When my family recently announced our plans to move to Israel, I discovered an unanticipated challenge in this long-time goal. Many have asked me, “Why move? What makes Israel so special?” and the answer isn’t necessarily simple.
Recently, I discussed this with a parent at Shalhevet, the Modern Orthodox high school in Los Angeles where I am head of school. I praised the wonders of Israel — the technology centers, the IDF, Torah learning, even my favorite restaurants. My 8-year-old daughter Nili was listening and chimed in, “Isn’t Israel special because Hashem told Avraham that he should go live there?” She was, of course, right. So, why was I so hesitant to declare that we’re making aliya because God said we should live there?
The answer, I believe, says a lot about American Jewry’s complicated relationship with aliyah. Promoting “aliyah for all” may sound dictatorial to some, like a judgment that Jewish communities in the diaspora are somehow defective, no matter how much they flourish. “Aliyah for all” can sound like “aliyah or else” — suggesting some fundamental failure in our Jewishness, simply because of where we live in the diaspora.
I understand this. It makes sense that many avoid that sensitive message, arguing that aliyah is only for some. Still, I believe it is mistaken.
Striving for ideals, regardless of whether or not they can practically be reached, is a fundamental concept of Judaism. We strive for perfection but are prepared for the realities and restrictions of life. Whether or not we can fulfill these aspirations, preserving them strengthens our bond to Jewish identity and history.
Aliyah represents the fulfillment of Hashem’s promise to our people. For that reason alone, it is worth reaching for — even if, for most in America, it may never be practically grasped.
When God first introduced the land of Israel to Avraham, God describes it as “the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). It’s a strange phraseology — why not just say “Israel”? One answer suggested by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the Rebbe of Izhbitz (1801-1854), is that one of the names of Israel is, in fact, the “land that I will show you.” Israel is the land that will be shown to us because its place as a future aspiration is part of the purpose of our homeland. Striving toward the land is part of the reason it exists. It is part of the reason we exist.
The philosopher Simon Rawidowicz once described the Jewish people as “the ever-dying people.” I think that situating Israel as an eternal aspiration for all makes us “the ever-returning people.” Through the centuries of life and death, we have continued to dream, and therefore we are always returning home. This idea has resonated with me personally since my mother tragically passed away at the age of 58. Following her passing we were given a “living will” that she addressed to our family, in which she wrote, “I want you to know that I consider it of the utmost importance that all of you try to live your lives in Eretz Yisrael.” She explained that she knew that we would live as committed Jews, but, in her words, “I wanted more.”
My mother was not disparaging our lives in America when she wrote this. Wanting more was not a negative reflection on the reality of our lives; rather, it was the dream that something even more perfect could be achieved in Israel. My mother never lived to see her dream, nor could she have ever known whether that dream could practically be fulfilled. Still, in her mind and her heart, she strove toward aliyah.
Living with dreams is what makes Jewish life so powerful. We dream of Moshiach but carry on whether or not he comes. Aliyah may not be for everyone — sadly, it was not something that my mother achieved herself — but that doesn’t mean it’s not a dream for everyone.
So I reject the idea that it is impractical or divisive to promote the dream of aliyah for everyone. The dream is part of the journey. That is why I’m making aliyah. My mother’s words taught me that challenges should not be an impediment to our aspirations. She was an aspirant — an olah (literally, moving upwards) in her heart; my family and I will be olim with our whole selves.
Rabbi Ari Segal is head of school of the Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles.