When I made aliyah I gave up a lot; a highly respected rabbinic position, a large house with all the amenities, a salary which had me considering which way I wanted to save money, rather than considering how I would make the month, and lots of friends. I certainly feel some of the yisurin (pains) the Talmud talks about when acquiring and moving to Israel. So why did I do it?
I gave all that up for several reasons. First and foremost I followed in the footsteps of my namesake, who was listening to the very wise advice of God Himself who said: “listen to your wife!” I also knew it was the “right thing to do”. Growing up in New York, I don’t recall in my day school, high school, or University, ever hearing someone speak to me about aliyah as the right thing to do. But being a rabbi and speaking from the pulpit every Shabbat I began to clarify my feelings towards Eretz Yisrael, my mission and the true messages that kept emanating from the Torah.
I have listed the religious, idealistic reason, and the practical one; what’s left? The children. Having been raised in New York, and having witnessed most of my friends living there, and thriving both physically and spiritually, I am not going to audaciously generalize about how living in Israel will magically solve all issues related to raising children. I’ve even written about the fact that once arriving in Israel it is not easy street; you still have to parent well, discipline and sometimes seek guidance from others.
But after experiencing my daughter Elisheva’s Bat Mitzvah, I can honestly say that I believe that this is the best place in the world for my children to grow up and mature. And despite some hardships, it showed me that I was absolutely right in coming on aliya and raising my family here.
What was so special?
Nothing. Everything. For Elisheva it seemed obvious that before the Bat Mitzvah she would be expected to learn Torah with me every night for a year. She also assumed that she would get involved in a chesed project. She was also ready and willing to take on a major production as long as it meant doing something meaningful as well as fun. In the end her participation and excitement exceeded our expectations.
Chesed is about forming a connection with another Jew in any shape or form. It means giving a poor man tzedaka, or simply smiling at someone and cheering them up. It could take place over twenty years, or in the blink of an eye, it has no quantity, it is purely about quality.
Makom Balev: A Warm Place in My Heart
Elisheva’s Chesed project was the brainstorm of the one in the family with most of the good ideas—my wife Hadley. She thought that Elisheva would appreciate working with her hands, renovating a place, and designing a room or club anew. Wouldn’t it be fun, she told Elisheva, if we found a place which required a makeover, went to take measurements and came up with a new look for it? Elisheva was in.
The only question left was where would they find such a place? As these discussions were taking place I started my new position at OU Israel. Every day I would learn about new programs we had and the incredible amount of chesed which was taking place around the country on a daily basis. I went to the head of our Makom Balev youth program, Yisrael Goren, who had set up 18 branches of youth programming for kids in development towns. I asked him if he knew of a town where they especially needed a makeover. The answer was Kiryat Gat.
I went with my wife and daughter to visit Chaim Shmila, the director of the branch in Kiryat Gat, and we met some of the kids there. They were a mix of Sephardic, Ashkenaz, Ethiopian and Russian kids. They were from mostly low income families struggling to stay afloat in this country. But when the kids were at the snif (the club) roughly twice to three times a week after school their eyes lit up, they were rich in friendships, purpose and possibilities. The kids were great, and the staff was committed; the building, however, left much to be desired. It was two caravans put together with no air, no books, no games, a broken TV and a few ripped up couches. There was plenty of work to do.
While Hadley and Elisheva started taking measurements and thinking of color schemes, I was talking with Chaim about our overall plan which involved the joining of two communities in Israel. We both saw this as an opportunity to encounter different Israeli cultures, and perhaps to strike up friendships which would last beyond the event itself. This idea of learning about another community in Israel and opening up horizons began to excite us. After coming up with a makeover plan with Hadley, Elisheva was also excited.
A Preliminary Visit
One Thursday afternoon I took Elisheva out from school early and we traveled to Kiryat Gat to participate in an activity with girls her age. This was the first time she would meet the girls who would participate in her chesed project. They were all Hebrew speakers, some native, others from Ethiopia and I was a bit nervous to see how Elisheva would fit in. The ease with which Elisheva joined the group and enjoyed the event was to me a great omen that the project would be a success. Not only did Elisheva involve herself in the discussions, but she also got one girl’s msn Messenger address. I couldn’t believe how comfortably kids from different backgrounds and environments could connect. I wished it had been so easy for me!
The Day Arrives
Elisheva sent out a letter to the girls in her class and asked them if they were interested in joining her Bat Mitzvah project in renovating a club in Kiryat Gat over Chanuka (vacation in Israel). It would involve hard work such as painting, sewing, building, shlepping–but also lots of fun. Out of the 26 girls in the class, 23 were on board; they all cherished the idea of helping and of meeting another community.
When we arrived at Kiryat Gat, our 24 girls met up with 10 girls their age, as well as a bunch of older kids who came to help out in the building of the furniture. Together they painted two rooms, made curtains, sewed pillows, fixed closets, built two new couches, assembled chairs and a foosball table, as well as many other things. We really turned the place into a more entertaining, and inviting club, which the kids there appreciated.
As the sun began to set, we knew our time was precious as we all had to return to Efrat to light Chanuka candles. One of the themes of Chanuka was the battle which took place between Jews from different sects. This pierced more than the enemy’s spear, as it represented a tear in the vital life force of the Jewish people. The miracle of Chanuka lay in the Macabees’ ability to unite a large segment of the nation and to restore a unified monarchy once again. I think Elisheva and all her friends shared this fulfillment of Chanuka this year when they brought two communities closer together, did some chesed, learned about other Jewish kids and had a lot of fun the whole day.
I recall that experience when I think about what I ‘gave up’ versus what I gained and continue to gain; I know that it is something very special to be able to include myself and my children in the mitzvah of uniting the Jewish world in our Homeland. I hope, no, I know, that this one experience will act as a constant reminder to me and my family of the unique time we live in and the great potential which lies ahead.
The renovation turned out wonderfully; more importantly, though, we all learned a lesson of how great it is to live in Israel, and how each Jew can add so much to the wonderful tapestry in this holy land.
Rabbi Avi Baumol is Director of Communications for OU Israel
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.