Aliyah: A Sacrifice Too Big?

By: Hannah Dreyfus  |  May 20, 2013

Date question: so — feelings about aliyah?

For some, the question is a deal breaker. For most, it’s a discussion.

Within the Modern Orthodox community, the question is rarely one of loving Israel. Our allegiance is assumed, our reverence expected. Israeli flags in dorm rooms and teary eyes during the recital of Ha’Tikvah serve as mere confirmations. We dance on Yom HaAtzmaut and cry on Yom HaZikaron. We visit for holidays and reminisce generously about our seminary and yeshiva experiences, traipsing around the cobble-stoned streets of Jerusalem.

But who’s going back?

Those who answer deal-breaker have chosen Israel. But for those of us who finagle around the question of aliyah, talking about jobs and family ties and war-zones, we’ve chosen America.

I don’t make light of these considerations. I don’t make light of the decision to stay in the United States. What I find interesting, however, is the way we acknowledge the decision we have made to stay in America. More oft than not, the challenge to verbalize the decision is accompanied by justifications, rationalizations, ambivalence, and even shame.

We justify: we’re here, yes. But our hearts are with Israel. We proudly display libi ba’mizrach quotations on necklaces, rings and bracelets.  We assiduously keep up with the news, visit when we can, and add the names of soldiers to our daily prayers. But are we going? Make no mistake: aliyah is no passive choice. It is a dream that has to be prioritized. No choice is the tacit agreement to stay here.

When the aliyah question is addressed to me, my response is wrought with ambivalence. When I am posed with the question, I recall longingly the unique experience of being a Jew in Israel. I recall the chag sa’meach greeting signs on busses, the taxi driver who handed me a small book of tehillim and told me to recite after him, the elementary school children at Shabbat tables who could recite entire sections of chumash by heart. I respond that aliyah is an ideal. A far off dream, perhaps – but a dream no less vivid.

However, the pronouncement of aliyah as an unequivocal ideal is quickly followed up by a laundry list of buts. My career. The language. Money. The precarious way of life. The foreign culture. The school systems.

An ideal, yes. Am I going? No. This is the response I give. It is also the response I have received, time and time again, in return.

I don’t usually let the contradiction and inconsistency of this reply bother me. The response has enabled me to affirm my unwavering allegiance to the dream of Israel while simultaneously excusing my decision to stay here. Though we usually strive to achieve ideals, somehow we are okay with leaving the dream of aliyah respectfully untouched. Israel has become more a statement of ideology than a plan of action.

But sometimes the disingenuousness does bother me.

I recently attended the movie premiere of The Prime Ministers, based on the book written by Yehuda Avner. Towards the end, the film described the scene of Prime Minister Golda Meir travelling up north after the bloodiest battle of the Yom Kippur War to meet her soldiers.  Meir looked out over the Kuneitra Valley, dubbed the Vale of Tears, and quietly observed the silent sacrifice that had been made for a dream two thousand years old. When she asked if the soldiers had anything to ask of her, one man stood up.

“I have a question,” he said. “My father was killed in the 1948 war, and we won. My uncle was killed in the 1956 war, and we won. My brother lost an arm in the 1967 war, and we won. Last week I lost my best friend over there” – he pointed to the Vale of Tears – “and we’re winning. But is all our sacrifice worthwhile, Golda? What’s the use of our military power if we can’t win the peace?”

Eyes red, face lined with fatigue, Meir responded, “I weep for your loss, just as I grieve for all our dead. I lie awake at night thinking of them. And I must tell you in all honesty, were our sacrifices for ourselves alone, then perhaps you are right; I’m not at all sure they would be worthwhile. But if they are for the survival of the whole Jewish people, then I believe with all my heart that any sacrifice is worthwhile.”

When we think about the aliyah question, do we do so within the context of sacrifice? Israel is a country built upon sacrifice. We acknowledge and celebrate this sacrifice when it comes to others: Soldiers who gave up their lives. Friends and relatives who gave up homes, jobs, and the smaller comforts of living in the States. But when it comes to our jobs, our plans, our comforts, our homes, the question immediately becomes more grey.  When it comes to our own lives, we hold sacrifice at arms length – even with libi ba’mizrach swinging around our necks and Israeli flags spotting our dorm room windows.

The inconsistency between thought and action is uncomfortable, when we pause to consider it. We sacrifice for other ideals. Why not this one?

The movie ended. Applause. More applause. Lights went back on. Hustle towards the exits. Nods of appreciation among the almost exclusively Jewish audience– great movie, yes. Really great. 

Then we all walked back out together to rejoin the streets of New York.