How Bible study in a Catholic monastery led one New Yorker to make aliyah

"As someone who takes the Bible literally, I couldn’t not become a Jew."

Robert Aiello with his wife, Leslie (photo credit: DARIANY PENA)
Robert Aiello with his wife, Leslie
(photo credit: DARIANY PENA)
If Bob Aiello’s life were a movie – and it surely could be – viewers would hardly believe this flick is fact and not fiction.
As a child, Bob yearned to be a Catholic monk and instead became an Orthodox Jew. Born blind due to inoperable cataracts, he saw his mother’s face for the first time when he was 17, thanks to the advent of laser surgery.
He has a master’s degree in industrial psychology and wrote several technical books, including Agile Application Lifecycle Management – Using DevOps to Drive Process Improvement.
He has served in the New York City Police Auxiliary for 28 years, most recently in the transit bureau, and has been doing broadcast journalism as a hobby since 1979.
And although he is a staunch Zionist, Bob made aliyah when he did without really intending to. Three of his five children had already moved to Israel and served in the IDF. He and his wife, Leslie, had given permission for their youngest, Devora, to immigrate by herself at age 17.
“We only got on the plane because at the last minute the Israeli Immigration Authority would not allow our daughter to make aliyah on her own despite the paperwork we signed,” he explains. “So we arrived in August 2018, exhausted from the unexpected and hasty packing, but exhilarated that our dream of living in Israel was finally becoming real.”
Until then, all had been planned carefully to allow Devora ample opportunity to learn Hebrew, make Israeli friends and adjust to Israeli culture. She and Leslie spent 25 months in Israel over the course of three-and-a-half years, beginning in August 2014.
Bob was able to visit every few months by shifting his career from management roles to hands-on technical tasks that he could do remotely.
This exceptionally devoted approach to their daughter’s absorption paid off well.
“Devora was able to ace an interview in Hebrew to be accepted into a selective two-week science research program for Israelis at Weizmann, which she attended that August, right before our aliyah,” Leslie says. She completed her bagrut (matriculation exams) after aliyah. Now, at 19, she serves in a combat position in the air force.
The Aiellos’ oldest son, Shmuel, now 32, arrived in 2009 followed by David, now 26, and Esther, now 23. One son, Massimo (Moshe), 29, chose to remain in America.
“Just as my family immigrated to the US from Italy to provide a better life for their children, we followed our children to Israel, wanting a better life for them – not so much in terms of physical prosperity, but more in terms of spiritual prosperity,” says Bob.
He found out a few years ago that the surname Aiello is shared by many descendants of conversos – possibly explaining why both he and his brother felt drawn to Judaism.
“My journey to becoming Jewish began when I was studying the Bible in a Catholic monastery during Easter week,” he says.
The blind teenager was intrigued by a verse in Exodus: “And you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day, throughout your generations, as a statute forever.”
“I asked other brothers and priests why we didn’t obey this permanent statute and they didn’t have any good answers. That was the beginning of my exit from the Catholic church,” he says. “I came to Judaism spiritually and cerebrally. As someone who takes the Bible literally, I couldn’t not become a Jew.”
After seven years of study, Bob completed his conversion at age 25. Six months later, he met Leslie Sachs at a Purim party in New York City. They’ve been married 35 years.
“I was intrigued from his opening line about his blindness and I’m still interested 30-plus years later,” says Leslie, who is a school psychologist and runs the couple’s hi-tech consulting practice.
The Aiellos raised their kids in Brooklyn and later in Elizabeth, New Jersey, with strong Zionist values. But familial obligations were keeping them stateside.
“I took care of my mother in our home the last year she was alive,” says Bob. “I had priests and nuns coming to visit her. I encouraged her to be herself and that’s a theme in our family. We are real; we like to be ourselves.”
He notes that his family embraced his conversion. His grandmother even made her kitchen kosher. His mother did not share his enthusiasm for Israel but accepted it.
In September 2016, Bob began producing a weekly radio segment on Israeli technology and innovation for Israel News Talk Radio. The show, still running, “is a way to say, ‘This is Israel, this is how amazing we are, and this is how we give back to the world.”
Bob works remotely for US technology firms, having found that Israeli hi-tech culture values youth over experience.
“This is pretty ironic given that most Israeli firms want to establish a presence in the US and Europe and need our experience to be successful,” he says. “In the US and Europe I am regarded as an industry expert but in Israel I am just an old guy who didn’t go through 8200,” referring to the elite military intelligence unit.
“We love living in Israel but there are indeed many challenges,” he says. “I am generally good with languages – speaking German, Yiddish and some Russian – but I have struggled to learn Hebrew. Just dealing with getting utilities is ridiculously impossible without help from Hebrew-speaking Israelis – in our case, our children.”
And yet, he says, “As I walk through the streets of Jerusalem, I rejoice at the fact that I have essentially stepped into the Bible and live my life now as an Israeli.”
Leslie echoes her husband. “We are optimistic for the future and if anything wish that we would have been able to make aliyah earlier,” she adds.
Robert Aiello - From Elizabeth, New Jersey to Jerusalem, 2018