Benjamin Lee: An outstanding oleh

Benjamin Lee, 25 - From London to Jerusalem, 2018

Benjamin Lee (photo credit: Courtesy)
Benjamin Lee
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Israelis are not very good at standing on the right side of escalators and allowing people to walk,” says Benjamin Lee in his cultured British voice.
Lee, who was raised on the manners of the London tube, where passengers politely stand on the right side of the escalators allowing others to pass, is a bit irked by Israelis’ escalator impudence.
“This grinds my gears on a regular basis,” he grouses. “The assumption should be that you stand on the right-hand side and allow people walking up to past you. I’ve made it a mission to try to enforce this as best as I can,” he harrumphs, before he laughs at his own intolerance.
Benjamin Lee made aliyah in July 2018, and apart from his escalator criticism, he is delighted with his life in Israel. In fact, it was just about the only complaint of his adopted homeland that he voiced throughout our discussion. Lee was born in London and grew up in what he calls “a very Zionist household,” visiting Israel frequently.
“I always had a strong connection from a young age,” he says.
A member of the B’nei Akiva youth movement growing up, Benjamin visited Israel on a monthlong B’nei Akiva tour at age 16, which influenced his decision to make aliyah. After high school, he spent a five-week summer Ulpan at the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University, before returning to the University of Leeds, where he majored in French and Spanish, graduating in 2017. During his college years, Benjamin lived in Bordeaux for three months in the spring and summer of 2015 and spent nine months in Argentina in 2016.
“To experience and live in a totally different culture and language and a different part of the Jewish Diaspora and Jewish world were fantastic experiences,” he says.
Benjamin’s different experiences helped push him in the direction of making aliyah.
“I had a strong sense of understanding the nature of Jewish peoplehood and ultimately seeing that our destiny is here,” he adds.
After graduating college, Benjamin attended a 10-month Israel Government Fellows program, operated by the Menachem Begin Heritage Center and Masa. He interned in the European Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and studied in the educational program run by Begin and Masa for the government Fellows.
The 10-month program cemented his positive feelings for Israel and his desire to make a new life in the Middle East. One humorous occurrence symbolized the blending of his British origins and Israeli future.
“I was responsible for working with a number of foreign delegations on official visits to Israel,” recalls Benjamin. “While in Tel Aviv with one delegation, I had a short break in the evening. Despite the hot and humid weather, I went for a walk along the promenade by the beach. The only problem was that I was wearing a suit and tie and formal shoes and was extremely overdressed by the standards of the Tel Aviv beach. Being British, I didn’t really mind, and I actually felt that this was an apt combination of my identity as a Brit born and raised, but a resident of Israel by choice!” When the program ended in June 2018, Benjamin returned to London and officially made aliyah in July 2018. Benjamin says that his parents were very supportive of his decision.
“I followed my head and my heart. At my age, and without as many responsibilities, it is a simpler process.”
After arriving, he studied Hebrew at Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem before joining the army in February 2019. He joined the International Media Branch of the IDF, which publishes the official IDF pages in English, French, Spanish and Russian across multiple social media platforms and the IDF website. Benjamin is a part of the team responsible for operational communications, social media, content writing, scriptwriting for videos and writing articles.
“Essentially, our mission is to strengthen the legitimacy of the IDF in the eyes of the international community, and social media is an extremely important tool in doing so,” he says.
Benjamin has enjoyed the work greatly, and his fluency in English, Hebrew, French and Spanish has stood him in good stead. He was 23 when he made aliyah, and technically was not obligated to join the IDF, but volunteered for an 18-month stint.
“The army is the biggest institution in Israel, and to serve in it and to begin to understand it is a very good step on the way to integrate into Israeli society,” he says.
This past year, Benjamin was a recipient of the Outstanding Soldier award in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. He modestly downplays its significance, saying, “I am not the outstanding soldier, by any means.” Benjamin’s first visit to Jerusalem as a soldier in uniform during basic training was a special experience. After stops at Yad Vashem at the Kotel, he and his fellow soldiers were gathered at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem before being dismissed for the weekend.
“I suddenly saw someone come up the stairs who I recognized,” he recalls. “I realized it was the rabbi who had been on Shlichut in Buenos Aires at the same time I was on my year abroad there and had hosted me a number of times while I lived there. I hadn’t seen him since, and his surprise to see me – especially in uniform – was a great moment that tied a number of parts of my life together. Later that evening, he messaged me and invited me to come for Shabbat at his family’s yishuv in the North. Only in Israel!” Benjamin would like to remain in Jerusalem when he finishes his IDF service and possibly enter the field of media and communications work, though he is keeping his options open. He is proud to be an Israeli and a Jew and says that the feeling is most clearly expressed during the national holidays of Independence Day and Yom Yerushalayim in April and May.
“When the flag is raised, and you hear “Hatikvah,” you feel the history and present energy and the future of a young state that is going places, getting bigger and growing. I find that exciting.” Even though he is alone in Israel, Benjamin feels a real sense of family and community in Israel and has a wide circle of friends among the community of new olim. He has learned to adapt his British courtesy to the Israeli style of things.
“Coming from England, I have found that people are much more direct and can be more aggressive. I’m happy to find my voice in Hebrew and argue back when needed,” he quips.
Benjamin Lee is happy with his decision to make aliyah and has no regrets whatsoever.
“It is a fantastic experience to live in Israel.”
Even when riding the escalator.