A year ago today, I took a one-way flight from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv, a journey that would take me over 14 hours from gate to gate and during which time I would pass over the better part of the world. Growing up, I had literally no idea I would ever be making such a big move, even with my traveling genes and all. I can still recall the details of my aliyah flight like it was yesterday. Making aliyah, by the way, refers to the process of returning to the Jewish homeland and is considered the ultimate goal in the life of a practicing Jew. To be specific, in Hebrew, the verb "aliyah" translates as "going up" so as to imply that you are heading upwards toward a Jewish goal and upwards toward your return. This dream of returning to the land of our ancestors and living in a Jewish community void of persecution has been a communal goal for the Jewish people over the entirety of our history, spanning all the way back to the days of the Exodus from Egypt. Thus, to make aliyah is kind of a big deal. It's a journey that has been ingrained in our roots since the inception of the Jewish religion. See the video below for a fantastic overview of the aliyah journey, from the departure gates in your home country to the remarkable welcoming and celebration at Ben Gurion airport.
If you took the time to watch the above video in full, you will see exactly how my day went on my aliyah date one year ago. After months of preparation which involved filling out an application, being interviewed and obtaining an aliyah visa, I was finally on my way. On the day of departure, your group flight will meet to check in their multiple, overpacked suitcases and to tearfully say goodbye over and over again to loved ones and family members prior to passing through the security gate. There's something special about being on a plane full of people making the exact same move as you. I'm not sure there's anything quite like it anywhere else in the world. After 14 hours of waiting, you catch your first glimpse of the holy land. And it's an impressive view, I can assure you that. Here are some images of the approach and descent into Tel Aviv's majestic coastline:
Upon landing, you will indeed hear roars, cheers and claps sounding throughout the cabin. On my flight, the plane broke out in endless song as well. It was definitely an experience to remember. Here we are getting a little closer to the tarmac. I can see familiar buildings looking out from here:
As if the joint experience was not enough, in addition to the festive song and dance on board the plane, as you depart from your aircraft, you are welcomed with an overwhelming scene that is enough to bring tears to your eyes. Hundreds and hundreds of proud Israelis will be there to greet the new "olim", or immigrants, as they arrive. The energy is full of nationalism, soaring spirits and joyful celebration. Some of us come knowing no one, some of come intending to join the Israeli army, some of us have husbands or wives awaiting us and some of us have come to retire or to study. Whatever the reason, every one of these new immigrants has chosen to make the move to Israel and thus, in return, what seems like the majority of Israel comes to greet you at the airport in show of love and support for this big move. You will be greeted with emotional sentiments of "Welcome Home" over and over again and "Mazal Tov" by every Israeli you encounter. Upon landing in Israel, you have become an Israeli citizen and the welcome party is a big one.
You see all of this activity as you deboard the plane. And you realize what an achievement you have accomplished, whether or not you knew you were accomplishing something big or not.
Arriving into Israel is just the first step of your journey. You will be greeted with lists upon lists of to-dos as well as your first "sal klita"payment, or absorption basket payment. Not only was your aliyah flight covered, but also, you will receive about 8 monthly stipends during your transition period which amount to a couple hundred dollars every month. Additionally, you will be provided free "ulpan", or intensive Hebrew classes, for your first 5-6 months of your aliyah period. Even more generous, some people opt to take up the aliyah offer of a free undergraduate or graduate education in certain colleges and universities up until age 30. And that's not where it ends. Where else will you find such a generous immigration package? (I can tell you definitely not in the US).
So, how has my first year in Israel been? Well, there's been a lot of ups and downs. A lot of laughter and smiles combined with bouts of frustration and tears. Good friends were made, some of whom came and went. Visitors occupied our guest bedroom and travels took us both up and down the scenic landscapes of Israel as well as to nearby Europe. We had lots of sunshine, three seasons full of it, and a freezing cold winter (suggestion: don't visit Israel in the winter). We had terror threats and some unfortunate attacks unfold. History has continued to be literally in the making daily during my time here and I've developed a vastly different picture of the Arab-Israeli conflict due to my immersion in Israeli society on a continual basis.
What else? The bureaucratic red tape proved enough to drive any sane person crazy and it seemed to be an endless uphill battle to get those sorts of things done (and there's a lot to be done, i.e. health care, bank account, passport, visiting with your immigration counselor, enrolling for ulpan, seeking out employment assistance, etc.) I spent the first couple months studying Hebrew intensively five days a week and working for a popular tourist company as a Jerusalem based liaison. The joint effort proved to be too much and I ended up focusing solely on my Hebrew, which I believe is the key to a successful integration. After a total of nine months of studying Hebrew, I am finally fluent. Just kidding. I heard it takes about three years to become fluent and I would say that sounds about right...if you add three more years to that estimate. At this point, I can say my most important sentence in Hebrew, which is: "Slicha, ani lo madeberet Ivrit". If you know Hebrew, you will get a kick out of that last sentence. Seriously though, I am now able to have limited conversations in a handful of topics, I can get by anywhere, whether at the doctor, the post office or the grocery store. And I can ask for and understand directions. Hebrew, as compared to when I learned Spanish, seems to be going about 10 times slower than my last time tackling a new language. And from what I understand, my peers feel the same way. Yet, there has been progress. After all, all I knew when I arrived were select words like "Shalom" (hello), "L'hitraot" (goodbye), "shnia" (just a second), "Tov Meod" (very good) and "mishpacha" (family).
So, all in all, it's been an interesting year. If you've been following along, you've read about my journeys and experiences, the celebration of holidays, new jobs and class updates, as well as travels and expeditions throughout Israel and beyond. This year, I am determined to tackle the job market which has proven to be incredibly difficult. Keeping in mind that the best salary you can get is somewhere around the equivalent of $1500 US a month (and that's with the ability to speak Hebrew), it is mentally difficult to take the cut. Especially given that the cost of living is on par with New York City. Did somebody forget that we are in the Middle East? It doesn't seem to match up. Though there are handfuls of intriguing options -- including gap-year programs for American university students, international schools and university programs, Nefesh B'Nefesh and likeminded American-Israeli organizations, and English speaking positions in the Ministry of Tourism -- positions are limited and, of course, require Hebrew. For the time being, I've found some work in a Jerusalem based art gallery, yet we will see what the future holds for me.
If you've been reading along, thank you for doing so. This really began as a way for me to document this incredible journey abroad and to hold all my experiences and images in one place that I can always look back on one day. For those of you who have found interest in it, I am thankful and appreciative. Thanks to all my friends and family who have made me feel that they are just an arm's length away even with my being on the opposite end of the world.
Alas, Year Two in Israel, here we go!