How a fateful stroll convinced this rabbi to make aliyah

Gold has been an integral part of the scene in Israel so for many years that it is hard to believe that for decades prior to aliyah, he enjoyed a flourishing rabbinic career building communities.

 Rabbi Sholom Gold (photo credit: ALAN ROSENBAUM)
Rabbi Sholom Gold
(photo credit: ALAN ROSENBAUM)

As I enter Rabbi Sholom Gold’s Jerusalem apartment in the Beit Tovei Ha’ir retirement residence, I notice that a volume of the Talmud is open on his kitchen table. I apologize for interrupting his studies, and Gold chuckles and says, “I was just trying to make you feel guilty.”

Gold has been an integral part of the scene in Israel so for many years – as the founding rabbi of Kehilat Zichron Yoseph in Har Nof, founder of the Avrom Silver Jerusalem College for Adults, and as an inspiring spokesman for aliyah – that it is hard to believe that for decades prior to his aliyah, he enjoyed a flourishing rabbinic career, building communities in Toronto and West Hempstead, NY. 

In 1959, he established a branch of the Ner Israel Yeshiva in Toronto and founded Congregation Bnei Torah in Willowdale, and in 1971, he became the rabbi of Young Israel of West Hempstead, NY, where he remained until making aliyah in 1982 with his family. 

Perhaps even more noteworthy is that Gold spent a year in Israel in the mid-1950s, long before the term “gap year” had been invented. In the summer of 1955, he traveled to Israel to further his Torah studies before returning to Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore a year later. 

Today, Gold is an octogenarian and does not move as quickly as he once did, but his eyes remain youthful and mischievous. Born in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn, Gold attributes his Zionist leanings to his father, who came from Galicia. 

 SMICHA DOCUMENT hanging in his home from late chief Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog. (credit: ALAN ROSENBAUM) SMICHA DOCUMENT hanging in his home from late chief Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog. (credit: ALAN ROSENBAUM)

When asked how and why he traveled to Israel in 1955, when few people undertook the long and difficult journey, he replies, “I have to tell you some of the secrets. One of the secrets is that there was one real Zionist in Williamsburg, and that was my father.” 

Gold’s father would walk the streets of Williamsburg with the blue and white Keren Kayemet collection boxes, even after the neighborhood became an anti-Zionist Satmar stronghold. “After the Six Day War,” says Gold with a smile, “a bunch of Satmar Hassidim came to my father and said mockingly, ‘Nu, Mr. Gold, what do you say? Do you think the victory is a miracle from heaven? It was the Sitra Achra (the work of Satan) that won the war!’ My father looked at them and said, ‘I never knew that the Jewish people had such a good and kind Satan.’”

His father’s beliefs and the year he spent in Israel in the mid-1950s made a lasting impression, and by the 1970s, he desperately wanted to make aliyah. Gold had been offered a job in Israel and had to determine if he would accept the position or remain in the US. As was his wont, he was out for an evening stroll one November evening to help clear his mind and make the fateful decision. 

“We had neighbors in West Hempstead, who lived five houses away from us, who had made aliyah,” he recalls, “but they had left their dog Charlie behind in the care of neighbors.” Gold frequently encountered the dog on his late-night constitutionals and developed a kinship with the animal. He went for a walk that evening and saw Charlie the dog, together with the family that was caring for him. 

“The dog’s caretakers said to me, ‘Rabbi, you won’t believe what happened. We just received a phone call from Israel, and the family has purchased a ticket for Charlie to join them in Israel!’ I said to myself – that dog can go on aliyah, and I won’t?” Gold returned from his walk and informed his family that they were making aliyah. 

“The dog’s caretakers said to me, ‘Rabbi, you won’t believe what happened. We just received a phone call from Israel, and the family has purchased a ticket for Charlie to join them in Israel!’ I said to myself – that dog can go on aliyah, and I won’t?”

Rabbi Sholom Gold

ON AUGUST 30, 1982, Gold left for Israel, and his wife and children joined him 10 days later. The early years in Israel, while spiritually satisfying, were not materially fulfilling. The job he had accepted did not work out. “I resigned,” he says, “and there I am with five teenaged children and a wife, unemployed. The big rabbi of Young Israel of West Hempstead was unemployed,” he says self-mockingly.

