When I made aliyah, I was not a Zionist.
It’s a strange fact to share as most people know me as a proud American-Jew-become-Israeli who blogs about Israel, makes videos about Israel, wrote a book about becoming Israeli, and has spent the past 13 years teaching about Zionism and Israel, aiming to instill a love and deep personal connection with the Land of Israel, Nation of Israel and State of Israel in all of my students.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Prior to making aliyah, I had never celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut; I barely even knew about it. And when my wife and I landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Aug. 10, 2004, as new olim and the couple of hundred people we arrived with all sang “Hatikvah” with tears in their eyes, I couldn’t sing along because I didn’t know the words.
So you might be wondering what motivated me to make aliyah at all.
To make a long story short, it began in college when I embarked on an innocent spiritual journey, seeking to replace the consumer culture I was raised on with something a bit deeper. I looked into all the “isms” (Buddhism, Hinduism, Native American-ism) for the answers to my big questions. Eventually, I realized that my own “ism,” Judaism, had exactly what I was looking for. Inspired to see what was happening in the Holy Land, I picked up my backpack and at age 22 journeyed to the Middle East. My plan was to travel the country, volunteer on a kibbutz, learn a little Hebrew and then go back to America to live out the rest of my life.
But something unexpected happened when I arrived.
Within just a few days of being in Israel, I was overcome by a deep sense of being home that I had never felt anywhere at any time in my life. I felt like I belonged there—that it was the place where I could be my most actualized self. I wasn’t expecting it, I wasn’t looking for it, and I didn’t fully understand how it could happen so quickly. The one thing I did know was that one day Israel would become my permanent home.
During that same trip I discovered Tzfat, discovered this thing called yeshivah, spent six months learning Torah for the first time in my life, and then returned to the United States newly religious and inspired to make the arrangements to bring my soul home after thousands of years of wandering around the exile.
In the end, it took me five years to fully move to Israel. During the interim, I lived in an ultra-Orthodox community among very friendly and very committed Jews. The overwhelming majority of them, however, saw the return of the Nation of Israel to the Land of Israel as a future event that will take place in a miraculous way led by the Messiah (not by the Jewish Agency or Nefesh B’Nefesh) and on the wings of eagles (not on El Al). No one in the community ever talked about Zionism. I never saw Israeli flags waving on front lawns and never ever saw a single Yom Ha’atzmaut celebration. The fifth of Iyar was business as usual.
So when I finally made aliyah in 2004, I had no Zionist education, which meant I knew next to nothing of the inspiring history of how the State of Israel came to be and the sacrifices so many Israelis made to ensure its continued existence. I never heard of Zev Jabotinsky, Hannah Senesh or Eli Cohen. I barely knew the difference between Herzl and Hertz rental car, or Ben-Gurion and Ben & Jerry’s (OK, I’m exaggerating, but just a little.)! My aliyah was based purely on a spiritual desire to return to the place where my Jewish soul felt most connected and most at home.
I share this story in order to illustrate the point that while most American Jews who make aliyah do so for Zionist reasons, it need not be the only reason for taking that big step and moving one’s life to Israel. In fact, it should be clear to all by now that Zionism and Judaism have not been strong enough arguments for the vast majority of American Jews to make aliyah. And when I say vast majority, what I really mean is the 99 percent of American Jews who have never considered Israel as a possible life option for them.
But maybe, just maybe, the idea has never crossed their minds because aliyah has long been established as being for a very specific type of Jew. A type of Jew they are not. Therefore, Israel remains for them a foreign country that might have something to do with their past, but nothing to do with their future.
For me, this is a great modern Jewish tragedy. Because Israel belongs to the entirety of the Jewish people. And the more I live here, the more I see and get that there are so many different reasons to love Israel, and to find meaning and satisfaction in living here besides the classic Zionist and spiritual reasons.
Simply put, Israel is so many different things. And while getting teary-eyed and emotional while singing “Hatikvah” is powerful and beautiful, and thinking about the miraculous return of our people to our homeland after 2,000 years of exile is inspiring, they are not the sum total of what Israel is. Israel is those things, but also so much more.
Israel is a story of overcoming struggle, of persistence, of innovation and creativity. A story that ignites the human soul. Israel is nature, hiking, natural springs and waterfalls.
Israel is a “Take Charge” and “Do It Yourself” society influenced by the country’s policy of mandatory army service.
Israel is world-renowned food culture, created out of the tastes, colors and smells of the diverse lands the Jewish people came home from.
Israel is sitting down for a Shabbat meal on Friday night with your family even if you’re not “religious.”
Israel is history, archaeology and the ancient crossroads of global empires and cultures.
Israel is a haven for ecological innovations, a hub for environmental technologies that are transforming the world.
Israel is an eclectic music culture that brings together the sounds of West and East, European and Middle Eastern, Jewish and global.
Israel is the epicenter for Judaism’s ancient value of tikkun olam—helping people around the world in ways impossible and unimaginable to the Jewish people before re-establishing sovereignty in our homeland.
Israel is about continuously choosing life and choosing happiness in the face of constant existential threats.
Israel is mixing the Old with the New, connecting modernity to tradition, and creating a vibrant Jewish culture unseen before in Jewish history.
Israel is finding solutions to its most pressing problems and then sharing those solutions with the world.
Israel is balancing national pride and identity with global awareness and a sense of duty towards all of humanity.
Israel is the greatest assurance of Jewish continuity in our world today.
This is an Israel that most American Jews—those who are not “that kind” of Jew—are not familiar with. And this is an Israel that many of them, I believe, would connect to, be inspired by, and, yes, even interested in living in.
As the current challenges and upheavals in our world are pushing a greater number of Jews who were previously on the fence to pack their bags and make the move, this could be the right time, for the first time, to broaden the conversation about aliyah to include those Jews in the Diaspora who may never have given serious thought, if any thought at all, to the possibility of living in the Jewish state.
Even those Jews who don’t know the words to “Hatikvah.”
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.”