(January 13, 2021 / JNS) It may seem counterintuitive, but my aliyah journey would not have been possible without my Catholic upbringing.
The daughter of Portuguese and Italian immigrants, I am a first-generation American. Like many, my parents came to the United States in pursuit of the American Dream. Leaving small agrarian communities in Western Europe, they arrived in the United States with their respective families to make a new home in Boston’s North End.
They didn’t know anyone. They didn’t speak English. They didn’t know how this gamble to move across the world would materialize in the end. Yet, despite these hurdles, the promise of a better life fueled them to make this new American life work.
And so, they did. My grandparents, parents and their siblings worked tirelessly in restaurants and bakeries to construct better lives for themselves and future generations.
My sister and I are the personification of my family’s American Dream. As a result of their sacrifices and conviction, we were able to experience and enjoy our childhood and adolescence in comfort. We could also reach for and achieve opportunities that were never opened to my parents. In 2013, my sister became the first person in our family to receive a master’s degree. In 2018, I became the first person to attend and graduate from law school.
My sister and I operated in a life paved by parents’ efforts, but we were also instilled with their values of determination, optimism and hard work. It is these tenets that supported my decision to come to Israel and start a new chapter of my life.
Had you told me 10 years ago that I would be converting to Judaism and moving to Israel, I would have laughed at your wild imagination. But as I disembarked from the United Airlines plane last week with Nefesh B’Nefesh and touched down in Tel Aviv, that is exactly what I have done.
This unexpected trajectory was put into motion when I met my fiancé, Yehonatan, at the University of Virginia School of Law. As an Israeli pursuing his Master of Laws and Doctor of Juridical Science, Yehonatan delved into the local Jewish community as a way to feel closer to his home. I accompanied him during these events, gaining my first substantial exposure to Judaism, its culture, traditions, religion and history. I was fascinated. I was moved. I was enamored.
When Yehonatan went back to Israel, I missed him but I also missed the vibrant Jewish community he had introduced me to. Although lacking my Jewish liaison, I continued to participate in the Charlottesville Jewish community, always finding a warm welcome and deep learning at the local Chabad House.
This Jewish community was no longer a group I tagged along to join, but something that fed my soul. I would get goosebumps when people sang “Shalom Aleichem,” I felt a harmony between my worldview and the principles espoused in my Torah lessons, and I felt a deep admiration for the resilience and courage of the Jewish people. A special and unexpected awakening was happening.
Excited to build and embrace a permanent Jewish identity, I began the challenging conversion process. My conversion was a seismic event in my life. It pushed me to new limits of self-reflection and showed me how much the people in my life loved me. My parents and sister supported me, adjusting their usual lifestyles so that there would now be room for my Jewish one. If one life-changing event was not enough, I then decided to move to Israel.
Although I am still coming to terms with how rapidly my life has changed, I believe my path honors my parents’ immigration legacy. My mother and father fought for a life where their children could pursue their truths and be happy.
That freedom has led me here to Israel. It has allowed me to make what Natan Sharansky calls an “aliyah of choice”—an aliyah that is done not because I wish to escape the place I am from but is done for ideological purposes.
Like all new olim during this surreal COVID-19 era, it was not the easiest aliyah experience. Government offices were closed, most documents had to be sent by snail mail, and an influx of immigration interest caused new documentation requirements.
But like my conversion, I often shy away from the easy path. With the perseverance and determination inherited from my family, I have worked very hard to be where I am today, and this resolve makes me confident in the decisions that I’ve made.
I am currently in isolation in my new apartment in Tel Aviv. While staring at the same walls day in and out can be dreary, my fiancé’s friends and family have bombarded me with food and desserts—making it clear that the sense of Jewish community I felt back in the United States is very much alive and well here, too.
Naturally, my journey to make a life in Israel is not yet complete. I am grateful and honored to have been offered a litigation position at a British law firm. Of course, this opportunity comes with its own challenge as I will need to study for my solicitor’s qualifying exam. Yet, like everything beforehand, I truly believe that with hard work and determination I will surpass this obstacle, thus taking another step closer to building a viable and happy life here in Israel.
Since 1948, the ability for every Jew to come to Israel is truly a blessing. While I’m new to this yearning for “home,” I’m so glad that I’m finally here and eagerly await to see what my future holds. In the meantime, I am excited to be an Israeli-in-training.
Natasha Pereira made aliyah from Tewksbury, Mass., on Dec. 30. Since 2002, Nefesh B’Nefesh, in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemet LeIsrael and JNF-USA, has facilitated the aliyah of more than 65,000 North Americans to Israel.
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