ARRIVALS: A life changed by a split-second decision

“I simply fell in love with the place."

Lawrence (Yehuda) Katz (photo credit: YONA BRODER)
Lawrence (Yehuda) Katz
(photo credit: YONA BRODER)
Lawrence (Yehuda) Katz grew up in a warm, modern-Orthodox community in Houston, Texas, the second of five children. He was in the first cohort of the Robert M. Beren Academy, a Jewish day school that he attended from first through 12th grade. His three younger brothers followed in his footsteps.
“Ours was a young, warm Jewish community with southern-style hospitality,” says Katz. “Everyone knew everyone.”
Despite being immersed in a Jewish-Zionist community, going to Israel with his family for his brother’s bar mitzvah and being a Bnei Akiva youth movement counselor in high school, he was not motivated to make aliyah. “Israel was a positive force in my life, but it wasn’t a place I thought about making my home,” he says. “I was modern Orthodox with emphasis on the modern.”
Katz was accepted to the University of Maryland during his senior year of high school and was excited about going. He thought of studying business or economics. It was also during this year that his co-ed class of 27 went on a senior trip to Israel. They had the opportunity to visit yeshivot and seminaries, as most were looking to spend a gap year in Israel.
Katz debated between going to a yeshiva and taking a year-long Young Judaea course before starting college. He remembers sitting in his room when he returned from Israel and suddenly deciding to go to yeshiva. He chose the Orayta Yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Old City and arrived there in August 2012.
“I simply fell in love with the place,” says Katz. “The Old City was an amazing place to live, the rabbis were inspiring and the learning was really open. I felt like I became a new person in Jerusalem.” After his first year, he canceled his enrollment at university and stayed an additional year at Orayta. “I still wasn’t committed to aliyah, but my feelings for Israel were definitely getting stronger.”
His parents, Frieda and Walter, were supportive of his decision to remain in Israel for another year. At the end of that year he felt it was the perfect time to make aliyah. “The only really hard thing was thinking that I wouldn’t see my younger brother, Johnnie, who was six at the time and who I was really close with, grow up.”
IN THE summer of 2014, Katz got on a Nefesh B’Nefesh charter flight to Israel. He thought that he would be alone when he arrived. Little did he know that his mother would be at Ben-Gurion Airport when he got here. She had come for the wedding of a family friend, so his first few weeks as a new citizen were filled with family and friends from Houston. “It was an amazing start to aliyah,” he says.
He felt that in order to acclimate to Israeli society, he needed to go into the army and to improve his Hebrew. But he also wanted to continue his religious studies. He decided to do a hesder program, in which religious young men enlist for five years and divide their time between full-time study and army service. He chose the Otniel Yeshiva in the southern Hebron Hills, headed by Rabbi Benny Kalmanson and Rabbi Re’em HaCohen.
Katz served as a lone soldier in the Artillery Corps, and was “adopted” by a family in Hashmonaim. He went into the army with five other soldiers from Otniel. “It was very difficult at the beginning, but I kept up a very positive attitude,” he says. “I learned how much inner strength I have, and the whole experience was really meaningful.”
That inner strength was sorely tested when his friend from Otniel, Lt. Avshalom Armoni, with whom Katz served for eight months, was killed in a training accident at the age of 22. This week marked the first anniversary of Armoni’s death, and his family, friends and teachers at Otniel are still reeling.
Katz has finished his army service and is now back at Otniel Yeshiva. “It is such an inspirational place and I feel blessed that I made the decision to go there,” he says.
He is also studying at Herzog College in Alon Shvut, majoring in Jewish philosophy and Oral Torah, and pursuing a teaching certificate. Two of his younger brothers are now in Israel. Albert, 23, made aliyah in 2015. He is married and lives in Jerusalem while studying at Otniel. Zach, 20, is a lone soldier serving in a combat unit, but has not made aliyah yet.
“Last year, all three of us were studying at Otniel together,” says Katz.
He would like to teach Torah in an informal setting, but he is not sure what the next few years will bring. However, he is sure that the decision to make aliyah was the right one.