“Are You Crazy?”

An explanation for taxi drivers and other skeptics about why I’m making aliyah

by Rabbi Loren Sykes

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It is always the same conversation, with every taxi driver from Ben Gurion Airport. The cabbie asks why I am in Israel. After I give my brief answer, he looks stunned and says:

“Are you crazy!”

The driver is responding to my telling him that we are making aliyah, because he himself is thinking about leaving Israel. Because it is hard to make a living there and because the Middle East is a tough neighborhood, he cannot fathom anyone choosing to make the move. “Things are so great in America! Why in the world would you leave that to come here?” I give him my brief answer:

“I want to live in sync with the rhythms of Jewish life, in the Jewish language, with the Jewish people.

“I want to fulfill the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz, settling the land.

“I want to be part of the grand experiment in Jewish sovereignty.”

And, lastly, “We want to contribute to and be part of the most exciting project in modern Jewish history.”

My short answer is insufficient and the cabbie never believes me. He is not alone. While our family’s decision is often met with enthusiastic support, it is met just as often with a look of confusion and a touch of emotion ranging from fear to sadness to absolute terror.

From left, Rebecca and Amalya Sykes, Rabbi Tamar Elad Applebaum and her daughter, and Mira Sykes.

From left, Rebecca and Amalya Sykes, Rabbi Tamar Elad Applebaum and her daughter, and Mira Sykes.

So why are we doing this? Making aliyah as an adult with a family is almost never a spur-of-the-moment decision. Rather it is the result of a lifelong series of experiences and encounters, compounding from year to year. For me it began with the first time I met an Israeli – his name was Chezi – in the summer of 1977 at Camp Ramah. I was and continue to be blessed by meaningful relationships with many Israelis. From secular Tel Aviv residents to young religious types from Jerusalem, the impact of shlichim – Israel’s young emissaries – on me, my wife, Becca, and our children, Elan, Mira and Amalya, has been a constant. We have a huge family of former shlichim from our time at various Ramah camps, waiting for us and cheering us on. Their energy and idealism are infectious.

The other main building block of our aliyah is the time we have spent in Israel. I made my first visit with Ramah Israel Seminar in 1983. I lived in Israel as a student at the Schechter Institute in 1991-1992. I have made so many trips to Israel that I stopped keeping count. Becca also attended Ramah Israel Seminar. We’ve made multiple trips as a family, including for a sabbatical in 2007-2008. Our children went on separate trips with their day schools. Constant visits  definitely create strong bonds with the people, the land and the State of Israel. Connections and visits, however, are not enough to make the leap to aliyah. That decision comes back to what I tried explaining to the cabbie.

Elan Sykes and United Synagogue’s Lisa Alter Krule at the joint Ramah Seminar/USY Pilgrimage day at Neot Kedumim.

Elan Sykes and United Synagogue’s Lisa Alter Krule at the joint Ramah Seminar/USY Pilgrimage day at Neot Kedumim.

For us, aliyah means winter breaks at Chanukkah and spring breaks at Passover. It means adventures into bakeries in February or March looking for the best Hamentaschen. Aliyah means walking down the street in Jerusalem on Friday afternoon and wishing people I don’t know “Shabbat shalom.” From shopping for a lulav and etrog in the market at Mahane Yehuda just before Sukkot to stopping and standing at attention with millions of others as the siren announces the arrival of Yom HaZikaron, I want to live the rhythm, the sounds and sights of the Jewish calendar, and I want to do it as part of the majority.

Truth be told, we are old-fashioned Zionists. My eyes water every time I sing Hatikvah. At the end of the seder, I always wonder when I will fulfill the last words of the haggadah, “L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim.” I follow the news about Israel, both the good and the bad, constantly. I listen to Israeli radio via the internet and read an Israeli newspaper on my iPad. My iTunes account is filled with the music of Arik Einstein and Yehuda Poliker. I watch the TV series  “Srugim” about life in Jerusalem on DVD.

Various rabbinic sources argue that living in the land is a mitzvat aseh, a postive commandment, while others argue that yishuv ha’aretz, settling the land of Israel, can only happen with the arrival of the Messiah. One sage makes the claim that aliyah is only an obligation because of the other mitzvot it allows a person to do, those specifically connected to living in the land of Israel. Of course there are many ways to help settle the land, but living in our ancestral homeland, the undisputed right of a people, speaks powerfully to me, and the mitzvah of yishuv ha’aretz is one I can do in my lifetime.

At this stage of life, the State of Israel is still what we refer to at the end of Birkat HaMazon, the grace after meals, as reisheet tzmichat geulateinu, or the first blooming of our redemption. Watching the range of innovations streaming out of Israel, from hightech companies to ventures in religious, social and cultural entrepreneurship, certainly drives me to join what one author dubbed the “Start-up Nation.” But a young country also faces so many challenges, both internal and external. I want to participate in facing these challenges, especially the internal challenges. For me, just thinking about issues of religious pluralism, tolerance and equality is insufficient. I want to grapple with what it means to have a Jewishly democratic state, what it means to be a sovereign nation and how to find the right balance between being “a light unto the nations” and being like every other nation.

The Sykes family eating out in Jerusalem with their friend Zehava Tesfay.

The Sykes family eating out in Jerusalem with their friend Zehava Tesfay.

I want to participate in the efforts to create change in all of these areas as a citizen and resident. So last year, when United Synagogue announced it was seeking a new executive director for its Shirley and Jacob Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center, I knew the time had come. Leading the Fuchsberg Center, which I joined last fall, gives me an extraordinary opportunity to help ensure that Jerusalem remains the capitol city of the entire Jewish people. I get to work with an exceptional staff to strengthen our current programs and create new opportunities for North American Jews to deepen their connections to our tradition, to our approach to Jewish living and learning, and to Israel. And I get to walk to work every day in the heart of the Jewish state.

Returning from previous trips to Israel, I always felt I was leaving behind a small piece of my soul, a kind of deposit toward the future. After a while, I started leaving actual material things, like my GPS and a computer charger, in Israel. One day I looked at Becca and said, “I don’t want to wait to collect my soulful deposits on the way to the grave. I want to collect them and put them to good use in this lifetime.” I want to be part of the greatest project of the Jewish people, in this lifetime.

As my taxi ascends the final approach to Jerusalem, the mountains bathed in golden sunlight, I am greeted by an enormous sign saying Bruchim HaBa’im, