Moving to Higher Ground
The Dershowitz are Making Aliyah. This is Why.
When I was in middle school, a girl in my class moved to Israel with her family. It was the first time I’d ever heard the term aliyah, and I was fascinated by the idea. When she came back for a visit, I asked her if it was scary over there. “Oh, you see someone running around with a knife in his back every once in a while,” she shot back, “but that’s all.” I figured she must have been joking, but I wasn’t certain.
Four years later, I landed in Israel for the very first time, nervous and excited to spend the next ten months in a Bais Yaakov seminary. My first encounter with the kosel, which I approached in a fog of jetlag, left me somewhat underwhelmed. The buses were crowded, the laundry detergent smelled funny, and any cereal that looked familiar cost more than my allowance. But by the end of the year, I didn’t want to go back to the States. I understood why my grandmother, who’d survived the Holocaust and spent a month interred in Cyprus before entering the fledgling State of Israel, always dreamed of returning. I understood why my father, who had spent three years in an Israeli yeshiva right after the Six Day War, shared that dream. Because it became my dream, too.
Really, it’s every Jew’s dream. Because as Jews, we fall into one of two categories: either we want to make Aliyah, or we want to want to make Aliyah.
About a year ago, Esti Dershowitz told me she was making Aliyah with her husband and five children. “I’m jealous,” I told her.
Putting that dream into action is hard. It takes grit and courage. It takes resourcefulness, optimism, and faith. It takes months – or even years – of effort. It takes someone like Esti Dershowitz, who has waited more than two decades to bring her family to the land she loves.
My family’s Aliyah story precedes my birth by several decades. After the Holocaust, when my grandparents returned from the camps, they obtained visas for Eretz Yisrael, but their cousins in Kfar Saba wrote to them saying, “There’s no food. There’s nothing here. Don’t come.” They waited five more years for American visas instead; my mother was born in a D.P. camp during that time. My grandmother ended up making Aliyah years later, at the age of 80.
My father is a second-generation American. Both of my parents are baalei teshuvah, and I was raised in New York, in a very idealistic home, with great love for Eretz Yisrael.
When I was eight years old, my parents took us to Eretz Yisrael for the summer. We stayed in Arzei Habira, which back then was all grass and no cars. It was incredibly hot and as far removed as we could have imagined from our home in Brooklyn. I remember having so much freedom and fun; I loved every minute. I thought my parents were going to make aliyah right away, but we didn’t move for another four years.
The First Aliyah
By the time we moved, it was much harder for me to adjust. I remember coming back to visit New York at the end of eighth grade, and I went to my class’s graduation at Yeshiva of Brooklyn. It was the strangest feeling to watch my former classmates up there without me, and it was very hard for me not to be part of things. But then my friends invited me to a get-together the following Shabbat, and when I went over, they kept talking about movies and other things that were foreign to me. I just couldn’t relate to them anymore. It made me realize I just didn’t belong there anymore. Once I had that realization, I was able to blossom and connect to Yiddishkeit in a way I wouldn’t have experienced if I hadn’t left Brooklyn.
I never dreamed that I would end up back in Brooklyn.
When I started shidduchim, my mother sent me to a shadchan. I sat down at the table, and he asked me what kind of boy I was looking for. I told him, “I want a guy who’s in college at night, works during the day, and has a chavrusah a few times a week.” The shadchan said, “What you’re looking for doesn’t exist here in Jerusalem.” Meanwhile, every boy in Brooklyn was going to Touro College at night. I didn’t want to go to the States to date. But my father spoke to the Alexander Rebbe – we were Alexander Chassidim – and he said that if I did my hishtadlus here, I should go. I waited six more months, and then I came to the States.
I met my husband in New York. But although America can be very beautiful, luxurious, and easy, I never acclimated to the lifestyle here. When we got married, we said we would move back to Israel, but it didn’t happen.
Years ago, I was listening to the radio, and I heard a woman telling the radio host, “I’ve been here for 20 years, and I just want to go back.” I came home and said to my husband, “That better not be me.”
