Stories of the Ingathering of the Exiles
BY SHIRA LANKIN SHEPS
During my first year of Aliyah, I traveled up and down this small but wondrous country, interviewing Jewish women from all over the world.
In my quest to write a book about the challenges and triumphs of what it means to be a Jewish woman living in Israel, I discovered sabras, immigrants, and refugees who had fascinating personal stories to share. They told me about the meaning they had made from the stories they had lived, and shared their resilience and hopes for the future. The experience was personally transformative for me. The first twelve months of settling into my new life here, I was buoyed by their strength, their bravery, and commitment to this incredible place.
Coming from the United States’ Northeast, my family and immediate community’s main narrative was one of surviving the Shoah combined with a long, proud tradition of Ashkenazi and European history. My exposure to other powerful narratives of Jewish history was limited to what I was taught in school and what I inherited from my own DNA. The journey of my first year of Aliyah blew my mind wide open to the expansive and extensive trajectories of our people.
I met with a fascinating woman named Sarah, from a family of Greek and Turkish Jews. Born and raised in Cairo, her family spoke Arabic, French, and Ladino and dreamed of one day immigrating to the State of Israel. When tensions began to rise for Jews in Cairo in the 1950s, her family escaped Egypt for France and ultimately immigrated to America. Eventually, with her husband and children, she made Aliyah and was one of the first families to settle in Gush Etzion.
I was connected to Shlomit, who grew up in Kolasib, India, as part of the Bnei Menashe tribe. She traces her family lineage back to her ancient people and told me how she discovered her faith in Judaism and longed to live in Israel with all her soul. She walked me through her Aliyah and conversion process and her family customs, foods, and cultures. I marveled at how her family history finally led her home.
I became friends with an amazing young woman named Chaya, from Puebla, Mexico. For generations, her mother’s family was believed to have descended from Jews in Valencia, Spain, as it was their family surname. Though they never formally identified as Jews, they always kept the tenets of the Jewish faith; kashrut, tzniut, Shabbat, and more. Through an incredible journey of discovery, most of her family has now officially converted to Judaism through the Israeli Rabbanut and made Aliyah, building families and serving in the IDF. I was recently honored to have been invited to her wedding here in Israel!
I was introduced to Sewalem, who was born to a Jewish mother and Christian father in a small Ethiopian village called Wegera. Sewalem, her mother and some of her siblings were able to make Aliyah from Addis Ababa when she was a little girl. She explained what it was like to go on a plane for the first time, and to leave almost everything she knew behind – food, culture, and even her elder brother. She told me about the racism she has experienced in Israel because of the color of her skin, and how she has fought for her brother to be allowed to make Aliyah to rejoin the family. She is still advocating for the Israeli government to allow him and his family to come home.
When I was a small child, my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, impressed upon me the importance of recording and retelling stories. He taught me that the narratives we tell ourselves define who we are and what we value, and guide us as we chart a path for the future.
As a storyteller, my life in Israel has opened up my eyes, helping me see our people and our homeland with a wider focus. Jewish history is vast and complicated. Over thousands of years of exile, we were scattered to the farthest corners of the world, far from our land and from each other. It is awe-inspiring to witness the herculean efforts of so many of our brothers and sisters who are fighting to rejoin our people and come home at last.
The future of our nation and the Land of Israel will be built by the narratives we tell of the past, present, and future. The more we learn about each other and the more we dedicate ourselves to building unity and taking an active part in the ingathering of the exiles, the closer we will come to our final redemption. May we see it soon!
Shira Lankin Sheps, MSW, is a writer, photographer, and clinically trained therapist. She is the creator and publisher of The Layers Project Magazine, an online magazine that explores in-depth insights into the challenges and triumphs of the lives of Jewish women. She is the author of “Layers: Personal Narratives of Struggle, Resilience, and Growth From Jewish Women” published by Toby Press in 2021. She facilitates The Layers Writing Workshops, and has written with hundreds of women over the years, helping them explore their personal narratives, discover meaning in their struggles, and share their stories in a safe and healthy way.