An Aliyah Roundtable Conversation
When making Aliyah, olim must make many significant life choices. We spoke with Rabbi David Fine of Modi’in, Rabbi Eitan and Rabbanit Etta Bendavid of Ra’anana, and Rabbi David and Rabbanit Ilana Gottlieb of Ramat Beit Shemesh to hear their perspectives on some of the burning issues surrounding integration, communities and successful Aliyah.
For many people from Diaspora communities, shul-based communities are a critical part of their Jewish life, and something that they find hard to find in Israel. What has your shul done to help foster a sense of community?
Rabbi Fine: The very fact that we have built and developed a synagogue in the North American model and have hired a rabbi who, for all intents and purposes, is full-time has made all the difference in fostering a sense of community. There are many shuls in our community, but ours is the only one that operates on a Diaspora model. I think our members take great pride in being a model in our neighborhood for how to build community.
Rabbi Bendavid: For many of our members, Shivtei Yisrael is the family we choose. So much of what we do centers around building community. I very intentionally speak about community-building on a regular basis from the pulpit. We have a chessed group with over 250 volunteer members. Anytime anyone needs something – a meal, help, support, whatever it may be – there are people ready to help.
Rabbanit Bendavid: Our youth programs are perfect examples of the ways we help foster community. When you make Aliyah as a kid or teen, it takes time to feel a sense of belonging because of the language barrier, which hinders their access to their emotional language. In our programs, participants (and their families) connect to others who are journeying through the Aliyah process. Our programs are primarily in English and this creates a sense of belonging and familiarity, while fostering a foundation of support to grow into new schools with new friends.
Rabbanit Gottlieb: Men have minyan where they can naturally connect and create a sense of community. This is much more of a challenge for women, especially if they still have young children, and particularly in Israel where Shabbat morning davening typically ends much earlier than in the Diaspora. As such, we have emphasized women’s programming, be it regular shiurim or social programs. Every year we have a social event in Elul to reconnect and meet new women who have recently moved into the community.
Olim must balance the desire for familiarity provided by living near other olim with integrating into broader Israeli society, which requires breaking out of their comfort zone. How do you guide congregants in how to strike this balance?
Rabbi Fine: It is almost impossible to answer this question generally because it is so different for each individual. Some consider it a value to become integrated while others do not. They feel they have made Aliyah, which in some ways is a sacrifice, and as long as they are making that sacrifice they want to live in Israel in ways that are as socially comfortable for them as possible. In our circles, there is often a lot of judgment surrounding this issue, but I think everyone must do what is best for themselves and their family and that there isn’t one response that is right for everyone. Personally, I believe that integrating as much as possible is mutually enriching for all involved. We Anglos have much that we can contribute to Israeli society. Many of the great things that Diaspora communities provide have not yet been experienced by most Israelis. We can also gain so much, personally and communally, by leaving our comfort zones and integrating. Although my primary social circles remain Anglo, I make every attempt to cross the so-called divide to the extent that I can. I believe my life and my family’s lives are better and more enriched because of it .
Rabbi Bendavid: As the Anglo community in Ra’anana has increased in numbers and in strength, we are seeing that even second-generation olim are more culturally Anglo than they were in the past. We encourage everyone to take ulpan, to explore Israel as much as possible through tiyulim, and to break out of their social comfort zones. We run events that give people more exposure to what is happening around them. For example, every Tisha B’Av evening, we participate in a program called הַלַּיְלָה לֹא לוֹמְדִים, in which Israeli intellectuals and media personalities from across the political and religious spectrum come together to discuss how we can fix the divisions within Am Yisrael. At the same time, we support people and let them know that it’s okay to hold on to things that give us comfort. Mental and emotional stability is more important than “becoming Israeli” on day one of Aliyah. It’s a process.
Rabbi Gottlieb: This is a complex issue which depends on multiple factors, such as personality, Hebrew fluency, age of children, and more. Speaking in broad-strokes, I would say that while there is a value to integration, it is not the only, or even the most important, value. The same values that hopefully guided us before Aliyah – menschlichkeit, commitment to Torah, etc. – should guide our lifestyle and parenting decisions in Israel as well. In our case, living in Ramat Beit Shemesh with a high percentage of English speakers has been a true blessing which facilitated our successful Aliyah. As the children grew older, their experiences in school, yeshiva, seminary, army and sherut leumi have allowed them to integrate more fully. For us, and many others in our community, this has been a successful formula.
For many people, there is a religious culture shock of arriving in Israel, where terms like “Modern Orthodox” aren’t as common and there are different religious questions and categorizations. How do you help people navigate the new religious landscape when they arrive in Israel?
Rabbi Fine: Many Anglos live in “bubble communities” where they don’t need to navigate new religious landscapes because they have succeeded in replicating the landscape from which they came. For people who want to explore beyond their comfort zone, my advice is similar to the advice I try to follow whenever I enter into new territory or a new situation: do a lot of listening and try to learn as much as possible. Many of the foundational beliefs about Judaism upon which we were raised in the Diaspora are viewed differently here. Speaking with a rabbi who is well-versed in guiding people or someone who has been here for longer can be helpful.
Rabbi Bendavid: There are many shocks for people when they come. Many of our members do not fit into the typical religious categories that exist in Israel, though one of the beautiful things about living in Ra’anana is that the typical political and religious categories don’t hold as much weight in this wonderfully diverse city.
