Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Moving Up And Moving Out

My wife and I after the welcoming ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport.

Yesterday marked the 100th post on this blog and I thought that the best way I could possibly mark this occasion is to answer a question that I have been mostly avoiding for over two years… Why did we leave Israel? However, heading into this endeavor, there is one thing that you need to keep in mind. This is, by no means, going to answer all the questions I have received.

Every Jew, no matter what their age or observance level, longs to be in their home land. Whether conscious or not, the desire burns in each of us. Some have made this a daily reality, some have only been able to get their occasional fix, and many never have the opportunity to experience the beauty of belonging that you feel when your feet first touch the earth in the holy land. My wife and I aspired to fulfill the mitzvah of returning home but came up a bit short.

What we are left with is the longing that many in the Diaspora feel and questions that will forever plague our memory including the most prominent thought of ‘what could we have done to make it work?’ It is a question that we will never be able to satisfactorily answer but one that can is eased by the fact that we tried where others have not even bothered to put forth the effort. Theory and reality are frequently in conflict and this is one of those occasions when there is no real answer than would have assured success only theories of what might have lead to a different outcome.

So what happened?

For about a  year and a half before we made Aliyah in July 2011 we spent nearly every day doing one thing or another, jumping through this hoop and that, submitting one document or another in order to get everything in place. We both blogged about a few moments during the process and utilized social media to connect with other Olim. It wasn’t until the first couple of months of the departure year that we were finally approved by the Jewish Agency and got our seats on the Nefesh B’Nefesh charter flight. It was at this point that we really focused on preparing ourselves for what was going to be a drastic change in our lives.

It was also around this time that we signed a lease for a small furnished one bedroom apartment in the Nachlaot neighborhood in Jerusalem. It really is amazing how much people are willing to help you with making Aliyah when you have never met them beyond the confines of social media. State side, with knowledge that we would be in a much smaller space we focused much of our attention on downsizing our lives and getting rid of a lot of the stuff that was cluttering our life.

While we were getting things done and I know a lot happened during the first half of the year, the time between our approval and departure is mostly a blur. Before we knew it we were doing a final cleaning of our rental in Metuchen, New Jersey and taking our luggage to the hotel to spend a weekend with my parents before we left. I can’t recall how much I slept during those few days but I can say with certainty that it wasn’t much.

Heading to the airport early in the morning I was filled with a mix of emotions ranging from nervousness to excitement to sadness. All of which was accentuated by exhaustion. It felt like we were taking more baggage with us than luggage.

While initially a bit confusing at the airport, we quickly figured out where to go and what we needed to do. With our bags checked we grabbed one last bite as a family before heading over to the departure ceremony. It was a morning that I couldn’t look at my parents too long or I was going to lose it and while this tunnel vision helped greatly in that regard it also prevented me from really appreciating all that was happening around us.

Having said our final fair well at security we made our way to the bustling departure gate where we found the same mix of emotions that was simmering within us. However, the excitement soon dominated the room as we all made our way on to the plane and introduced ourselves to our Aliyah travel companions (some of whom we had previously met online). Shortly after the cheers subsided upon takeoff, we all settled in and prepared for what was waiting for us at the other end.

Some slept (I tried), some read, most talked, and many prayed throughout the transformative journey. It is safe to say that I did a little bit of everything except for sleeping. All remained calm until the plane began its decent and the cabin was filled with electricity that cannot be explained and is something that I will probably never experience again in my life. As soon as the wheels touched the ground the plane eruption in an almost visceral reaction of cheers and tears.

At this point something seemed to feel a little off as I felt more overwhelmed than excited. Maybe it was a lack of sleep as I had only been able to close my eyes for a total of about four hours over the previous two days. I don’t know what it was but I felt almost guilty for not reacting in the same way that everyone else was. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy and excited but it wasn’t all that it should have been. 

Exiting the plane we were thrust into a celebration that is uniquely Israeli (video of us getting off the plane can be seen here). We walked slowly down the stairs and onto the hot tarmac… I took a few extra seconds on the last step as I knew as soon as my foot touched the ground I was officially an Israeli. I still, to this day, remember that exact moment with great happiness and pride. After a short bus ride to the old terminal building at Ben Gurion Airport, the doors opened to a sea of people. Hundreds of people took time out of their day, out of their lives, just to welcome us home. The plane brought us to Israel, the people brought us home.

The morning was full of more paperwork, figuring out transportation, and meeting more people that, until now, had been a name and words on a screen. All of which was highlighted by the welcoming ceremony. As soon as Hatikvah began to play and we all starting singing the national anthem of our land and of our people is the only time that I cried during this whole whirlwind. I wish everyone could be able to experience such a deep and emotional connection to a song, a people, and a country at the same time as I did during that moment.

The joyous celebration slowly came to a conclusion and we all made our way to the taxis to head off into our adopted land and settle into our new lives. This is quite a nerve wracking experience when you will be seeing (with the exception of a few pictures) your apartment for the first time. When we got out of the taxi and met our realtor we knew that this was going to take some getting used to as many times the reality surrounding a photograph is much more telling that the subject matter within the picture.

Our apartment was down a cramped ally barely wide enough for our luggage to roll through with a herd of cats lounging in the shade a couple doors down. Our small basement apartment could have been very nice if it had been well maintained but, as it stood, it did not feel like home when we stepped through the threshold. As soon as the realtor left my wife was quickly overwhelmed and broke down. This is when the thought first crept into my mind that maybe this transition was going to prove to be a little too much for us at this point in our lives.

