How Should I Choose a Community in Israel?
BY RABBI REUVEN TARAGIN
Congratulations on your decision to make Aliyah!
Though you are realizing a dream, it is important to do so with your eyes wide open. Proper preparation and planning will help your Aliyah be the best it can be.
One of the most significant decisions you need to make is where to live. On the one hand, moving to a “real” Israeli community can facilitate a quicker and more thorough integration. On the other hand, moving to an English-speaking or even Anglo community makes the transition easier.
An Israeli community
Moving to a standard, “fully” Israeli community has much to offer. First off, it is the best way to learn about Israelis and Israeli culture and mannerisms. Each country has its culture and customs. Living and building relationships with native Israelis is the best way to familiarize yourself with Israel.
These relationships also widen and deepen our perspective of Jewish life and ourselves. The Mishnah defines the wise man as “the one who learns from all people” (Avot 4:1). When we surround ourselves only with those who share our exact hashkafa and background, we limit our exposure to what we already know and miss a significant growth opportunity.
When we settle in the same country we were raised in, we generally continue with the same cultural milieu and perspective of our avodat Hashem. Moving to a Jewish community in a new country offers the unique opportunity to expose oneself to a different environment and to people with a different understanding of avodat Hashem – one that can enrich the perspective we grew up with.
Moving to Israel, in particular, offers an added opportunity – the ability to learn from people who grew up in a Jewish state, in the holy land of Eretz Yisrael. Many of those who grew up this way (especially those less connected to the global village culture) offer a fresh, more natural approach to avodat Hashem that can only be developed when our people are living in Hashem’s Land.
We should aim for our Aliyah to emulate that of the first Jew, Avraham Avinu, whose move to Eretz Yisrael included his discovery of his true self (Likutei Halachot, Hilchot Shabbat 7). We too should seek to connect with Eretz Yisrael and its people in a way that helps us discover a more profound, more authentic version of ourselves.
Moving to a fully Israeli community offers unique opportunities, but these opportunities come with greater challenges and higher risks. Settling in a Hebrew-speaking community is a major change in lifestyle. Many only realize the importance of their accustomed cultural norms once they make such a move.
One example of these norms is the sense of community. As a minority living in a foreign country, Orthodox Jews worldwide form Jewish communities around shuls and schools. These institutions serve as more than just locations for tefillah and education. They are community centers around which the lives of community members revolve and by which members identify themselves.
This is generally not the case in Israeli communities – especially within cities. A shul is a place to daven that may also arrange shiurim. It generally does not run social events and is not the focus of its members’ lives. Many of those who take the fully Israeli path miss the sense of community they had in chutz la’aretz.
Moving to a fully Israeli community is like jumping into the deep end. One who knows how to swim or is a quick learner will manage to swim and ultimately master swimming. Those not ready for the deep dive can find the experience overwhelming and their Aliyah, chas v’shalom, unsuccessful.
An Anglo community
Settling in a community of “landsmen” (those who originate from the same country) makes the transition technically easier and softens Aliyah’s cultural shift. Though people have moved countries, the religious and cultural mannerisms remain, to a large extent, the same. They miss their communities abroad but become part of a community at home in Israel. Understandably, those who settle in Anglo communities usually – at least initially – find their Aliyah easier and are generally more successful at making a smooth religious and social transition.
The downside is that those who live in these communities interface less with other types of Israelis, and therefore have less exposure to Israeli society as a whole. This makes integration harder for adults and particularly for children who often feel that they are “neither here nor there.” They are not truly Anglos and live in Israel, but they also feel different from native-born Israelis.
Though making Aliyah does not need to include changing one’s religious identity and perspective, one needs to learn how to manage the Israeli system and should ideally feel connected to the rest of the Jewish people living in Israel. You don’t need to “become Israeli,” but you should be an Israeli. We play a part in Hashem’s geulah process not just by returning to and inhabiting His Land, but also by reconnecting with His people there.
Which way is better?
Should you take the course easier in the short-term or the one that may be harder in the short-term yet offers more in the long-term?
The answer depends upon many factors, the most important of which being your background, and the age and stage of your Aliyah. The cultural shift of moving to a fully Israeli community is significantly easier for people making Aliyah at a young age, while still single or newly-married or with very young children and with a strong Hebrew and understanding of Israel. Those making Aliyah under other circumstances should probably choose the safer path.
The third way – the middle path
There is also a middle path worth considering. Many communities in Israel have a healthy mix of Israeli-born Hebrew speakers and English-speaking olim. Settling in such a community allows one to benefit from the best of both worlds.
Obviously, building such a community is more challenging than either of the two homogenous models. Ideally, one should choose a community that successfully integrates the two groups and has a coherent religious-cultural identity.
To maximize the benefits of moving to such a community, one should consciously connect to both types of residents. Make sure to seek relationships with Hebrew-speaking Israelis as well as Anglos, especially for one’s children.
A community that suits you and your children
Although Aliyah should logically lead to heightened levels of spirituality, unfortunately this is not always the case. Any move to a new country and culture, even a holier one, can be disruptive to one’s natural religious growth. Like when moving anywhere else, it is imperative to choose a community that emphasizes and inculcates Torah values in a way that is similar to the community one is making Aliyah from, especially if one is making Aliyah with older children. This will help you make a smoother religious transition.
It is important to add that, when choosing a community, you should carefully consider the suitability of the community for olim children and your children in particular. Clarify how successful the community has been in helping olim children grow as bnei and bnot Torah. It is also important to carefully consider the community’s educational options and determine how suitable they are for your family and children. A yeshiva or school may seem similar to what you are used to, but, in reality, be very different. This difference can create a dissonance between school and family that can be very confusing and frustrating.
Additionally, not every Anglo or mixed neighborhood or shul emphasizes the value of community to the same extent or in the same way. In general, yishuvim or defined communities emphasize community-building more than cities and large towns. Moving to such a community makes it easier to feel a sense of belonging.
Do your research
Choosing a community is a significant decision that is hard to make from a distance. It definitely pays to speak with many residents and ideally visit and spend Shabbatot in the different communities one is considering before deciding. Research for Aliyah should extend beyond Googling for information. It is important to speak to people personally and feel things on the ground first-hand.
If one is unable to visit beforehand, consider using some Shabbatot during the first year to visit different communities before deciding where to settle permanently, especially if you are making Aliyah without older children. That being said, it is important not to travel for too many Shabbatot in order to allow for a consistent stable first year in Israel.
If possible, it is also important to look for a community where you know people, like family and friends, who can offer help. Speak to Aliyah coordinators beforehand to understand the different educational options and to know which tutors to hire.
People from chutz la’aretz are often predisposed to refusing help because they feel uncomfortable asking or even accepting. But Aliyah is too difficult to do on your own; you must not be embarrassed to seek help and accept the help offered by others. There will, iy”H, be many people offering it. This is the time in your life to accept it. May Hashem assist your due diligence and bless you and your family with a smooth Aliyah process that helps you and your family feel at home in Israel for generations to come.
● Thank you to the many olim who reviewed and contributed to this piece. A special thank you to Doni Cohen for his thorough review and detailed suggestions.
Rabbi Reuven Taragin is Educational Director of Mizrachi and Dean of the Yeshivat Hakotel Overseas Program.