For the last 25 years, ever since we got married, I’ve been saying, “As soon as my husband says it’s time, we’re making aliyah.” And that’s what happened. In the middle of the summer two years ago, my husband said, “Okay, that’s it. Next summer we’re moving.” Six months in, I said, “I need another year.” It ended up being a good decision to wait, because my father-in-law had a stroke last summer, and we were able to be here with him.
I think it was a combination of a few things that made this time right for us. We outgrew our home and started having real conversations about where we could move. After exploring our options, my husband finally said, “The only place I can see myself moving to after this house is Israel.” COVID made it more possible for my husband to move his work. He also started learning half a day, and he wanted to be able to do that in a place where it’s more acceptable.
My daughter is finishing her seminary year in Israel now. She got her year in seminary without us there, and she loves it. And the rest of my kids see how much she loves it, so they’re excited to move there.
The first thing I did when our plan went into action was to make a million phone calls to research schools for my kids. I was not leaving any stone unturned.
We went on a pilot trip for a month, and during that time, my kids absorbed some of the nuances of Israeli life. They spent time with their cousins, who were just living their life without the distractions the kids have here. No screens. No phones. And that really resonated with them, that joy, the independence, the walk to the grocery store, the walk to the park. It was amazing to see how my child, who gets anxious walking down the block here alone, was able to walk everywhere on her own with no problem.
We visited a few neighborhoods we were considering and ultimately settled on Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef as the right place for us. I have many cousins in the area, and we feel that it will be beneficial for our kids to be surrounded by family when we move there.
Ramat Beit Shemesh is a pretty stereotypical American neighborhood, which is not exactly what I had in mind when I dreamed of returning to Eretz Yisrael years ago. But then I saw my daughter walk into her new high school building, and all these girls were yelling her name because they knew her from camp. Suddenly, everything I thought I wanted went out the window, because I just want my kids to be comfortable.
The hardest thing for me has been to readjust my dream and my priorities. If we had moved 20 years ago, I would have gone with babies, and I could have done whatever I wanted, but now I’m moving with kids of all ages, and I have to put my dreams aside and reprioritize things. At the end of the day, my dream is to be living close to my grandchildren, and I can’t do that if my kids are in America. So, I have to do whatever it takes to make sure my kids are happy.
We’re not making Aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh, because my husband is keeping his American job. We’re paying out-of-pocket for tuition and all the tutors, everything.
The bureaucracy is insane. No one listens to you. You can run around for three days for a paper you were told you needed, and when you bring it in, they say, “Oh, that? You don’t need that.” I have such anxiety about it that I stopped trying to arrange certain things from here. I’m hoping it’s going to be easier for me to do it when I’m in Israel. I’m on an Aliyah chat, which helps me sometimes and also provides me with a network of people who are dealing with the same issues.
We have a lot left to arrange. We haven’t yet booked our lift or our tickets. But I’m realizing that these are all just little details that will fall into place. I’m focusing on my mirpeset and the view. I can’t wait to sit on my porch and sing Lecha Dodi while looking at the mountains. That’s my focus. I can’t believe I’m finally doing it. I can’t believe my 25-year wait is over.
There are two kinds of people. There are those who can hold heavy pots, and those who just can’t manage to hold a heavy pot, and they don’t. People who make Aliyah are the people who hold heavy pots.
When the principal of the school was interviewing my girls, she said, “You know, it’s going to be hard. You’re going to cry.” I said, “Don’t say that to my kids.” But it is hard. It’s going to be hard. The people who are picking up and moving are the people who are motivated, who want something more than what life here gives them, and they’re willing to fight for it. If you’re not satisfied with whatever it is that you have here in chutz l’aretz, which is your comfortable life, you’re giving up a lot. Even if it’s a big struggle, you’re going to do whatever it takes to make sure that you find what you’re looking for. And people who can’t do it, don’t do it.
That said, I do think everyone should make Aliyah. I want to believe that the kind of world we’re going to be living in when Mashiach comes is going to be full of Jews who feel connected to our land. I’m not saying that everybody has it in them to pick up and go, but I think that everyone will benefit from being that kind of Jew.
