(July 29, 2015 / JNS)
The joyous, momentous welcoming ceremony for the new immigrants at Ben Gurion Airport was only the beginning of my aliyah day. We stayed at the airport for five hours, receiving our immigration card, Israeli ID number, and other bureaucratic treats that entitle us to immigration benefits. We reunited with our suitcases and gathered into groups based on our respective destinations. Those who were going to ulpan—a five-month Hebrew class for five hours a day, five days a week—gathered onto a bus headed to sign up for the course and unpack. After unpacking, meeting new people, and unpacking some more, the sun set over the hills of Jerusalem.
The next day, I took a Hebrew test that placed me into the highest level of Aleph, meaning I know some Hebrew, but don’t really knowHebrew. In the ulpan, there are people from the U.K., U.S., Canada, Australia, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Russia, Ukraine, Scotland, Italy, and even India! Oftentimes, our most common language is Hebrew. But what unites us at ulpan is not only that we have come to learn Hebrew, but also that we are all living in Israel, leaving behind the many countries of the Diaspora, and returning to our Jewish roots in Israel. Many of us do not have family in Israel, but we feel that it is already our home because of our deep historical and spiritual ties to the land and the Israelis who already treat us as family.
On Shabbat, I went to the Western Wall (or Kotel). Many Jews—secular, religious, and everything in between—go to the Kotel on Friday nights. Israeli soldiers lead Jewish songs and dance hand-in-hand, pulling children into their circles. I witnessed a group of girls dancing and singing a song that has become a theme in my own Jewish journey. The song is Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s song, “Kol Ha’Olam Kulo.” It means, “The whole entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the essence of being is to have no fear at all.”
As a child, I joyfully sang this song at Jewish summer camp with all my new friends. As a teenager, I meaningfully sang this song at the Western Wall as I held hands and danced with Israeli soldiers. Last year, I nervously sang this song in a bomb shelter, as Hamas’s rockets rained on Israel. And then, just six months ago, I mournfully sang this song in the crematorium of the former Majdanek Death Camp in Poland.
And now, here I was at the Western Wall yet again, this time as an Israeli, watching a group of girls joyfully sing this song together, like I had at summer camp. The group had just met each other and formed a circle—the Americans sang the song in English, then the Argentinians sang in Spanish, then the Brazilians in Portuguese, and so on, until they all began to sing together in Hebrew, forming the loudest and most passionate rendition of the song, to which everyone knew the lyrics. Like my ulpan, these girls were from all over, but the Hebrew song united them. Such are the Jews—divided by geography, but united by the Western Wall, Shabbat, and their common Jewish peoplehood. This is also representative of Israel, a land where Jews from around the world come together to unapologetically be who they are.
But it hasn’t always been this way. On the Ninth of Av—which fell on July 25 this year, but was observed a day later due to the timing of Shabbat—Jews mark the day that both Jewish Temples were destroyed, 656 years apart. Tisha B’Av, as it is called, is the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, when Jews mourn the destructions and refrain from any pleasantries, including eating, drinking, and even greeting each other. This week, I learned that back in the time when the Temples were destroyed, Israel was not as pleasant as it is today. For one thing, the external environments were hostile. Around the time of the first destruction, in 586 B.C.E., the Babylonians destroyed Judah and took power. Then, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E., and outsiders again sieged the city of Jerusalem. The Romans persecuted the Jews, among others, and our Temple was no more. The remnants included the Western Wall, which is a segment of the walls surrounding the Temple Mount. With the Temples and city destroyed, Jews did not have the opportunity to dance and celebrate together as we do now.
Another reason why Israel is different is because of the diverse Diaspora Jews that make up the community. Back in the times of the Temples, the Jews were not as diverse, but they were incredibly divided. In fact, that is one of the reasons why the first Temple is said to have been destroyed—the Babylonians saw that there was internal strife and attacked because our internal divisions weakened us.
But now, the Jewish people unite in many ways, especially in the land of Israel. My diverse ulpan and my experience at the Kotel both illustrate that even further. Yet we still have much uniting to do. The Jewish community is not fully united by one religious observance, political belief, or geographical region. Although diversity is certainly not a bad thing, disunity could be harmful. After all, the more divisiveness, the more we are vulnerable inside and out.
By learning about Tisha B’av, I have come to understand why so many nations want to destroy Israel. It’s because Israel represents the place where Jews unite. In Israel, a haredi man walking down the street, clad in black from head to toe, shares something distinctive with a girl on the same street, dressed in jean shorts and a tank top. Each of them is united by Israel and by their Jewish heritage, and if you take Israel out of that equation, there is more that separates them than unites them. And that separation could mean not only the destruction of the land of Israel, but Jews as a people.
In only my second week here, I found a deeper understanding of how important unity and the land of Israel are to the Jewish people, and now, more than ever before, I feel like a part of that unity and continuing the Jewish future in Israel and beyond. As I recall the girls singing at the Kotel, I realize that Jews are strongest when they sing united, in one common voice—the language of Jewish peoplehood.
L’hitraot, until next week,
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought and the author of the new “Aliyah Annotated” columnfor JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied International Relations and Jewish Studies. She was published in USA Today and Forbes after writing about her experiences in Israel last summer. Follow her aliyah column on JNS.org, Facebook, and Instagram.