The improbable Zionist

Growing up the son of the Nikolsburg Rebbe in Monsey, New York, Yiddy Lebovits could be forgiven for not being the world’s biggest Zionist.

Yiddy Lebovits (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yiddy Lebovits
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Growing up the son of the Nikolsburg Rebbe in Monsey, New York, Yiddy Lebovits could be forgiven for not being the world’s biggest Zionist.
As a young child in Williamsburg, New York, everything he knew about Israel came from the weekly Torah portion. He was surrounded by a community of people who had a lot of negativity, not toward the Land of Israel, but toward their ideas about Zionism. Until the arrival of the Messiah, making aliya wasn’t in the picture for anyone in his world.
When Lebovits was seven, his parents went to Israel for a visit and brought back a small booklet that had photographs of buildings in Israel. “At that age, Israel was a remote, far-off idea that belongs only in the Torah. To think that there were Hebrew letters on a building in Israel was something big, something very interesting to me,” he recollects.
Although his parents were European- born, Lebovits always felt very American.
Visiting the US military academy in West Point and Colonial Williamsburg were highlights of his younger years. “I was connected to the American past, to a history that was not mine.”
By contrast, his connection to Israel didn’t begin until he was 22, married and a father. His wife, Ruchy, had visited Israel when she was a girl and wanted to return on vacation, but at that stage Lebovits preferred vacation spots like Epcot Center and Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida.
To encourage him to visit Israel despite his hesitation, Ruchy’s brother and sister-in-law helped make the arrangements.
The three surprised Yiddy with plane tickets for a 10-day trip over Succot.
It’s no exaggeration to say that trip changed everything for the Lebovits family.
“My connection to the Land of Israel started as soon as the plane started descending.
I have no clue what happened.
My soul just woke up. I don’t even know what happened. It was an unbelievable emotional reaction, like meeting a loved one after so many years.” Ruchy noticed the emotion in his eyes, even though, still on the plane, he had thus far witnessed only the shoreline of Tel Aviv.
“I was extremely excited to be in the Land of Israel. We went right away to the Ezrat Torah neighborhood of Jerusalem.”
The two couples spent time just walking around Ezrat Torah, Geula and surrounding neighborhoods. On that trip, they also visited Masada, Hebron, Tiberias and even did some sight-seeing on the Golan Heights. “All of a sudden, whatever you learn in the Bible, things come to life,” Yiddy recalled.
That first 10-day trip was incredibly meaningful, but “at that point, I wasn’t yet ready to make aliya.” Instead, he traded in his desire for theme parks in Orlando for annual visits to Israel over the next 15 years.
“Every time I came, the love got stronger,” he reminisces. “I started learning about what connects the Jew to the Land of Israel. I learned what makes Israel different from any other country.
Once I started loving the place and learning about it, everything became about Eretz Yisrael. Not a week goes by that you can’t connect to Eretz Yisrael.
Once it’s there, you just can’t cut the connection to this place.
“My soul was calling. Everything was about Eretz Yisrael. Every Shabbat, I bought food from Israel. I was obsessed. I was walking on air for weeks after each trip.”
Although his parents and siblings were supportive of his growing love for the land, he faced some negativity from friends in his community who believe that, until the Messiah comes, Israel is not a good place for a religious person to live. “Surprisingly a lot of Satmar [known to be a resolutely anti-Zionist hassidic group] were supportive.”
“Every time I came to Eretz Yisrael, I tried to meet with people who moved from any country. Everyone had stories of hardships and the first years were hard. It didn’t faze me that people had hardships. People I met were much more connected to the Above and not so connected to the material world, even in the hassidic world. I also liked the idea that most people in Eretz Yisrael have a pioneering excitement. It’s a new country and the attitude is that people want to start something, fix something.
Life in Eretz Yisrael is never mundane.
In America, every day will look exactly like the day before.”
As time went on, Lebovits’s desire to “see myself as an old Jew with a cane, walking in Eretz Yisrael,” became increasingly powerful. He and his wife had “the aliya conversation” on every trip, but it was very hard to leave family behind. In theory, Ruchy was willing to consider it but couldn’t be sure of the exact time.
Until… One Shabbat in synagogue, Yiddy got called to the Torah. The portion that week was Vayelech, which comes from chapter 31 of Deuteronomy. “I got an aliya [to the Torah], and the aliya was that God tells Moses to go up and not be afraid.” Walking home, his son asked if the family’s aliya [to Israel] was ever going to happen. But Yiddy knew he couldn’t demand it. He couldn’t tear his wife away from her family. After his nap that Shabbat afternoon, Ruchy suddenly turned to him and said, “Let’s do it!” Six months later, the family of eight was living in Israel. Today, Lebovits works as a graphic designer and artist. His Israel-inspired art can be seen on He also runs, selling made-in-Israel gifts.
The Lebovits family made aliya with six children, ranging in age from three to 18. “We used to have family meetings to discuss everyone’s concerns about aliya. They all adjusted well. I think it depends a lot on the parents. For kids to adjust, it has to be a home that finds the good in everything.
“It was the best decision I have ever made. No regrets whatsoever. The big difference is that in America I loved scenic rides and I used to drive in the Catskills. Driving here, the streets are my streets. It’s my place. My people.
My past. Many friends want to move to Eretz Yisrael, and every time someone does it, it strengthens others.
“My daughter says that she can’t understand how it’s possible that a Jew can live anywhere else.”