Arrivals: Time for secular aliya

‘The Orthodox will stay together. The secular Jews are the ones assimilating away’

Rick Blumsack (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rick Blumsack
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rick Blumsack is an unabashedly secular Jew. Yet, after sitting with him for an hour on a cool spring evening in Beit Shemesh, it became clear that there is a great deal that one can learn from him about faith, life, belief in God, and dealing with adversity.
Born and raised in Peabody, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb, Blumsack, trim with graying hair and a friendly smile, has deep familial roots in the area, as all four of his grandparents were born in Boston.
His upbringing was mostly secular.
While his family was affiliated with a Reform synagogue, he says with a twinkle in his eye, his family knew more about baseball than Judaism. Blumsack’s family did not participate much in Jewish life, but, “I grew up with a Massachusetts Puritan sense of right and wrong, and one of the ways my family interpreted ‘right’ was that you’re Jewish. That means you date Jews, that means that that is your people, and even though we didn’t do that much in any structured way to support it, that was the message that I internalized.”
As part of his undergraduate studies at Stanford University, he spent his senior year of college abroad at Oxford and visited Israel during Christmas vacation.
Blumsack, who was 21 at the time, fell in love with Israel.
“I loved the weather, the food, the energy of the people. I loved the fact that it was a Jewish place. I felt very much at home in it, even though I didn’t understand a lot of it, and Jerusalem particularly, I felt it was the center of the world.
Why live on the periphery if someplace else is the center?” But at that time, he chose a different path. He says, “If I’d had more confidence, more guts, I would have made aliya then. But I wasn’t that kind of kid.
I was the kid who always did the safe thing and the right thing, so I took the safer path and went to law school instead of staying in Israel.”
He returned home to Boston, spent a year working in a law firm, and then attended Harvard Law School. During that period, he met and married Debbie Miller, an occupational therapist. In his last year of law school, Debbie was seriously injured in a car accident, which left her in a coma for 26 days. She made a miraculous recovery, but the accident changed their lives a great deal and changed his perspective on life.
Blumsack finished law school, joined a law firm in Boston, and he and Debbie lived in Cambridge. They visited Israel together for the first time in 1993, and again almost decided to move here, but in the end, they took the safe route and stayed in the United States. In 1996, he left his law firm and became an inhouse lawyer with a computer services company. His life was comfortable and secure, but felt a bit empty. In 1997, their daughter Ilana was born.
Through his wife, who had a more traditional upbringing, the family became more involved in Jewish practices, attending a Cambridge synagogue and sending their daughter to day school.
Smiling, he recounts how Debbie influenced him.
“Through Debbie, I stopped eating non-kosher food. Although we are not strictly kosher, on one of our first dates, I ordered a bacon double cheeseburger and she looked at me and said, if you eat that, I am not going to kiss you. Since that very moment, I have not had a piece of treif.”
“Through our daughter’s education at Solomon Schechter, I started to become more educated. Not more believing or more practicing necessarily, but more educated.” They visited Israel frequently, and became active in pro-Israel groups like AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee), CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), and the David Project, which supports Israel advocacy on college campuses.
Visiting Israel in 2008 for a family wedding, the Blumsacks realized that aliya was now or never. Their lives were going well, but they were not living the life that they wanted to live. In August 2009, the family joined the Nefesh B’Nefesh aliya flight to Israel. He notes wryly that he was the only male on the flight who was not wearing a kippa.
They moved to the Baka neighborhood of Jerusalem and Blumsack, with his years of experience, found a job as an international business lawyer.
One of his great passions is photography.
He’s a fine arts photographer and his work has been displayed in numerous galleries, websites, and newspapers.
“To me”, he says, “photography is a way to appreciate life and not take things for granted. Walking around with a camera, looking for pictures that are special, is almost the most Shabbat kind of activity that I can do. I admit I am secular and willing to photograph on Shabbat… It’s the one time when I try to experience the world and not take it for granted, and appreciate God’s creation.”
A year after moving to Israel, Debbie began to show signs of mental deterioration and was eventually diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, which required Rick to arrange for a fulltime caretaker. He says it is likely that the head trauma which she suffered in the car accident many years ago put her at a higher risk.
Despite the tragedy, Rick harbors absolutely no regrets about moving to Israel and does not feel that his wife would have been better cared for in the US. “One of the things that is special about Israel is that people are comfortable feeling close. I grew up in a very reserved Boston family that isn’t outwardly warm. In Israel, the warmth, the help, the services – both officially and unofficially – has been fabulous, beyond anything we would have expected to get in Boston.”
Blumsack feels and appreciates the meaning of being Jewish. “In my seven years here, I’ve had more Shabbat dinners with people than I ever had in my 45 years in the United States. I’ve had people wish me ‘Shabbat Shalom’ countless times more than I ever had it in the US. The idea that I feel being Jewish in so many aspects of my day is so special.”
He laments the fact that more secular Jews don’t make aliya. “For the future of the Jewish people”, he says, “it’s important that more secular Jews make aliya. The Orthodox will stay together.
The secular Jews are the ones assimilating away.”
As our interview draws to a close, I ask if he has any regrets. “My only regret is that we didn’t come sooner. Being here has given my life a meaning that it didn’t have before.”