Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Whenever I explain to a native Israeli that we are recent olim from New York, the reaction is always the same. A huge smile crosses their face and words of welcome and berachot stream forth. Then the smile is replaced with a look of utter confusion. “Histagagta?! – Have you gone crazy?!” they ask. “Why would you ever leave America to move to Israel?”

The answer to that question is not one I’ve been able to easily convey in my heavily-accented, not-yet-perfect Hebrew. Truthfully, at times I grapple with the question myself. In New York, I left behind a loving family, a stable and demanding career as an attorney, and a supportive community in Washington Heights.

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Why did I stuff my life into 15 duffle bags and fly with my husband and kids amidst an international pandemic to live halfway across the world? To live in a country where, unfortunately, times of unrest have outnumbered years of peace. A country where despite my years of litigation experience, I find myself frustratingly unable to handle the most basic of administrative tasks. A country where I somehow cannot seem to order an appropriate number of pieces of chicken from a supermarket website (who sends two pieces of chicken in a package?).

As Israel celebrated its 72nd birthday (and my son his 6th birthday!) this past week, I found myself reflecting a lot on this question and my first trip to Israel. I was 17 years old at the time, and my parents gifted me with the opportunity to visit a friend who lived in Petach Tikva and experience a little of Israel before choosing a seminary for my gap year.

I was so excited. For as long as I could remember, it was a dream of mine to move to Israel. My parents raised me with a strong appreciation for our home in New York but a love for our homeland of Israel. My parents often told me of their own experiences studying, and volunteering, in Israel long before it became a common practice.

They sent me to schools where the prayer for the State of Israel and the IDF were part of the daily services, and students sang Hatikvah at every school event. Every year, rain or shine, we proudly marched in the Israel Day Parade. And at our shul, the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, our rav, Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, always threaded his Shabbos drashot with current events from the State of Israel.

In so many ways, my upbringing echoed the words of Rabbi Yehuda Halevi: “Libi bm’zirach v’anochi b’sof hma’arav – My heart is in the East and I am in the ends of the West.”

My parents were nervous sending me to Israel during the Second Intifada. To ease their worries, I agreed to a list of safety conditions, including no traveling on public transportation or to Yerushalayim.

To be honest, I was nervous too – though for a different reason. I feared that Israel, a land I had pictured and dreamt of for so long, would be a disappointment. That the land would feel foreign and different than anything I expected. I wondered if my treasured vision of my future would face a rude awakening.

Turns out I had nothing to fear. I spent a glorious two weeks trekking around the country and falling in love with our homeland. What I remember most from that wonderful trip is landing in Ben Gurion Airport and the passengers spontaneously bursting into applause. I can still recall the overwhelming singular feeling of having finally arrived home, even though I hadn’t even left my seat yet.

Why did I move here? Because even before I ever made aliyah, Israel was my home. Here I cannot only support the dream of a homeland, but help build it and prepare it for others to return home in the future. Here, despite all the unrest and chaos, I feel whole.

On the eve of Yom HaAtzma’ut, I was preparing dinner when the sounds of Tehillim wafted through my kitchen window. Despite the countrywide lockdown for the holiday, a minyan had assembled on the street behind my yard (appropriately socially distanced of course) to celebrate the occasion with a tefilah chagigit.

The prayers were inspiring, but none more so for me than the song of L’shana Haba b’Yerushalayim. For so many years whenever I sang that song – whether at the end of the Seder or at a simcha – I felt a deep longing for my aliyah dream to be realized in the coming year. And here we finally are. Crazy or not, here we are.

May we all merit to spend next year at home in Yerushalayim.

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Aviva Karoly made aliyah to Israel with her husband and two children on March 19, with Nefesh B’Nefesh, in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel, and JNF-USA. She can be reached at myaliyah2020@gmail.com.