The first shock comes when people realize that the school system here offers the bare-minimum in terms of limmudei kodesh. This means that parents need to take a lot more responsibility for their child’s chinuch than in chutz la’aretz, where you could “outsource” your child’s education to the Jewish school system.
Another big shock, particularly for South Africans, is the freedom of Israeli society. Many people conform to their community’s religious standards when living in the Diaspora but ironically, once they arrive in Israel, feel freer to establish their own identity and sometimes to lower their standards of religious observance.
The third challenge is that Israel is a complicated place. It’s both very religious as well as very secular. This is confusing for adults and especially youth who want to connect to other Jews out of a sense of national solidarity who may not be shomer Shabbat, even if they are very Zionist or traditional. Sometimes we joke that it’s much easier to raise youth to be Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora where you have non-Jews who can serve as a contrast to our religious values. It’s much more confusing in Israel.
Rabbi Gottlieb: The religious and social categories we are familiar with in the Diaspora are not fully replicated in Israel. Modern Orthodox is not the same as Religious Zionist, and yeshivish is not the same as Charedi. I emphasize this point with families even before their Aliyah. When asked for advice, I help the family clarify which issues and values are truly important to them and how they want to raise their children. Then I try to guide them on which communities and schools will most closely align with their priorities.
For families making Aliyah, there is a natural generational gap, in which the parents are more Anglo while the kids are growing up Israeli. What can parents do to alleviate this gap?
Rabbi Fine: One of the biggest challenges is when children take very different paths than their parents, decisions they may not have made had they stayed in the Diaspora. When I see a child of friends who has decided not to remain religiously observant, I sometimes say to my wife that, while no-one can ever know, I believe this child would have stayed religious had this family remained in the Diaspora. This sometimes happens because children in Israel see a different model of how to remain a serious and identified Jew without necessarily being observant. This model doesn’t really exist outside of Israel. Children who become more ensconced in Israeli life are exposed to Israelis who are committed to Israel through their army service, the Land, Hebrew, and the rhythm of the Hebrew calendar – but are not necessarily observant. We can’t prevent our children from seeing this model as a viable one. As with all parenting issues, we must create positive communication and do our best to behave as positive role models in order to convey our values. We must trust our children and believe in them. We also need to realize that they can be our teachers and that we have to learn from them. I think we need to be realistic and realize that our kids may not necessarily choose our path.
Rabbi Bendavid: From my standpoint, the generational gap occurs because it is the parents, not the children, who choose to make Aliyah. Everyone has an Aliyah story of how and why they came. Often, this desire to make Aliyah is animated by a very strong sense of the arc of Jewish history, the Shoah and the miracle of Medinat Yisrael. Our children take these things for granted. How could they not?! Israel is a fact for them. They don’t know of any other reality. In the spirit of Parashat Ki Tavo and Seder night, I strongly encourage parents to share their personal Aliyah stories and how they chose to become observant Jews. Our kids need to know the struggles we faced, the choices we made, and the values that inspired us to come here in the first place.
Rabbanit Bendavid: It is critical to maintain a sense of humility and humor, which teaches our children how to adapt and cope even in times of transition. We may not always be able to help our kids with their homework, just like we may not always have an answer to their philosophical questions.
Rabbanit Gottlieb: Wow, this is a big one! First of all, we must accept that this is a reality and that there is not much we can do to fundamentally change it. Going out of your way to show “how Israeli” you’ve become rarely works; when you talk in Hebrew in front of their friends – especially using slang – all you do is embarrass yourself (and them). Second, we have to learn to forgive ourselves and laugh about our mistakes. There are aspects of their experience which we do not fully understand and that’s OK. Third, parents need to adjust their expectations – for example, dress in Israel is more casual than we may be used to. At the same time, you are still the parent and if you see something that truly diverges from your values you shouldn’t be afraid to push back. All children – including olim – need parental guidance and we cannot abdicate that responsibility.
As rabbinic leaders, you have guided countless individuals and families through their Aliyah. What is the most important advice you can give people making Aliyah?
Rabbi Fine: Take advantage of the amazing learning and chessed opportunities available to us here that are simply unavailable elsewhere. I don’t just mean traditional book learning, but any opportunity which enriches us as Jews. Many of us have what we call “only in Israel” moments. Treasure those moments and take one minute every day to reflect on what we are doing here and why we came. Remember that we are not just living our own private lives but also helping to build a Jewish nation that needs all of our talents and contributions. This keeps us even keeled and helps us weather the inevitable challenges that often come with living in Israel.
I also suggest that people planning to make Aliyah spend as much time learning Hebrew as possible. Learning patience is also essential when dealing with Israeli life, especially at the beginning.
Rabbi Bendavid: Come to Israel to give, not to take. Israel is the greatest miracle of the last 2,000 years, but it is still a work-in-progress and we need your help to make Israel the best it can be. Come to sacrifice, give of yourself, and to build the Jewish nation. With this mindset, you will never be disappointed when things don’t go exactly as expected.
Rabbi Gottlieb: I am often contacted by rabbis and educators considering Aliyah. One issue I am sensitive to because it was a struggle for me in my own Aliyah is finding “sipuk hanefesh,” fulfillment and emotional satisfaction, from your work. Much attention is focused on the finances of Aliyah, but not enough thought is given to the very different and often less prominent role people will have in the community. How does someone who was a successful congregational rabbi measure his self-worth if he no longer serves in that capacity? How does an educator who was an administrator or department head see herself if she now has to cobble together multiple part-time jobs in numerous seminaries? More important to the answers to these questions is the need to think deeply about them before making Aliyah.