By Shmuel Katz
For the past five years, in the week of Parashat Shelach, I have written an annual column extolling the top ten reasons you should make aliyah. As prompted initially by Nefesh B’Nefesh, I make a point of specifically pointing out one reason for each of the ten meraglim who counseled our ancestors to give up their pursuit of settling in the land promised to us.
Many of the reasons, like cheap tuitions and one-day chagim (let’s not get back into that debate) appeared on the list every year. Others might have made a single appearance. Yet year after year, I have continued to list some of the many reasons I believe that everyone should aspire and work towards joining us here in Israel.
Six years into writing such encouragement, I think you have a pretty good grasp of how I feel and what I hope for you. So I decided to write a different list this year, a list of the tough things about making aliyah and the challenges you might face. After all, part of “spying out the land” is giving an assessment of some of the harsher realities as well.
The truth is, the hardest parts of making aliyah are the adjustments we needed to make. Despite the fact that Israel is our home, Goldie and I effectively live in a foreign country. The language is not our native tongue (although Goldie’s Hebrew comprehension is much better than mine) and the entire culture is foreign to us; we are conditioned to expect things a certain way and the differences often confound us.
It took years to change our perceptions of what education is supposed to be. The schooling system is incredibly different from the one in which we grew up and raised our oldest children. Even now, when we can confidently say that we have had kids go through every grade and we know what is expected of them, we still don’t feel it in our guts, especially when it comes to choosing a high school or university for them to move up to.
The medical system is also an adventure, one that Goldie and I had to plunge into headfirst in our first year here. Buying better coverage, getting supplemental insurance, getting an appointment to see a specialist (and getting the HMO to pay for it) are all things we never worried about before coming here. Being sick here is an adventure.
The job market is vastly different. Although many people commute to the U.S. for their jobs and others are able to telecommute, there is no question that the majority of olim enter the Israeli job market. Salaries are much lower here than in the U.S., even though the benefits are probably better here. Taxes are much higher (which is offset by vastly cheaper medical insurance premiums and ridiculously cheap tuition—full tuition for Chaya’s nursing school, including dorms, is around $5,000/year).
An unexpected effect of this is that many people go through big career changes when they get here. I know many rabbis and teachers who changed fields here. A lot of them go into technical writing (writing instructions and manuals, among other things, for software design companies), which is a big field here in Israel. I know of lawyers who became gardeners, doctors who are vintners—the range of changes is very large.
They say that the best way to make a small fortune in Israel is to start out with a large fortune. While it is not a general rule, there is no doubt that it is tough to make things work here. It is a constant struggle and we see the pursuit of a livelihood as one of the major reasons leading to a failed aliyah.
We also miss people, a lot. Despite the fact that we have made new friends and developed new relationships, “there’s no place like home.” We have missed many smachot. We have family and friends whose places in our hearts can’t be filled. Missing home is very tough, especially in the first few years.
My siblings all live here, so it is a bit easier for us. Yet there is no question that making the move is a big change, socially. Thankfully, as I said, we have made new friends and are also building a new community. While not a replacement, they provide us with a fresh outlook and fill a new place in our hearts.
At the end of the day, though, these are all beatable challenges. Aliyah is hard. Living in Israel is hard. Moving to a “foreign” land is hard. Many things are hard to do. That just makes achieving those goals that much sweeter.
Remember, our grandparents and great-grandparents made similar transitions, and for them it was probably much harder. They left their homes and birthplaces to come to America, often with literally nothing but the clothes on their backs. They were thrust into a world that made no sense to them and saw their children growing (as Goldie and I see our kids growing) into people that they often do not understand 100%, because their perception of the world is so different from their own.
Yet they made it. They didn’t have Skype or e‑mail to chat with their families and friends when they got lonely. They didn’t have even a small fraction of the benefits we enjoy in today’s modern world. And they still managed to make it work.
If they could do what they did, so can you. If I could make aliyah and still be going forward almost seven years later, so can you. Stop listening to the memory of the meraglim, those leaders who said to our forefathers that Israel is a wonderful land, but we can never successfully live there. Stop looking for (and finding) the reasons why you can’t . . . and start focusing on the reasons why you will. Only then will you truly have taken the lesson of this week’s parashah to heart. v
Shmuel Katz is the executive director of Yeshivat Migdal HaTorah (www.migdalhatorah.org), a new gap-year yeshiva in Israel. Shmuel, his wife Goldie, and their six children made aliyah in July of 2006. Before making aliyah, he was the executive director of the Yeshiva of South Shore in Hewlett. You can contact him at email@example.com.