When Allison Alt learned in a New Jersey high school classroom that many Babylonian Jews failed to follow the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah back to the Promised Land because of their complacency in exile, she wondered how today’s Diaspora Jews could criticize their ancestors for the choice they made. Without judging anyone, she determined to choose differently.
This was not the first time she’d thought seriously about aliya. At 14, she had wanted to apply to Naale Elite Academy, a free high school program in Israel.
But her guidance counselor dissuaded her, sensing that Alt was unhappy in her first year of high school. She advised the teenager not to go to Israel as an escape.
Alt took her advice and stayed in Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, which she says turned out to be a perfect fit for her. Like most of her classmates, she came to Israel for a gap year of study after graduating in 2011.
More unusual was her decision to spend a second year at the Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim seminary in Jerusalem, officially making aliya on a Nefesh B’Nefesh group flight in February 2013.
“So many people throughout Jewish history dreamed of coming here and would have done anything to come here, and other people just want to be buried here. I want to live here,” Alt says simply.
From the vantage point of experience, she thinks the guidance counselor had a point.
“If someone is unhappy in America they will probably be unhappy in Israel. In ninth grade I don’t think Israel would have helped me,” she says.
Alt is not the type to dwell on what might have been, preferring to take an optimistic outlook. There’s a quotation attributed to Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson that resonates with her: “Imagine you could open your eyes to see the good in every person, the positive in every circumstance, and the opportunity in every challenge.”
“I have a perspective in life that everywhere you go there will be challenges. The first challenge I had in making aliya was the transition from teenager to young adult, which I would have had anywhere, but it was even more difficult being far from the comfort and safety of America. In the end, though, it was better because it pushed me.”
She feels fortunate to have the moral support of her parents, three sisters and brother. The Alt siblings obviously absorbed the values of the religious Zionist schools and camps they attended since childhood.
“My parents always say to me, ‘We really just want our children to follow their dreams,’ and as long as I showed them I had a plan they were supportive of my goal. They truly have been the backbone of my aliya.”
One of her sisters, Sara, also moved to Israel a year and a half ago, and lives in Beit Shemesh with her husband and three children. “Sara makes sure I know that I always have a home in Israel,” she says.
Alt usually travels back to New Jersey for Passover and summer vacation, though she is cutting back on her trips now that members of her family come to Israel more often.
“It’s becoming harder to uproot and go to America when I want to be here. Anyway, my roommates joke that I have a family member here at least every other month.”
During her years in Israel, Alt has gotten to know the families of first, second and third cousins here, ranging from haredi to secular.
She lives with four “fun-loving, spiritual and supportive apartment mates” in Givat Shmuel near Bar-Ilan University.
She worked for two years as a counselor in Bar-Ilan’s Israel Experience gap-year program and is now studying occupational therapy on Bar-Ilan’s Kiryat Ono campus for haredi students. Classes are held three days a week and she has another two years until graduation.
Alt says she enjoys her studies, as well as the Shabbatons, lectures and other activities organized by the Givat Shmuel community for the many students living in the city. She has made some “amazing friends” in Israel, she says.
Every Sunday she goes to Jerusalem to attend classes at Nishmat: The Jeanie Schottenstein Center For Advanced Torah Study for Women, and every few weekends she works as a counselor at the Heritage House youth hostel in the Old City, where she gets to meet people from all walks of life and from across the world.
Once every couple of weeks she visits Barbara Driman, an elderly artist from South Africa who lives in Kiryat Ono.
“We were set up by my school last year when I had to do 50 hours of volunteering, and now she’s like my third grandma,” Alt reports. They enjoy playing Boggle and going to the mall together.
Alt talks about having a strong sense that a divine hand has steered her toward this busy and fulfilling life in Israel.
“I love everything about being here,” she says. “My main love is living the dream I had, and I also love that I get to be a part of history. I even love when it rains.
Jews everywhere pray every day for rain in Israel but when you’re here you really understand how important it is.”
If she were to give advice to a young person thinking about aliya, her first words would be “Don’t be afraid.”
“I once read that fear tells you that you can’t handle something and you just have to realize you can. If you want to come to Israel, do it. Take every chance you get.”
She also has some practical advice to share, which she received from her friend Deena Devora Jacobs: “Every time you go to a government office to get something done, if you expect that it won’t work out the first time you’ll be so much less disappointed.”
If indeed things don’t always work out, Alt would add, the experience can be a positive one in the long run.
From Rabbi Eliezer Lerner at Michlelet Mevaseret Yerushalayim, she learned an interesting interpretation of Proverbs 24:16, “A tzaddik [righteous person] falls seven times and rises.”
“Most people think the tzaddik is great because he rose but actually he’s great because he fell. Failure makes you stronger,” says Alt.
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