Aliyah stories: Los Angeles to Central Israel

AZRIELA JANKOVIC, 39: "We brought a dream back with us"

AZRIELA JANKOVIC, 39 with her family. (photo credit: Courtesy)
AZRIELA JANKOVIC, 39 with her family.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 A chance encounter with a total stranger sealed the Jankovic family’s aliyah plans.

Decades earlier, as a child in San Diego, Azriela Jankovic sat in her Reform Hebrew school classroom, staring at posters of Masada and the Western Wall. Her Reform summer camp experiences included cultural bits of Israel, seasoned with basic Hebrew vocabulary. 

Jankovic first encountered Israel in person on an organized trip for Jewish teens, sponsored by Young Judaea. “When I came for the first time, I felt like I was in a storybook land. All these Hebrew letters came to life.”

During high school, she had been planning a career as a liberal rabbi. Seeing the diversity of Jewish expression in Israel changed that. “When I came to Israel the first time, I was exposed to something different and I realized I didn’t want to be a rabbi anymore,” she explained.

During college, she immersed herself in learning more about traditional Judaism from a variety of perspectives. She took courses on Judaism, studied with Chabad and with teachers from Yeshiva University, and took trips designed to awaken a passion for Judaism in young people. 

By the end of her senior year, Jankovic was keeping Shabbat. But it wasn’t until five years later, newly married to Daniel, that she returned to Israel. The couple spent their first year of marriage pursuing formal Jewish learning in Jerusalem, returning to Los Angeles at the end of the year.

But they did not return unchanged. “When we came back to LA, we brought a dream with us. It was very real for us,” she
commented about the couple’s plan to immigrate.

The next decade was spent in LA, starting their family, pursuing advanced education and getting deeply involved with the local Jewish community. Jankovic was attending graduate school while teaching in a day school. She earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in education, in preparation for a career in educational administration.

Meanwhile, they were consistently reminded of their dream through Daniel’s business; he created promotional videos for many pro-Israel Jewish clients. Jankovic remembers the exact day their dream returned to the foreground. 

“It was Yom Ha’atzma’ut [Israel Independence Day] 2014. Daniel had been filming an event for the LA [Jewish] community. He came home and he told me how wonderful it was and how inspired he was and how he felt like, in a certain way, there was a piece of Israel there. 
“BUT WHEN he walked out into the streets after it was over, he realized that he was in LA, and that we have this dream. Our kids were getting older. I was about to finish school. This was the opportunity that we could really make it happen. When he said it, I said, ‘We’re doing it. This is it. I can see it.’ It clicked.”

The family made an unconventional housing choice for new immigrants. “What happened on our pilot trip was an absolute miracle. When we came on our pilot trip, we had all sorts of criteria, different elements to build our new life. We had a vision of living in an agricultural-type setting.” 

They searched all over the country and none of the communities on their list quite met the vision. Then something otherworldly happened. 

“On our pilot trip, we heard about a community we had never heard about before. By way of several twists of fate, we came across this place where we now live as we were driving. We noticed the beautiful view and sun poking out of the clouds. We decided to drive in and explore it. As soon as we came into this community, everyone felt something here. We felt very at home.”

Sadly, housing in this idyllic place was very hard to come by.

The next morning, just hours before their flight to LA, Jankovic drove herself back, an hour in each direction, to find out if there was any option for housing at all. With her very basic Hebrew, she poured her heart out to the community representative in the central office. She was sent away with a questionnaire and not much hope.

“Before getting in my car, I just sat down for a minute on this bench across from the makolet [small grocery store] and I decided to have a little one-on-one with Hashem,” she related. They were at the end of their pilot trip without a clear direction, so she asked for some kind of a sign. 

“As I looked up, there was a man dressed in a blue army uniform, wearing a kippah, walking straight toward me. He walked up to me and said, ‘Shalom, my name is Yaakov. I come here once a month to collect my mail because I built a home here years ago. No one has ever lived in this home, but if you want to do the mitzvah of making aliyah, you can live in my house.”

Jankovic still tears up at the retelling.

AND SO it happened. The family made aliyah and has been renting Yaakov’s house for the past five years. Jankovic gives this mysterious stranger a lot of credit for the many ways he shepherded the family into their new lives in Israel. 

Once they arrived, Jankovic found herself at a professional crossroad. Her first order of business was to help the family settle in and improve her Hebrew. She also had a medically challenging pregnancy with their fourth child and took a year to restore her health.

While she was nurturing herself back to health, she had time to contemplate what was next. “I realized how passionate I am about
Torah and spirituality. It became really clear that I wanted to use my background in education to empower people in deep and spiritual ways.” 

During this period, she began writing her recently published book, Beyond All Things: Insights to Awaken Joy, Purpose and Spiritual Connection.

“I initially thought I was writing this book for secular people who haven’t been exposed to spirituality, but now I have American rabbis sharing the ideas in their shuls. [The audience] has become somewhat diverse. The book is comprised of 50 insights that can really enhance our lives in meaningful ways.” 

All the insights in her book come from Torah wisdom but can be appreciated by people without a Torah background. “So many messages of Torah are universal,” she asserted.

Jankovic also recently launched the Within Us podcast, where she covers three basic topics: wellness, wisdom and wonder. Her passion is to help people “enhance their lives in a deep and meaningful way.

“Living in Israel has already surpassed the beauty and hope that we had for ourselves. It’s been incredible. Just incredible,” she reflected.

Nevertheless, there have been challenges. 

“Leaving my family from the States was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life. Not sure there are words to describe how challenging that has been.”

She advises new olim, “Be kind to yourself. It’s a big change. To make aliyah is going up. And just like a baby going from crawling to walking, you will fall along the way. I feel that the glitches and challenges we have, these are the times we stumble in the process of our growth.

“If anyone feels that they want to come to Israel, it’s because they are needed here. There is a big opportunity to unite and collaborate here, and that’s something that’s really important to me,” she concluded.