zionists, if not literally then psychologically. The American Jewish connection to Israel was sealed.”

In the war’s opening hours there was a widespread sense that the young experiment in Jewish sovereignty might be snuffed out before its 20th birthday. Jewish leaders across North America organized prayer vigils and rallies, where they sounded dire warnings of a second Holocaust.  Synagogues drew crowds comparable to the High Holy Days, and thousands descended on Israel’s diplomatic missions offering to stand in for Israeli soldiers deployed to the front. Fear of Israel’s annihilation, coming barely two decades after the end of the Holocaust, forged a nearly universal sense of political unity and prompted an outpouring of fund raising.

Beyond financial support, in the years immediately following the war, North American aliyah spiked.  In 1967 itself, only 739 North American Jews moved to Israel.  Only two years later the number had grown to 6,419 – a nearly sixfold increase from the highest yearly figure to date.  In 1971, 8,122 immigrants came, a number never equaled before or since.  

While the immediate fervor did eventually die down, North Americans have continued to make aliyah in small, but steady streams.   Many of us here is this room can think of friends or relatives who have moved from their comfortable lives in America to pursue their national, religious or ideological aspirations by making their home in the Jewish State.  

While it saddens me to think about leaving the people and the places that I love here, this summer, a life-long dream of mine will come true when my husband and I make aliyah and move back to Israel.  My personal history with Israel is long and complicated, but I want to share with you now a few of the moments that have pushed me along in my journey and ultimately led me to make this life changing decision.    

The first time I packed a bag to go on trip to Israel was in my 2nd grade Hebrew School class.  Now, we didn’t actually go to Israel, but our teacher did actually make us pack a suitcase to bring along as we explored Israel through books, pictures, movies and games in the classroom.  I don’t remember what I thought my connection to Israel was at that time, but I can say that that trip was the beginning of a long journey. 

The first time I really went to Israel was with my family after 6th grade, but this was not your average family trip.  We didn’t go for 7 or 10 days or speed through dozens of tourist sites.  We instead went for an entire summer and lived at a kibbutz-style ulpan near the beach in Netanya.  My whole family shared one dormitory-style bedroom and we all took Hebrew classes each morning.  In the afternoons, the Ulpan would sometimes take us on trips, or we would hang around with the other kids.  We ate all our meals in the communal dining hall and spent our evenings eating grilled-cheese sandwiches and dancing the (hot new dance craze) Macarena at Duke’s Place, the local pub (yes, it was 1996 and I was 12 years old).   It was on this trip that I first realized being Jewish wasn’t just something that we did in shul, it was also a national identity.  I wanted it to be MY identity.  

I made it back to Israel in 2001 on USY Israel Pilgrimage.  During that summer, my group spent one full week in an army preparatory program, Gadna.  We donned uniforms, slept in barracks, learned to shoot an M-16 rifle, and cleaned up after hundreds of soldiers while on kitchen duty.  When that week ended, I had literally never been so tired in my life – I slept for 24 hours straight.  But what I really left that week with was a sense of the importance of a Jewish army, a Jewish Defense Force.  I had taken the security in Israel for granted for too many years, I thought to myself.  And I became determined to join the IDF after I finished high school.

I had a plan.  My parents weren’t too keen on the idea of me moving across the world (I didn’t even tell them about the plan to join another countries’ army), but I somehow convinced them to let me sign up for Nativ.  The plan: I would go on Nativ and just never come back.  I didn’t really get much further in developing my plan when the second intifada broke out full force.  A few months before I was meant to leave for Israel, a bomb, that killed many including two Americans at the Hebrew University, where I was about to go study, was the last straw for my parents and they pulled me off of Nativ.  My plans changed.

I went off to college, but found myself longing for Israel.  I decided to major in Jewish Language and Literature, which allowed me to study Hebrew and read Israeli poetry for my degree.  When it came time to think about spending my junior year abroad, it wasn’t even a question that I would go to Israel.  My parents agreed, but only to pay for one semester of tuition at Hebrew U since they thought that if I’d stay the whole year, I wouldn’t come back and finish college (they may have been right). 

When I returned to this continent, I was committed to making my way back to Israel.  In a conversation about my dream of aliyah, my mom actually gave me some pretty sound advice: “Why don’t you live there for a bit before you make a life commitment.”  And so that is what I did.  I applied to only one graduate school program, located in Jerusalem and hoped and prayed that I would get in.  I did and I spent the next three years of my life living, studying and working in Israel. 

I learned what it meant to live your life by the Jewish calendar.  I felt how the holidays match the seasons.  I saw the places from our history, which I had only read of, come to life.  I bought my groceries, went to the bank and hailed a cab in the language of the Torah.  I drank Coke that said Shana Tova during Rosh HaShana and bought sufganiyot from the corner store during Chanukah.  I witnessed an entire Nation stand still in remembrance of those who were killed in the Holocaust and for those who gave up their lives defending the land.  I experienced the camaraderie of a people as they banded together while rockets fell and I grieved with the entire people as kidnapped soldiers came home in coffins.  At the end of the Pesach Seder, I said L’shana Ha’baah B’Yerusalayim, Next year in Jerusalem, and I really meant it. 

Over a number of visits during those years, my family came to accept the fact that I was at home in Israel and that someday I would make a permanent move to the holy land.   However, before I could do that, I needed to give back to the American Jewish community that has raised me.   I wanted to become a teacher to share my love of Judaism and Israel with my students, to leave an impact on the community that had taught me so much… little did I know how much of an impact my future students would leave on me.  

What ultimately solidified my decision to make aliyah was my husband, Matt.  We met while we were both studying at Pardes in Jerusalem.  While I knew my plans for aliyah were off in the future, his plans were right around the corner – he would study for a year, go back to the US to work for a year and then make aliyah and start his life in Israel.  When we began dating, it put a bit of a wrench in his plan.  Matt decided to put off aliyah in order to wait for me to pursue my dream of teaching, but we both knew that eventually the time would come for us to go Home...

Shabbat Shalom and have a great weekend,
Stef and Matt

P.S. While Yom Yerushalayim came and went for us this year without much recognition, we did get to celebrate "Yom Haifa" the next day with some friends from Chicago and their parents who came for a visit.  We played tour guide and got to show off our new home town, ending the amazing fun-filled day at the Haifa Wine and Cheese festival (where we ate a lot of cheese and acquired 6 new wine glasses).  While there are times that we miss living in Jerusalem, we are really happy right where we are.  

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