Yom HaAliyah began in 2009 as a grassroots initiative and young “olim” self-initiated movement in Tel Aviv. On June 21, 2016, the Knesset voted to codify it into law by adding the holiday to the Israeli national calendar, celebrated annually on the 10th of the Hebrew month of Nisan to commemorate the Jewish people first entering the Land of Israel, as written in the Hebrew Bible. The holiday was also established to acknowledge immigration to the Jewish state and the contributions of olim to Israeli society. Yom HaAliyah is observed in Israeli schools on the seventh of the Hebrew month of Cheshvan, which this year correlated to Nov. 5.
When I made aliyah 15 years ago, nothing could have prepared me for the adventure that lay ahead—the numerous ways I would be challenged and the diverse ways I would change.
Looking back, I can divide these years into distinct phases.
The “I live in Israel!” phase. The “Becoming Israeli” phase. And, finally, the “Being Israeli” phase.
My time in Israel has been characterized by a hyper-awareness of having made the historical decision to live in the Jewish state where Jewish things are happening around me all the time. It means being in awe of those thousands of little (and not so little) parts of Israeli society and culture that native Israelis either take for granted or don’t even seem to notice.
It’s marveling at the fact that the garbage man who picks up your trash wears a kipah on his head.
It’s being simply amazed to see a security guard learning Talmud in his guard booth between checking people’s bags.
It’s being blown away to see a store owner with a slick haircut, ripped jeans and tattoos take 10 minutes out of his day, every day, to put on tallit and tefillin, and say the Shema.
It’s getting emotional seeing young soldiers walk the streets of Israel, forming the first official Jewish army in more than 2,000 years.
After 15 years of living among Israelis, I can confidently say that making aliyah not only transported me to a new country, it also transformed me into a new person, even a new Jew.
While this never could have happened to the extent that it did without actually living in Israel, I believe that the qualities that Israelis embody and exhibit can be taught, learned and shared, at least partially, with Jews everywhere. To help them also reap the benefits that have been born out of our return home and our return to nationhood, even if their permanent residence is found within the borders of another country.
I realize that Israeli society is not perfect, and is in need of repair and improvement in many areas. But I cannot allow that fact, which is true of every country, to cover up the myriad of ways in which Israel has become one of the greatest Jewish societies to ever exist, and is helping Jews around the world to better understand how and why to be Jewish in a way that is inspired and informed by our national history and character.
Growing up in America, I was raised on a fairly constant dose of negative, and at times embarrassing, stereotypes about Jews. Being Jewish was not a source of pride. It was something to hide or to downplay or straight up ignore. It was something you were born with, like freckles or big ears. We were meant to be the lawyers and the doctors of American society, not the soldiers nor the blue-collar workers who worked hard with their hands.
Coming to Israel shattered that stereotype. For the first time in my life, I saw Jews with not only political pull and financial power, but with physical strength as well. I saw Jewish soldiers who were trained to defend and, if necessary, kill those who tried to kill us. But beyond those externalities, I saw my people rise up from the ashes of two millennia of oppression, rediscovering our right and our ability to defend ourselves and fight back when necessary.
In Israel, I also saw Jews who were proud to be Jews—from Chassidim with long peyot to Tel Aviv hipsters with Magen David tattoos on their arms. It was like seeing a different Jewish people—a Jewish people who felt at home, who felt strong enough and secure enough to display their Jewish identity in diverse and personalized ways.
Growing up in America in a large Jewish secular community that was located near an even larger Orthodox and haredi community, I saw the Jewish world as being divided into two distinct and disparate parts: religious and not. It was a binary reality of Jews either being extremely connected to the Jewish tradition and lifestyle, or being mostly, if not completely, disconnected and disinterested in Judaism; essentially, being an American with a Jewish last name. There was no real middle ground.
In Israel, I was introduced to a very real middle ground that many, if not most, Israelis identify with. Not entirely religious and not completely secular. Connected to Jewish tradition and knowledgeable of Jewish customs, the average “non-religious” Israeli lights Shabbat candles, sits down with family every week for a Friday-night meal, fasts on Yom Kippur, builds a sukkah on Sukkot and would never eat chametz on Pesach. This creates a strong sense of Jewish identity for non-Orthodox Israelis that is unparalleled in the Diaspora.
Of course, it’s much easier to live Jewishly in Israel, the land of abundant and delicious kosher food, a country with a nationwide awareness of Shabbat and whose national holidays run parallel to Jewish ones. But this idea of not needing to choose between one extreme or the other, fully religious or fully not, can be of great benefit to individual Jews, families and communities in the Diaspora.
Israel is not just a land; it is not just a country. It is a space for the Jewish people to become themselves once again. It is a laboratory for us to experiment—to be creative and to be thoughtful in how and why we live the way we do, as Israelis, as Jews, as human beings. And though Israel and Israelis are not perfect, they are an incredible work in progress that blends the ancient and the modern into a lifestyle that is informed and inspired by the past, and reaches forward into the unknown and open future.
This excitement, this strength, this beauty are what make it such a powerful reality. And to share this with our fellow Jews around the world in the Diaspora is to fulfill the vision of the early Zionist leader, writer and thinker Ahad Ha’Am, who yearned for the creation of a merkaz ruhani—a “spiritual center” in Israel that would inspire Jews around the world to be, well, more inspired Jews. To become stronger, prouder, and more in tune with the character and the soul of the Jewish people.
In effect, to become Israeli, even without making aliyah.
Akiva Gersh, originally from New York, made aliyah to Israel in 2004. Since 2007, he has taught Jewish history and modern-day Israel at the Alexander Muss High School in Israel. He is also a contributing blogger at “The Times of Israel.”