Family and friends who read my blog posts have started asking me why I haven’t written about the topic that now consumes my professional life. You see, over the last six months I have spoken more Hebrew, worked with more Israelis, and engaged in more Israel-related activities than I have since I lived in Israel from 1971 to 1974. So, why haven’t I written or spoken about my thoughts, feelings, or opinions on Israel?
In August of 1971, my family moved to Israel. Having arrived there one month shy of my tenth birthday, the experience is permanently imprinted on my brain with a clarity that has not diminished with age. In particular, I vividly remember the night we arrived; descending the portable staircase from the airplane onto the tarmac and stepping for the first time on “holy land.” The overwhelming feelings of belonging and of “coming home” were foreign and very much a surprise to me at the time, but are ones that I still feel when I visit today.
Exhausted, we were taken (by my grandmother’s brother whom I had never met before) to an “absorption center” – an ulpan – in Beer Sheva where we were to live for six months to learn the language and become acclimated to the culture. A family of six, we had to split up and live in two neighboring apartments. Each unit contained two tiny bedrooms; a miniscule bathroom with one sink, toilet, and shower; and a “main” room that contained a kitchenette and sitting area. Decent storage, air conditioning, a large screen color TV, and attractive décor were non-existent. Most of our meals were served in a complex-wide communal dining room. Incredible heat, pesky mosquitoes, and huge cockroaches were everywhere. I entered the fifth grade at an Israeli public school – with other immigrant children – where I attended special classes to learn Hebrew and sat through others like a deaf mute. This adventure we embarked upon was far from easy or comfortable. Actually, it was kind of icky.
But, when we moved to Ramat Gan – a suburb of Tel Aviv – life in our three-bedroom, one and one-half bath apartment assumed a pattern of normalcy. My dad worked for IBM, my mom worked for Trans World Airlines (TWA – a now defunct airline), and my siblings and I attended the local elementary school. We made good friends, developed a comfortable fluency in Hebrew, and began to enjoy living in a place where we were not part of a religious or cultural minority. It was SO much fun getting used to school, work, and stores being closed on ALL Jewish holidays, but open on Christmas and Easter!
In October of 1973, the afternoon of Yom Kippur, my siblings and I were playing a game of “Risk.” My father was in America on business. Suddenly, at about 2:00 PM, with no warning at all, an incredibly loud (deafening!) siren went off. We had no idea what the noise was and ran to the window to figure out what was happening. We saw people running everywhere and heard them yelling. Rushing to our apartment door, we quickly followed the other residents who were running downstairs to a bomb shelter in the basement of the building. There, in semi-darkness with no food or water or idea how long we’d be there, my mother sat terrified with four children, praying that we wouldn’t die. We had learned that Israel was attacked, on the holiest day of the Jewish year, from the north and east and south. Israel was at war and this too became a reality in which we lived.
Between the war and a series of other challenges, my parents decided to move us back to the States in May of 1974. Their decision was not received well by me. It marked one of the saddest, most difficult times of my life. I’ve never forgotten one minute of the three years we lived in Israel: the relationships I formed, the first boy I ever kissed, the independence and confidence I developed, and the extended family that I got to know. My love of the language, the culture, the food, the people, and the land have grown – not faded – over time. Somehow, however, all of these memories and sentiments have felt very private, bittersweet, and difficult to share.
Today, I still suffer occasional pangs of guilt that my family “abandoned” Israel and moved back to the States. Sometimes I still regret that I never moved back and made aliyah once I became an adult, as my two sisters did. But, I do not regret the way in which falling in love and pursuing other opportunities took me down a different path. I just wish that one route didn’t have to come at the expense of the other.
I’ve learned through the years that being committed to promoting a strong Jewish future and supporting the State of Israel doesn’t have to be done solely by living in the Land of Israel. Rather, I am privileged to embark upon this mission daily through the work I do right here in Atlanta.
So why am I writing about all of this now? Today, through my job, I met a man (a community volunteer) whose passion for Israel comes very close to mine; though he’s never lived there. He’s involved with Birthright, AIPAC, reads Israeli newspapers on a daily basis, and is learning Hebrew. It immediately became clear that we are destined to work together on a variety of projects. He freely shared his story, his thoughts, his hopes, and his desire to help more people learn about and connect with the things that make Israel really special. After listening, I knew it was my turn to share too.
I am the Israel & Overseas manager at the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta where I facilitate people-to-people connections between Atlantans and Israelis though meaningful travel, arts, cultural, and educational programs. My goal is to promote relationships that are based on mutual understanding and respect, which create strong ties and supportive connections to Israel.