Gold’s financial fortunes were at such a low point that during a visit to Toronto after making aliyah, he received a phone call asking if he was interested in returning to the US to apply for a prestigious rabbinical position. He expressed interest in the job and told his wife, Bayla, of the possibility that they might return to the US. 

“Calmly, she looked me in the eye,” he recalls, and she said, ‘Just remember to send us a check once a month.’” Stunned by his wife’s rejoinder, Gold immediately removed his name from consideration for the position and returned to Israel. “My wife was much tougher than me. She said, ‘You will succeed.’” 

Starting synagogue

Gold started the synagogue in Har Nof and founded the Avrom Silver Jerusalem College for Adults, which merged with the OU Israel Center in 2002. He was an outspoken opponent of the Oslo Accords and was a founder of the Ichud Harabanim Lema’an Eretz Yisrael Ve’am Yisrael (Rabbis for Israel and the Jewish people), which was led by the late chief rabbis Avraham Shapira, z’l, and Mordechai Eliyahu, z’l.

Gold retired from the synagogue in 2006, and his wife passed away two and a half years ago. He moved to Beit Tovei Ha’ir a year ago and is happy with the comfortable, well-organized surroundings. In addition to his Torah studies, which I had interrupted when I arrived, he spends a great deal of time writing – in longhand in a notebook – and enjoys the company of relatives and visitors who seek his counsel. His website, rabbisholomgold.com, contains hundreds of audio lectures, videos and articles on Israel and Torah topics.

As someone who experienced Israel in the 1950s and came on aliyah 40 years ago, Gold’s vantage point is unique. In the 1950s, he says, “Israel was a different country. The state was seven years old, but there was passion about the country,” he says. 

One of the highlights of his year in Israel was meeting the chief rabbi at the time, Rabbi Isaac Halevy Herzog. Gold studied for rabbinic ordination during his year of study and received ordination from Herzog. “He was brilliant, but so humble,” he recalls. 

The young Gold visited Herzog at his Jerusalem home on Purim. “He sat me up front at the head of the table, and 60 or 70 people were in attendance,” Gold recalls. “[Into the room] strides a tall, good-looking fellow – the commander of Jerusalem, his son Chaim Herzog.

“Rabbi Herzog says, ‘Chaimke, come here. Chaim approached with great respect for his father. His father said, ‘See this young man? He is a yeshiva bachur who came from America to learn Torah in Israel. Say ‘Shalom Aleichem.’ Imagine – he came from America all the way here to study Torah in this country!” 

The document of rabbinic ordination that Gold received from Herzog hangs in a prominent place in his home in Beit Tovei Ha’ir.

WHEN GOLD compares Israel of 1982 with Israel of 2022, he says the difference is like “day and night.” “We would be happy if someone brought a can of tuna fish from America. Chicken of the Sea – wow. Hellman’s mayonnaise – gevaldik. Today, we have more stuff now than they have in America.”

Gold continues to speak to Orthodox Jewish visitors about the importance of aliyah and the central place that Israel holds in Jewish life. “Yesterday, a delegation came to see me. I could have talked to them for another 10 hours. There are Jews in the US – religious Jews – and Eretz Yisrael doesn’t mean a thing to them. It doesn’t occur to them to ever consider living here,” he says in amazement. 

Gold relates that while attending a wedding in Beit Shemesh some time ago, he met someone from Lakewood, New Jersey, home of Beth Medrash Govoha, the largest yeshiva outside of Israel, sitting at his table. “Innocently,” says Gold, “I asked the man if anyone in Lakewood was thinking of making aliyah.” Gold says that the man began laughing uproariously. 

“I didn’t answer him,” says Gold. “But an hour later, when he was leaving, I told him that I hadn’t found any source in the Babylonian or Jerusalem Talmud indicating that it is a mitzvah to live in Lakewood. Then I raised my voice, and I said, ‘Don’t you ever make fun of Eretz Yisrael again!’ The man began crying and asked me for forgiveness.” Gesturing skyward, Gold says, “I told him, ‘Don’t ask me. Ask Him.” They just don’t get it.” 

Gold’s five children, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren all live in Israel, and he says proudly, “All of my grandchildren and great-grandchildren are Israeli-born, and most of them speak English with a terrible accent.” Gold’s father, the Zionist from Williamsburg, has succeeded. His victory is complete. ■

RABBI SHOLOM GOLD, 87 From West Hempstead, NY to Jerusalem, 1982