Making aliyah allows one young rabbi to break out of the American bubble

He was 10 when he made his first visit to Israel, but it was his bar mitzvah trip that changed everything.

Rabbi Joshua Gerstein, 31 (photo credit: BECKY KESTENBAUM)
Rabbi Joshua Gerstein, 31
(photo credit: BECKY KESTENBAUM)
In one sense, Rabbi Joshua Gerstein has come a long way from his roots in a traditional Conservative American Jewish home. In another way, those exact roots are what started him on his journey.
Growing up, he saw his parents gradually become more religiously observant. Both of his grandfathers were active in pro-Israel causes, and Gerstein was blessed with a “strong sense of connection to Israel as a state, country and as the Jewish homeland.”
He was 10 when he made his first visit to Israel, but it was his bar mitzvah trip that changed everything.
“I remember looking around and feeling an overwhelming sense of belonging. In Lancaster, you felt the odd man out. [In Israel], no one is looking at you funny when you go to the park with matzah in a bag.
“As a 13 year-old boy, seeing all the hayalim [soldiers] and police officers, [I understood that] along with a country comes the responsibility of these things. Being part of the Jewish community means being part of the country and all that entails.”
Young Josh’s awareness that a Jewish country requires Jews to take responsibility for running the country was a foreshadowing of his adult life.
Like so many Zionist youth, he came to Israel the year after graduating from high school. Intending to return to the US for college, the March 2008 terrorist attack at Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva changed the course of his life.
“The yeshiva I was in didn’t mention it in any meaningful way. I felt like I was in an American bubble, disconnected from the broader Israeli society going on around me. I switched to an Israeli yeshiva so I could be more connected to Israeli society,” he related.
“That was the first step to staying in Israel. After living as an Israeli in Israeli society, that was the first step toward wanting to make aliyah – once I got myself out of the American yeshiva bubble.”
In 2010, Gerstein came back to the US to marry a woman he first met in high school. They returned to Israel as a married couple and, by the age of 21, he was serving as the head dorm advisor at Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City.
A few years after their wedding, Gerstein, who was twice-ordained as a rabbi, was teaching Talmud and pursuing a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Touro College.
After living in Israel for seven years, he officially made aliyah in 2015 and, with a wife and an infant son, was drafted into the IDF serving in the Military Rabbinate.
A master’s degree in Jewish education from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem followed, as did the completion of the Military Rabbinate’s officer training course. He holds the rank of lieutenant.
“My unit is a standing combat battalion. I’m their rabbi in the reserves. I’m in charge of my soldiers’ kashrut and all army regulations related to prayer.” In times of emergency, the Military Rabbinate is also responsible for caring for families of soldiers who are killed in action.
His reserve duty requires him to be on base two to three days a month. “Everything else is by WhatsApp, email and phone,” Gerstein explained. During reserve duty, he works with a combat battalion.
On most other days, he’s involved with a very different kind of soldier.
“In my day job, I work with an NGO that supports thousands of ultra-Orthodox soldiers in the army. I’m the rabbinic coordinator from [this non-profit organization] to the Netzah Yehuda Battalion.”
GERSTEIN SHARED that there are more than 3,000 haredi (ultra-Orthodox) soldiers serving today, and his job is to provide them with mentorship and support.
Looking back, he realizes how much his understanding of Israel has changed since he was a child.
“I think that as a kid growing up, there’s a rose-colored perception of what Israel is. It’s an idyllic, fantasy vision. Many people view Israel as a museum. It’s all very ordered.
“When you come here, it’s hard to reconcile the vision with the reality. Of course, it’s a dynamic country. Part and parcel of living here is the beauty of the country in its complexity. When you live here, you realize what goes on behind the scenes. You feel part of the everyday Israel.
“Two things struck me recently. After last summer, the first day back at gan [kindergarten] ended at noon. I realized I’d have to find an activity for the other half of the day. I didn’t want to pay for an activity, so we went to the Kotel [Western Wall]. That’s a dream for so many. Here I am, I drive 20 minutes and park the car and take my kids for a free activity at the Kotel.”
Other things that struck him were the distinctiveness of the “corona porch minyanim [prayer quorums]” where people were “totally separate and yet together. Israel is the only country in the world where that happened.”
Israel also imported eggs into the country for Passover because of a shortage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Gerstein sees that as “the country’s responsibility. It’s part of the dichotomy of having one foot in the modern country, but always being connected to the roots.”
He’s already accomplished so much by age 31, but that’s not all. He’s also published two books.
“I didn’t set out to write a book,” he noted. “The idea developed dynamically.”
During the years he lived in the Old City, Gerstein served as the assistant rabbi at the Chazon Yehezkel Synagogue, along with Rabbi Nachman Kahana. Every Shabbat he delivered a lesson based on the weekly Torah portion and then wrote his ideas down after Shabbat.
Originally, these thoughts were published in blog form. The first volume of A People, a Country, a Heritage – Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel was published in 2017 and the second volume was published earlier this year.
He chose the books’ name because he wanted, “to show that these three things exist. The concepts of the people, the Land of Israel and the Torah are a triad. They are the blueprint by which Hashem runs the world. I think you need all three of them to get the full depth and breadth of what Judaism really is. When we take all three together, it gives a kaleidoscope of the beauty of Jewish living.”
On reserve duty last Passover as the battalion rabbi, assembling food packages (Joshua Gerstein)
Gerstein believes that the haredi soldiers he supports, “are the embodiment of this idea. They are becoming part of the Jewish society by serving in the army, protecting the land while holding fast to Torah.”
He has advice for new and prospective immigrants.
“One of the hardest things to do, but makes living here [easier], is to change your outlook and realize that Israel is different. Trying to hold onto American products, trying to be both here and there, makes it harder. Becoming part of Israeli society made me more comfortable with the people, the land and the nation.
“It might be hard for you, however, I look at my children and I realize that there’s no place else in the world. I look at my five-year-old son who talks about the Beit Hamikdash [Holy Temple] and Avraham Avinu [Our Father Abraham]. To see the emunah [faith] and the connection to Judaism that he has. It’s the avirah [atmosphere] of living here!
“Yes, there are challenges. But the rewards that can be gotten for your children outweigh the difficulties that you personally might have to overcome to live here,” he concluded.