On Wednesday, a chartered El Al airplane landed at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport full of passengers who were given free one way tickets. 233 American Jews had emigrated from the United States in what is now an annual summer ritual sponsored by an organization called "Nefesh B’Nefesh."
The new immigrants included doctors, lawyers, students and 68 young men and women who immediately enlisted in the Israeli army as "lone soldiers." For many of these Jews, moving to Israel, known as "Aliyah" — which means "going up" in Hebrew — is a lifelong dream.
There are many reasons that American Jews choose to "make Aliyah" and leave family and friends behind for a country surrounded by enemies. I have some experience with this, since my wife and I are celebrating our "Aliyah-niversary" this week having moved to Israel on a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight exactly six years ago.
At the time, we were living in Columbus, Ohio where I had grown up and worked as the pulpit rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue. We had three small children at the time and were living just a few blocks away from my parents. I loved my work at the synagogue and my wife felt equally fulfilled as a teacher at the local Jewish high school.
Nevertheless, there was something whispering into our ear and pulling at our heartstrings: Jewish destiny. Both of our families came from Europe where our grandparents survived the Holocaust.
They arrived in America as penniless orphans who built wonderful lives and raised families of proud patriots. Love for America and appreciation for what it offered was not something we took for granted. Yet, as committed Jews, we felt that — like the kosher hotdog commercial — we answered to a higher authority.
Throughout history, Jews have lived in nearly every country in the world from ancient Babylonia to Spain in the medieval times and all across Europe in the modern era. No matter where and no matter when, Jews prayed each day that God should bring us back to the land of our forefathers.
For many generations of Jews, this hope for Zion was but a dream. I travelled to Eastern Europe last week to visit the towns in Hungary and the Ukraine where my own grandparents were born. Standing in the desolate synagogues that were once vibrant houses of worship before the Holocaust, I recalled stories my grandmother told me about how her own mother would read to her stories about Jerusalem with tears in her eyes.
Certainly, my great-grandmother could never have fathomed raising her own six children in Israel. Instead, she raised her kids in the Ukraine, until her husband was sent to forced labor and she was thrown onto a cattle car with her little ones to Auschwitz.
The modern state of Israel was created in 1948, just three years after the Holocaust. In less than 70 years, Israel has become a strong democracy with a booming economy. It has turned its vast desert wastelands into agricultural gardens of eden and absorbed millions of Jewish immigrants from over 100 countries.
Before World War II, there were 17 million Jews in the world with less than half a million in Israel. Today, we still have not recovered from the loss of the 6 million victims of the Holocaust and there are about 15 million Jews worldwide. What is nothing short of miraculous is that today, there are about 6.5 million Jews living in Israel, more than any other country.
The ancient promises outlined repeatedly throughout the Bible are finally coming true. Isaiah (43:5) wrote, "I will bring your descendants from the east, And gather you from the west . . . bring My sons from afar, and My daughters from the ends of the earth." Jeremiah (23:3) similarly promised, “I will gather the remnant of My flock out of all countries where I have driven them, and bring them back to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and increase."
To the Jewish people, Israel is not just another country, it is our homeland. When American Jews move to Israel, as 233 did this week, we are not turning our back on America, but turning towards our heritage.
Rabbi Weisz is the director of Israel365, which connects 2 million people to Israel every month. He founded the I365 newsletter, is publisher of Breaking Israel News, and editor of The Israel Bible. He lives with his family in Ramat Beit Shemesh. To read more of his reports, Click Here Now.
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