How it Began

Aliyah.

What is Aliyah?

In English, it is the act of immigrating to Israel.

In Hebrew it means the act of going up.

I was a normal-ish kid living in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. I was active in various Jewish programs and grew up relatively religious. I even had the opportunity to visit Israel when I was nine years old. I had always been told that Israel was the safe space for Jews, that Israel was perfect. That I should be scared of Arabs and not believe the lies anyone else might try to tell me. I had a few friends in high school with whom I debated the Israel topic, including a Muslim friend who confided that she didn’t believe everything her uncle was telling her. No one ever truly contested what I had been taught about Israel.

This was back when we did this to all of our pictures.  Childhood friends at synagogue, Nashville, Tennessee, 2009

This was back when we did this to all of our pictures.

Childhood friends at synagogue, Nashville, Tennessee, 2009

Then, of course, I went to college.

I was your typical “undeclared major” student that had no idea what I was doing, but enjoyed the newfound freedom of parties, football games, and my hilarious biology professor. I became close with my roommate, even though I was a mess. I went to Hillel (Jewish student organization) events for the free food and met some wonderful people.

Then came the Israeli Operation Pillar of Defense against the Gazan terrorist organization Hamas in November 2012.

I carried on in my usual manner, defending Israel wherever I felt safe, mostly avoiding the topic by not even claiming my Judaism. Protestors filled the Pedestrian Walkway with Palestinian flags, claiming the terrorism of the IDF. I had a friend from high school with whom I engaged in a months-long heated debate—until it became so intense that we cut off contact for three months. It was all so different than what I had known. And that’s when it hit me.

Why was I defending this country that I only thought I knew about? Was I losing friends over a country I had essentially no claim to? Was that “Free Gaza” sign by my dorm room intentional or coincidence? Did I have any right to speak so boldly?

I concluded that the answer was “no.”

I needed to see for myself.

I decided to go and live in Israel once I finished my degree (whatever that would be).

That thought was set aside as the school year went on and I felt less and less motivated by college as a whole. I only cared about being on the rowing team and partying with my friends. Netflix was new and a welcome escape from reality, and the only class I always went to religiously (pun intended) was my intermediate Hebrew class with our beloved teacher, directly from Israel, the glamorous Revital. Being under the umbrella of the Asian studies program, the modern Hebrew courses were all but abandoned: fall semester we were four students, in the spring we were three.

I was late to her class a total of one time, ever.  Knoxville, Tennessee, 2013

I was late to her class a total of one time, ever.

Knoxville, Tennessee, 2013

Shirit, do I need to call your mother?
— Revital, publicly, to my Facebook page, in true Israeli fashion

In August I had taken a job as a teacher at Heska Amuna Synagogue Hebrew School, and Revital and I were delighted to discover we were going to be coworkers in addition to having a student-teacher relationship (though I only lasted one semester in the position). We spent the year driving around town in search of Chabad houses, cute Israelis, and Purim parties. Revital and I spoke about Israel so much, but I hadn’t realized how much I felt a hunger to experience the country. It was always my brother’s dream. He had been quite straightforward with his plans: make Aliyah, live on a kibbutz, join the IDF, and become a combat soldier. I had basically never considered the option, just knowing that Israel was there for me if I needed her was good enough for me.

At the end of the school year, I went on Birthright, a free trip to Israel for eligible Jewish young adults.

That was it for me.

On the last night, I called my brother and said, “Don’t tell Imma (mom) or Abba (dad), but I’m going to make Aliyah at the end of the summer.”

Tel Aviv at night, 2013

Tel Aviv at night, 2013

Now, this may seem outrageous to some of you, but to Jews in the Diaspora, this is actually a fairly common practice. To make Aliyah is an honorable act; it still elicits mostly reactions of shock, concern, and, in some cases, anger. The anger is the biggest variable. It can come from the idea that I hate America, or that I hate Arabs, that I abandoned my family or that I am hiding a criminal past.

Honestly, though, it was just a selfish thing I needed to do.

I didn’t know it yet, but it was the best decision I was about to make.

The story I’m going to tell in this ongoing series is one of growth, empathy, resilience, cultural and lingual mishaps, missing people so much it hurts, grief, and—because this is a blog—finding myself.