One of the great sources of humor and irony in this life comes from our fantasies about the lives we imagine we are living, and how certain we are about the correctness of the choices we’ve made.
For me, it’s about the life of the rabbi who sacrificed going on aliyah to serve his community in the United States. Yes, I am striving to fulfill what I understand to be my life’s purpose — yet there is the fantasy of the life I did not lead.
I imagined the life of aliyah, yet my two years of dedicated study in Israel ended with a firm determination to make my contribution to the Jewish community in the United States. Aliyah? Maybe afterward.
Early in our marriage, when my wife and I had only one child and he was less than two years old, we decided to speak to him only in Hebrew, as a preparation for our inevitable aliyah.
After three minutes of dumbstruck looks from our child, we capitulated.
Please do not let me mislead you that our enfranchising within the U.S. Jewish community is my only excuse. I have and have had many excuses: Israel is too small, I feel claustrophobic. I care too much, it’ll tear me up inside. I dislike the religious polarization. I’m afraid to serve in the army. I’m afraid of being injured in a terror attack. I’m afraid of the heartbreak of living in a community full of people who, under the wrong circumstances, will have their collective lives ripped from them by the horrors of war or terrorism. Lots of excuses. Enough excuses to keep aliyah at bay.
Year after year, visit after visit to Israel, excuse after excuse, I managed to shut out the small still voice that calls me even now to aliyah.
Perhaps it’s better, and certainly it is easier, not to look back, but I can only take so many trips to Israel as a tourist before memory and ideals intrude.
I try to visit Israel every year; somehow my trip this year was different. The same itinerary (Yeshiva Week vacation, Jerusalem apartment near the shuk, day trip to the Dead Sea), but still it was a profoundly different experience. I’m sure that the feeling that America is less secure now was a minor factor, but what transformed the experience for me was having read “#Israeli Judaism, Portrait of a Cultural Revolution” by Shmuel Rosner and Camil Fuchs, a new and careful study of the currents of significant transformation of Jewish life in Israel. I admit with shame that in the past I have relied on simplistic religious stereotypes to help distance me from my brothers and sisters in Israel. Rosner and Fuchs et al clearly demonstrate that Israeli Jewish life is far more diverse, far more Jewishly committed, and far more dynamic than I had known.
And so I reflect on choices made and choices as yet not confronted.
I am older and perhaps wiser now, and I have found that the secret to maturing through middle age is accepting that everything has trade-offs. Aliyah would be good, but oh the trade-offs!
Living in America provides the comfort of a familiar cultural milieu; a clear career path that makes life financially easier (at least until you have to pay day school tuition); only one out of four kids in the army; not suffering with the religious factionalism that breaks my heart; less concerns about terrorism (remember just a short while ago when there was no concern, in America and for American Jews); less tragedy; less politics.
But what did I trade away? I found my answers while shopping at a supermarket in Gush Etzion. There I looked upon my contemporaries from America who had chosen the life I avoided. There was a woman in her fifties who I imagined has made a rich Jewish life for herself. She reminded me of my cousin Robin, among the first of my extended family to commit to Israel. I imagined that for all the struggles, and the children in the army, and the uncertainty about the future shape of Israel, hers was a life less concerned with assimilation, intermarriage, and the dilution of Judaism.
There was a man my age, in uniform and with a gun. I imagined what scars he might carry from war or occupation, but that his life had the security of defending his home and ideals and the strength that comes from a posture of readiness for conflict.
And there were two new mothers, clad in comfortable pants, shopping together and supporting each other. In a community in which nationalism and commitment to halachah runs high, these women (and the Arab vendors I met as well) seemed at ease, as if the dream of a tolerant and diverse Israel really were possible.
Ah, but what of my children? Three out of my four children live close enough, within the greater New York area. They were raised, as I was, with an ever-fading commitment to aliyah. My sister got her aliyah-centric name in the late fifties; 15 years later, and even after a bar mitzvah in Israel, the dream of living in Israel had quietly faded. My own children experienced much the same.
People tell you all the time how wonderful it is that their kids went to live in Israel. That is not my experience (nor, with a bit of prodding, anyone else’s). Having a child living across the sea is saddening, no matter how much WhatsApp and the telephone may help. Moving to Israel would triple that problem for us.
As our people left Egypt, the Torah describes them as “chamushim.” Armed. There is a midrash quoted by Rashi that translates the word instead as one-fifth (think Chumash, the Five Books of Moses). Accordingly, we are asked to consider that one-fifth went up from Egypt, while a full four-fifths remained. Perhaps I am one of the four fifths, staying behind instead of becoming part of the future of Judaism, as expressed more fully in Israel. Perhaps I have chosen the comfort of the familiar and the security of family. Perhaps I have decided that it is better to be a slave to security rather than face the dangerous road of freedom. Or perhaps I have made the right choices, to serve my community in the United States and to keep my family as close as possible.
I cannot know, but I also cannot continue to go to Israel and make believe that my choice to pass on aliyah certainly was correct. I dare say none of us should be so foolish as to be certain of the righteousness of our choices.
Elchanan Weinbach is the rabbi of Congregation Shaarey Israel in Montebello. He has been a pulpit rabbi for 13 years, a school head for 15 years, and a consultant, presenter, or scholar in residence in New York, Kansas City, and Florida, and at LimmudLA.