Note: This was written a few weeks ago in pre-Corona times. We are publishing it in the hope that soon we will be back to normal life and people making aliya.
Is there a place for me in Israel?
I am a secular but traditional woman from Johannesburg; I am about to make aliyah with my family. My husband and I go every week to shul in South Africa; our kids go to Jewish day schools and we kept a lot of the traditions, although we don’t keep kosher. I don’t want to send my children to religious schools in Israel, and we are not sure where we’ll find a community in which we’ll feel comfortable. We want to have the ritual and some shul, without committing to keeping Shabbat. Any ideas where we can find this?
Anxious About Aliyah
I lived in South Africa. I get the warmth of that Jewish cocoon where everyone knows your name, your slang, your kichel recipe; where you can drive to an Orthodox shul on Shabbat and no one questions your choices. Leaving familiarity and communal religious tolerance for the unknown is scary.
There is certainly a place in Israel for Jews who move for reasons such as Jewish identity, which sounds like the case with you.
In fact, there are plenty of Israelis who eschew religion, eat pork, combine milk with meat, hold a Sabbath braai and don’t send children to religious schools. For them, Jewish tradition has been eclipsed by Zionism; yet there’s a place for them.
There are many options for you, from mixed yishuvim to mixed city neighborhoods such as Modi’in and Ra’anana. Get in touch with social media groups that profile all types of communities throughout the country.
I remember clearly when in the 1990s Russians left Mother Russia and arrived at US shores brimming with stories of Jewish religious persecution. Ironically, upon acculturating into their new homeland, they often shed their Jewish identities for American assimilation. For some who make aliyah, that, too, is an option. I know how painful it is to yearn for a sense of belonging. Please be careful, as you loosen your South African Jewish skin, that you don’t trade it merely for Israeli citizenship. You came from a South African community steeped in Jewish pride and tradition, and you will find it here, on your terms, yet again.
It was in the Pico/Robertson area in Los Angeles that we decided to be observant, to raise our children according to Jewish law. While we enjoyed the community for the perks of Shabbat meals, kosher markets and a variety of shi’urim, it lacked something vital. What we missed most was to raise our children in the Land of Israel, to breathe the Israeli air. The Talmud (Bava Batra 158b) says “the air of the Land of Israel wisens.” The closer we are to the hub of the world, the Sanctuary (the King’s court), the more alive we feel. Hence, you find here in Israel people living passionately by their convictions with a raised bar of proactivity, of poignancy, no matter to which sector they belong.
Sometimes this seems like a stratification of social sectors, but there is also mutual respect for each sector’s integrity. You find that each Jew here invokes their freedom of choice in the most passionate way.
Here in Israel you will find everything, only in small, bite-size pieces. Even the landscape has small versions of everything, from hills to canyons. Yet the social spectrum is big, and there is place for everyone. As Jews, we can and do coexist.
We started off in Ra’anana and paradoxically found it to be too much like Beverly Wood. So, we decided to take the plunge and enjoy what Israel has to offer us and moved to a haredi community. You will live your decisions and be happy; Israel welcomes you just as you are.
Just today an acquaintance from Glasgow texted me; he’d been WhatsApped to make a Mincha minyan on a stormy day. I was catapulted back into South Africa, where shul was so huge in our lives; the chatting on Friday nights as we checked out the hats; the stream of smahot, the warm, wonderful community.
Here in Israel, I haven’t found that same feeling. Warm and wonderful communities built around a shul certainly exist in droves, but by and large they cater to religious congregants. My own shul-going days have dwindled dramatically to holidays and bar mitzvahs; it’s a pity. I miss the familiar songs and prayers, and being part of the “family.” Of course, anyone can go for a morning daven; everyone is welcome at any time. But secular life doesn’t revolve around the synagogue here; maybe a one-day weekend isn’t enough for the beach and a Shabbes brocha.
It’s a crazy paradox: the secular are often “less Jewish” here than abroad from a shul point of view; though life is totally centered around Judaism and festivals, that doesn’t necessarily provide the same community component.
Yet, ironically, communities very similar to those “at home” do exist in Israel – the Reform and Conservative shuls. Check this out before deciding where to live; there are not a vast number of them, and they’re not encouraged by the religious establishment. There you’ll find all that is familiar – warm community, communal events and caring, devoted but not necessarily devout congregants. Lots of the members are English-speaking – it might be a welcome home away from home.
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