When I met my future husband, Rabbi Avi Herzog, on a blind date, one of the first things we discussed was our desire to make aliyah.
My Zionism was born from the trauma of the Holocaust; from an early age, my mother inculcated in me the idea that while Jews are welcome guests in America, the only place they are truly safe is in their own land, with their own army and police to protect them. I grew up in Teaneck; from my first visit to Israel in 1981, at 17, I desperately wanted to make aliyah.
Avi was raised in a fervently religious Zionist home; his father’s involvement in Bnei Akiva went back to when the movement was called “Shomer HaDati.” We got married on the “10-year aliyah plan.”
Six years into that plan, my father passed away. I was the “bat zikunim” — the youngest child of much older parents — and we knew I couldn’t leave my mother. This became even clearer when, after nine years, our first child was born. My mother didn’t want to move anymore; we had a son and a daughter, and we couldn’t take her grandchildren away from her. My mother passed away in November 2016, at age 95.
Our daughter made aliyah in 2017 and became a lone soldier. In the summer of 2018, when we visited her, we went to Nefesh B’Nefesh and officially began the aliyah process. We were enthusiastically encouraged by Ari, our pre-aliyah adviser, and Racheli, an employment adviser. As we walked out of NBN’s Jerusalem office, we looked at one another, a bit stunned, but both of us smiling broadly.
Thirty-two years later, we were on our way to fulfilling our dreams.
The next year was filled with preparing and purging. Furniture was sold and bought. Forms were obtained and uploaded. We chose Giv’at Ze’ev as the community where we wanted to move and began to look for an apartment. We sold our home, arranged our lift, and booked our flight. Each step along the way was surrounded by both anxiety and excitement, plus doses of aggravation and euphoria. We met with NBN several times and attended the organization’s Mega Event, which offered informative sessions on a wide range of aliyah-related topics, in Teaneck. The enthusiasm and support buoyed us and kept us focused on our goal.
Our aliyah date was set for July 23 — but God had other plans. On July 18, my father-in-law, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s for many years, passed away. My husband emailed Ari, and within the hour he called me, and we discussed the options. After talking things over with my husband and son, we decided to fly to Israel to bury Avi’s father, sit shiva in Jerusalem, return to New Jersey, and then make aliyah a week later. Ari called back quickly and told us that this had been arranged, including El Al’s waiving the flight change fee. The help and compassion we received was heartwarming. While it was exhausting on all levels, my husband was able to bifurcate his mourning and joy; we literally went from yagon to simcha, from sorrow to joy.
And what a simcha it was. While leaving our son, the rest of our families, and close friends in the United States is very difficult, we were quivering with excitement at Newark Airport. I was determined to embrace and be emotionally present for every moment of something that was more than 35 years in the making. The group-flight experience was beautiful, from the caps to the tags to the story-swapping and the pride.
To hear the pilot announce that there were 100 future olim on the plane, and then hear the cheering and see the smiles on the flight attendants’ faces, was simply joyous. There was a lot of noise on the plane, chattering adults and crying babies, but it all was fine with us. We were going home.
Avi and I squeezed our hands as we landed. There were tears in our eyes. I bounced off the plane, jumping up and down and waving my white cane at the NBN staff waiting for us as we exited. We were fed and supplied with hot and cold drinks. The children had toys and things to do. And everyone — the olim, the group from NBN, and the Israeli government — was suffused with pride and joy. More exiles returning, more dreams fulfilled, more Jews coming home.
Now, Avi and I are looking forward to just living in Israel — working, voting in our first elections, complaining about whatever olim and Israelis complain about, and buying groceries. We both have felt emotionally exhausted, lonely, and disoriented. At times, we have even second-guessed our decision to make aliyah. But when people go out of their way to help us — like the lady from the makolet who finds us down the street and tells us we left our bananas by the cash register, or the chassid who overhears our conversation and wishes us mazal tov on our aliyah — we remember why we came. We are reminded, in a thousand little ways, that we are finally home.
Leah V. Herzog made aliyah from Fair Lawn with Nefesh B’Nefesh in July. Until then, she had been co-director of Israel guidance and taught Tanach at the Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck. She wrote about her impending aliyah in the Jewish Standard in April.