Someone said to me, “You know, a lot of kids go off the derech when they make aliyah.” I said, “Yeah, but you know, Rabbi Wallerstein wasn’t that famous here for no reason.” You wouldn’t believe the things I hear from people who try to convince me not to go.
People ask me if I’m scared of the security situation there. As a child, I was never scared. I had a gas mask and would walk around without it. The air raid sirens would go off, and we would leave our house as Katyushas flew over our heads. As a mother, I have a different perspective, but it doesn’t stop me from moving forward. I’m already praying for us to feel safe. But my kids feel scared walking down the street here in Brooklyn, so that’s no reason to stay.
Life is hard in Israel. It’s not as comfortable as it is in the States. My kids may not be able to have three pairs of sneakers in RBS, but they will have values that make them realize that they don’t need those all shoes to begin with.
Who We Are
I just heard in a shiur that when Yonah was on the ship, they asked him what he did, and he simply replied, “I am a Jew.” In America, your job defines your identity. If you’re a doctor, a PA, or a lawyer, that’s who you are. However, in Eretz Yisroel, people are less concerned about your profession and more focused on our collective identity as Jews living in Eretz Yisrael. We fight together to ensure our survival amidst the missiles. We send our sons to the army, build roads, cities, and hospitals. In Eretz Yisrael, you’re not just a lawyer; you’re a person who practices law to provide a life for your children in our land. It’s a whole different perspective.
When I returned to New York after our month-long pilot trip, my daughter asked, “Ima, are you excited to go back to your bed and your shoes?” I burst into tears and replied, “Are you joking? What am I going back to? I don’t have a life here. I don’t belong here. What do my shoes matter?” My daughter said, “But Ima, we’re going back in a year.” For me, the idea of waiting another year was torture. I feel as though my life is on hold here, and I can’t wait to just be there and start breathing and living.
My daughter asked me, “What was your favorite part about Eretz Yisrael?” I said, “Walking the streets of Yerushalayim.” I could walk those streets for hours and hours without a destination. It’s thousands of years of kedusha seeping in, the kedusha of our ancestors. It’s such an amazing zechus that we can connect to our lineage in such a way. What other nation has that? We have a place where, from the beginning, G-d said, “This is your land.” Throughout all the generations, our ancestors fought for this land and lived in this land, and it’s steeped in kedusha. It’s mind-blowing how much potential we have there for growth.
I yearned for this move. I didn’t want to be a 90-year-old sitting in a room and thinking, “Wow, I waited so long. I missed my whole life.” I just wanted to be able to look back and say, “I did it. I lived a Jewish life. I lived it to the fullest.”
Want to Make Aliyah?
These are some basic pointers, but Esti’s main advice is to do as much research as possible and of course, to daven, daven, and daven.
Focus on your family’s needs. A successful aliyah is one that will accommodate your entire family’s needs. Do your research carefully to find the neighborhood and schools that will make every member of your family feel comfortable and accepted.
Stay connected. It’s hard to leave your family and community to start a new life on the other side of the globe. Plan ahead for ways to stay connected, especially for those first few months.
Be prepared financially – as best as you can. A good financial planner licensed in Israel and abroad can advise you on how to invest and save. Tuition and healthcare may be more affordable but prepare for some lifestyle adjustments. Nefesh B’nefesh has sample budgets on its website that may be helpful for starters.
Reach out. In addition to Aliyah chats like the one Esti is part of, there are Aliyah resource websites, Israeli community email lists, gemach lists, courses, and support groups available to olim. Tap into as many resources as you can find, learn your rights as a new oleh, and accept help that is offered along the way.
Prepare your family. Esti recommends a pilot trip of at least a few weeks, during which your whole family can visit the schools and neighborhoods you are considering and get a taste of life in Israel. Have open conversations with every member of your family about their fears and questions about the move. Keep a running list of reasons why everyone is excited to go and pull it out when the going gets tough.