My first thought was to push through the exhaustion, get out of the apartment, and explore the neighborhood and that is exactly what we did up until I began nodding off while sitting at a small restaurant having a soda. Even though it was only six at night, it was time to try and catch up on sleep. That didn’t last long.

Initially, we passed out and remained asleep for a while but soon we both found ourselves wide awake at around one in the morning. If this were any other city we would have stayed put and tried to go back to sleep right away but this was Jerusalem and I had no problem in going for a walk to hopefully settle my mind and get to the point where I could sleep again. So out we went into the moonlit streets of our new home. We strolled up and down the sidewalks for just over an hour before returning to the apartment and resuming our slumber.

Jerusalem is the only city I have ever been to where I have felt completely safe wandering through the streets at all hours of the night. Not knowing where I’m going or what street leads where, I have never left threatened at any point. The stillness of the ancient streets and stone structures is both calming and reflective.

For much of our first week I was the one who was having more trouble adapting and my wife had the laborious chore of keeping me grounded but slowly I became accustomed to our new way of life. Even some of the simple tasks like doing laundry are some of the things that I miss most about our short time there. Walking up the street to the Laundromat, chatting with people along the way, and talking on the phone every once in a while was a great way for me to  slow down a bit and enjoy all that was around me.

Much of our days were filled with walking around and exploring in between government and Jewish Agency meetings, setting up various every day essentials (bank account, phone service, etc.), and picking up the things that we needed for our daily life. There were also a few events we were invited to where we were able to meet with other Olim over a meal (many of the people there were, again, people we knew online before our arrival). There is a real sense of community in the Olim population in Jerusalem and, from what I have heard, throughout Israel.

There were also a number of very special occasions where people invited us into their homes for a Shabbat meal. Each time the only prior contact we had with them was to arrange a time and place over the phone. It was a great way to experience the diversity of both Shabbat services and the ways that different people celebrate at home.

However, the single most memorable moment of our entire time living in Israel was walking down the street to old city, passed the countless stalls lining the narrow passageways, down the long stone staircase, and into the promenade in front of the Western Wall. Obviously we had made this same trip in the past during our previous stay in Jerusalem during our honeymoon but this time it was different. For me, it was one thing to pray at the Wall as a Jew but something much different to pray there as an Olim. Knowing that you live within walking distance of the Kotel is an amazing feeling that, like so many of my other experiences, can’t really be expressed in words.

By our second week I was beginning to enjoy the new daily routine in our new home but what soon became apparent was that my wife and I had swapped mentalities between weeks one and two. Where I had difficulty adjusting initially, my wife was not adapting to the new way of life as we had both hoped she would. For both of us, this is also when the distance between us and our families became an unpleasant reality.

Fortunately, we knew that our Rabbi and his family would be arriving in a couple of days and we had already planned on getting together for lunch. We had not planned on talking about some of our struggles with them when we originally planned on meeting them but it was something that needed to be addressed. We knew many people that were gracious enough in offering their time to discuss our concerns but it is one thing to talk things through with someone you just met a short time ago and discussing the subject with someone you hold in high regard and have known for years.

We met a few times over the next week and we were offered sound advice as to how we can try to cope with the issues at hand. We were also imparted with the simple truth that sometimes things don’t work out and we don’t know what G-d really has planned for us. Sometimes reality can’t overcome desire and even if our journey home is cut short no one can take away the experience that we have had as people of this land. Regardless of where we are, this holy land will remain in our hearts and the passion that we have for our Israel will never waver so long as we remember our time as Olim.

I guess you could say that this was our reality check. What initially served to ease our minds and allowed us to enjoy our experience as a couple in a much deeper way was soon shaken by the thoughts of the future and the growing distance we felt from our families. We had always lived away from our families but that was only a matter of distance. Now we were faced with the feeling of growing apart from our families and that is an unpleasant consequence rooted in our decision to move to Israel.

This growing concern soon took hold and began to shape our experience and hinder our ability to adapt and integrate into our new community. While I was holding on and still adapting, however slowly, I could tell that it was an obstacle that my wife was having difficulty surmounting. Could we have pushed through and found a way for it to work? I don’t know but, in the end, the possibility of it having a negative impact on our family ties is a risk that we were not willing to take. This is when we decided that, at that time, the best thing for us to do was to move back.

Having the burden of indefinitely lifted from our shoulders was just what we needed in our final week in Israel. Knowing that we would be returning to our families freed our minds so that we could gain a great appreciation for all that surrounded us and all that we were leaving behind. I don’t know if it made the decision easier or harder but it did leave an indelible impression in our hearts and minds.

Our trip back to the states was sad but in the sadness there was the anticipation of reconnecting with our families. It wasn’t until we moved so far away that we truly learned to appreciate the people in our life and the importance that family has to each of us. As it turns out, our Aliyah brought us closer to our families than we ever realized was possible and it emphasizes the importance of being close to the ones we love. No more living in other states and other places, our home is with our family.

In the time since our return many things have changed. Many of those things have been previously written about in this blog. Of course, there have been many other events that I haven’t written about, especially lately, that have reaffirmed our decision to return. We were needed here and maybe that is why G-d brought us back. You can plan all you want but sometimes you don’t know what is right for you until you try which is why, looking back, I am at peace because I know we made the right decision to make Aliyah and we made the right decision to move back.

I will always hold close the wonderful memories that we made during our Aliyah and I will never regret our decision to take the leap. There will always be a longing in my heart to return but with the knowledge that sometimes a return can only be temporary. It is an experience that I will forever cherish and I will continue to encourage those who are considering moving up to do so and I pray that everything works in their favor and they have a long and healthy life in the land of milk and honey. As for us, the sweetness will remain on our lips but only as a memory.