An aliya reunion: 30 years and going strong

Borderline views: All of us would recommend, without any hesitation, to those acquaintances, friends and relatives in the UK to repeat our experience and to come live in Israel.

A RECENT reunion of British immigrants 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Racheel Steinbock)
A RECENT reunion of British immigrants 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Racheel Steinbock)
I am not a person who frequents weekend seminars and group events, so it was with some trepidation that last week I attended a reunion of ex-British olim, mostly, but not exclusively, who had come to Israel in the 1970s and 1980s and had been friends and acquaintances in the Bnei Akiva movement in the UK during that period.
A small group, some 20-plus couples, assembled for a Shabbat at a hotel in Netanya to revive memories and share experiences of having lived most of our adult lives in Israel. Being in our late fifties and early sixties, many are already thinking about impending retirement and beginning to make plans for that period.
It was not as though we were getting together after a period of total detachment. Most had remained in contact over the years, but this was an opportunity to relive experiences from almost 40 years ago, to remind ourselves of what we were like long before we took on responsible jobs, built houses, educated and married off our own children and, perhaps most significantly, to reflect on our respective aliya experiences with a mixture of nostalgia, irony and humor.
Put together by veteran olim Larry and Judy Freedman, residents of Hashmonaim, the group came together from the width and breadth of the country.
From Kibbutz Bet Rimon in the north to Pardes Hanna to Petach Tikva and Hashmonaim in the center of the country, to Jerusalem, Gush Etzion and south to Metar in the Northern Negev.
The group remained largely, but not exclusively, homogeneous in its religious Zionist character, and it was clear that the common characteristics far outweighed the individual differences which have developed – be they in family lifestyles, political beliefs, or levels of religious practice – over the years.
Black-and-white photos of those years long gone, sharing youth movement experiences at summer camps in the UK, or hachshara experiences on kibbutzim in Israel, brought a great deal of laughter. Almost all of us had a lot more hair back then, smaller stomachs and – as we suddenly realized – were much younger at that time than most of our adult children are today.
The stories we regaled each other with, especially reliving the bureaucracies of our respective aliya experiences, were enough to create a script for an entire comedy series – and were it not for the fact that the stories were true, an outsider looking in would have put it all down to farfetched imagination.
Beyond the humor and the laughter, a number of common points were clear to all.
None of us, even for the slightest moment, regretted our decision to come and live in Israel. We did not have negative experiences growing up in the UK, and all of us – well educated with good professions – had the easy option to remain in the countries of our birth.
But the socialization of the youth movement in which we were active, and the desire to be part of a much greater Jewish experience, had spurred us on at the time, and 30-40 years down the road, had not dissipated in any way. On the contrary, we were all convinced that we had had the privilege af bringing up our own children in a more independent, open and self-confident society than the one in which we had grown up. Almost without exception, all of our children (and their children) lived in Israel, and have absolutely no intention to move elsewhere.
We laughed at the bureaucracy we had experienced as part of our aliya, when we finally realized that living and working in the country, raising children and building a house, was a lot different to spending a year on a kibbutz or at yeshiva. We were all aware that we had achieved a great deal both professionally and personally and (without being over self-satisfied) could point to an aliya success story which is shared by tens of thousands of others who have come from North America, Western Europe and other free countries of the West.
In a Friday night discussion the issue of what it meant to be an Israeli, and whether we as a group of Anglo-Saxon olim felt Israeli, came to the surface. We concluded that if by being Israeli one means speaking the sophisticated Hebrew of north Tel Aviv, or reading Hebrew literature and poetry, then we – and probably 80 percent of the population of this diverse country – were not Israeli. But none of us felt, in any way, that we were any less Israeli than any other group in the country and, like most other olim groups, believed we had brought to the country a broader perspective on the world, a combination of national identities and customs, which enriched the mosaic experience of contemporary Israel.
And this has certainly rubbed off on our children who, most of them having been born and educated here in Israel, carry with them the experiences and language of their parents and are better prepared to be part of an Israel which is a player on the global stage and which has still not entirely escaped from a sense of parochialism and insularity – which no amount of traveling abroad by Israelis born here can change.
All of us would recommend, without any hesitation, to those acquaintances, friends and relatives in the UK to repeat our experience and to come live in Israel.
Our feelings concerning the changing nature of Western society and the growth of anti-Semitism in these countries were not uniform – some seeing it as a greater threat, others (like this writer) arguing that it is overplayed.
But the reason for our advice to come join us in Israel had little to do with the threats – real or perceived – that may exist among the Jewish communities of the free world. Our advice is based on our own positive experience, the feeling that, whatever we may think about Israeli politics, about the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, about the new threats emanating from Iran and elsewhere, Israel was – and remains – the place to be and to raise our families.
And, given the positive experience of our own lives and those of our children, we would strongly recommend that they come now, rather than wait for retirement when the experience is only half of what it is for people who create their entire adult lives here.
One only has to look at the many retirement communities of olim – many of them our parents who are now able to enjoy being close to their children and grandchildren – in places such as Netanya, Jerusalem and Ra’anana, to understand their regrets at not having undertaken the move at a much earlier stage in their lives.
The question as to whether our aliya was the right decision is not even on the table. It is an irrelevance, even for those of us critical of specific policies or daily practices of the society within which we live. The youth movements of the time – in our own group it was Bnei Akiva and the other religious youth movements, but it equally applies to the many other movements such as Habonim, Young Judaea and Hashomer Hatzair to mention but a few – had a much more powerful socialization effect on us than we could even imagine at the time.
And for that we are all thankful.
The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.