When analyzing the impact of aliyah on modern Israeli society, one is able to appreciate that today, nearly seven and a half decades after declaring independence, the very fabric of our country is still linked to its identity as a land of immigrants. Whether it be in politics, culture, the multiple languages or various accents of Hebrew heard on the streets, or nearly every aspect of society, we continue to gain inspiration from our roots as a land built upon the ingathering of the exiles from the four corners of the globe.
Particularly in the 21st century, when various factors have made nations wary of overly promoting immigration, the fact that we continue to make aliyah a central hallmark of our national identity – with NGOs like Nefesh B’Nefesh, the Jewish Agency and an official ministry focused on absorption – deserves to be a source of incredible pride for the people of Israel.
One particular area where aliyah contributes a constant and positive influence on daily life is in education. The presence of young olim in the classroom provides students with a very real and relatable teaching lesson of modern-day Zionism. The majority of olim today, and in particular those coming from North America and most parts of Europe, are attracted to Israel by what is conventionally known as “aliyah by choice.”
For the most part, we (and I am deeply proud to speak from personal experience), were not motivated by antisemitism or because we were not able to make a living in whatever country from where we originated. Our desire to make Israel our home came from the passionate belief that this is the best place to live as Jews. It comes from the appreciation that after centuries of living in exile, being given the chance to come home to a Jewish state is an opportunity that could not be ignored.
When we can bring that lesson into the classroom, students are able to appreciate that Zionism is not a movement of the past but remains a critical part of making Israel what it is today.
Exposure to Jews who have recently arrived from the Diaspora also offers a lens into the diversity of the modern Jewish people. We arrive with different backgrounds that help contribute to diverse perspectives on all sorts of issues. It allows for enlightened conversations and respectful debate on how we perceive modern-day challenges and opportunities. Exposure to that global diversity provides a critical lesson that even as we are one people with one heart, unity does not require uniformity. We can think and act differently, and must still be able to love and respect our fellow Jews.
As a relatively recent oleh from the United States, I am sometimes asked where is the better Jewish education system? I admit that while I fully believe that Israel is the ideal place to raise and educate a Jewish child, this is not a simple question. Here in Israel, we largely educate our children in a system that often does not have the same access to private funding that makes many Diaspora Jewish school systems stand out.
This contributes to a situation whereby in the Diaspora, and particularly in North America, the main focus of the educational experience is in the classroom. While complemented by family and religious institutions, Jewish parents in the Diaspora generally expect their schools to serve as the core educational resource for their children.
Here in Israel, our children are taught their love of Judaism – and no less importantly their love of the people and the land – through a combination of experiential settings that are arguably no less important than the classrooms themselves. This is in fact built into the very educational structure of our system. From as early as the days of David Ben-Gurion, it was instituted that the school day on Tuesdays ends early so that students would be engaged in extracurricular activities at least once a week. This has ensured that youth movements, volunteer work, exposure to agriculture and a myriad of other opportunities help round out the Israeli educational experience.
I firmly believe that we have a great deal to learn from one another. But this unique feature of the Israeli educational identity can be viewed as both a source of pride and an additional benefit of aliyah. Because while choosing Israel as our home is not without its fair share of challenges, the opportunity for children to live and experience Israel firsthand is the educational experience we have been dreaming of for nearly 2,000 years.
The writer is president and head of yeshiva Ohr Torah Stone, a Modern Orthodox network of 30 educational and social institutions and programs transforming Jewish life, learning and leadership worldwide.