Aliyah: Personal, Complex… and Wonderful
My desire to make aliyah evolved over time. I always wanted to want to make aliyah, I
just didn’t actually want to. In addition, other values like love of Torah, commitment to halakha,
passion for Judaism, and service to the community, which were the bread and butter of my
childhood home, had higher priority for me.
It is not that I didn’t feel deeply connected to Israel; I loved Israel with all my heart. But
love is not the same as marriage, and I was not ready to commit. The love that I felt did not
translate into a desire to live there.
Maybe I had a vague aspiration of ultimately getting there, but aliyah remained, in an
unspoken way, an impossibly difficult journey that I was not quite sure I wanted to undertake. I
felt that there was too much I wanted to give back to the community I had grown up in as a
teacher in my native language and in the environment and culture that I knew well and
understood from the inside. Finding meaning and fulfillment in your job is very important for
general happiness, and I could not identify with those who professed that they were ready to
sacrifice professional satisfaction in order to actualize their dream of living in Israel. When I met
my husband, we shared many of the same feelings, and I was relieved to be with someone who
identified with my ambivalent state.
And then something changed. Shortly before we got married, we visited my sister-in- law
and her family, who had moved to Israel only months before. Seeing their lives was like looking
at ourselves in the mirror. We recognized that people just like us were happy, comfortable, and
finding meaning. Their life was not very different from the one we were used to; they just lived it
in Israel. They were contributing to their community in the ways that they could and were overall
satisfied with their lot.
Almost instantaneously, in a way that felt strangely revelatory and yet completely natural,
we wanted to be a part of that. As if a image had suddenly and unexpectedly come into focus, the
landscape immediately looked different. Things that had seemed so important to us were now
blurry, while things we had barely thought about moved front and center.
We had a newfound clarity about our direction, and yet, even so, it still took time for our
intentions to fully crystalize. First, we came to acknowledge that the dream of aliyah was
attainable for even “regular” people like us. We could go to work, send kids to school, order
pizza, and live like typical families everywhere — but live it in the land that God had promised
us. Then, as we started to have children, our personal aspirations began to take a back seat to our
familial ones. We thought a lot about the meaning of raising children in a place where our
traditions and our holidays are the national ones and where the stories of Tanakh played out
around the corner. We wanted them to understand intuitively the words of the tefilot they daven
and of the books they study. We wanted the history they learn to be their own.
We wanted our children to feel comfortable and rooted in Israel and not to have to
experience the tension that so many Jews in the Diaspora face. More, we wanted to spare our
children the agony of the very dilemma that was gripping us. True, we would likely never be
fully fluent in Hebrew or as accomplished professionally as we otherwise might have been, but
somehow those tradeoffs seemed to matter less when we considered the meaning we would find
in the ins and outs of day-to- day life, as well as the fact that personal fulfillment is not an all-or-
Ultimately, we made aliyah because we felt that Jewish destiny is going to play out in the
Land of Israel and that we could choose to either remain on the sidelines or jump into the center
of that process. We asked ourselves why other people’s children should protect the Land and not
ours? Why should other families live there and not us?
Slowly, we embraced our newfound perspectives more and more. At the time of our
eventual aliyah, almost 9 years after our wedding, we were then challenged to really own our
lofty musings explicitly.
We were confronted by others about how we could move our four sons to a place where
they would be drafted into the army. Some wondered how I could leave the communal roles I
played to go teach in Israel — a job that was clearly, in their eyes, less meaningful and
significant to them in comparison to what I was contributing at the time. And then there was the
visiting educator from Israel who caught me completely off guard with this zinger: “I heard you
are making aliyah, throwing American students to the dogs and moving to Israel to steal other
No one likes to be judged. Not for making aliyah. Not for not making aliyah.
We were aware then, and still are, of the factors that enabled us to make a smooth,
successful aliyah. Our children were relatively young, our parents are, thank God, healthy, and
we were not leaving elderly grandparents behind. We had decent job prospects waiting for us,
siblings who had already made the move, and a community that we were thrilled to be joining.
And yet we tried to be very honest about all that we knew we were walking away from, which is
why I still think that the decision to come here is not a simple one.
No one can ever know where he or she will make the biggest difference, or what is
“really, really right” in some Divine sense. All we can do as human beings is to try to make the
best decisions that we can. And for us, that meant moving our young family to Israel.
I do not think that there is one right answer out there on the question of aliyah, and I
don’t see great value in debating whether the Israeli soldier or the American pulpit rabbi is more
worthy. Instead, what is important to me is embracing aliyah as a complicated, multifaceted
decision that has no easy answers. We should encourage people to learn to live with the tensions
of that decision and to be able to admit to others what they have chosen to sacrifice in the
process. I am sometimes left with the feeling that cognitive dissonance profoundly warps
discussion of aliyah, in both directions: I have heard olim whitewash the hardships they
encounter, as well as those who choose to remain in America work to convince themselves and
others that there never really was a viable alternative.
The decision of where to live should be made from a place of honesty and trust and, in
turn, breed happiness and fulfillment. It is hard to succeed and contribute anywhere if you don’t
really want to be there, on the one hand, or are overcome by guilt over the path not taken, on the
other. To make aliyah or not is a critical question that I don’t think can be easily dismissed or
minimized. Still, I think we want to ensure that its sheer weight doesn’t suppress other positive and meaningful expressions of love for and attachment to our land, with pride and without
burdening self-consciousness, by all Jews, wherever they may be.
Shayna Goldberg teaches in the Stella K. Abraham Beit Midrash for Women at Migdal Oz. She
previously taught in Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School in Teaneck, NJ and served as a Yoetzet
Halakha for Congregations Rinat Yisrael and Ahavat Torah, as well as for Kehillat Kesher, all
in New Jersey. Shayna made aliyah to Israel in the summer of 2011 and lives in Alon Shvut with
her husband and five children.
See the full symposium and other responses here: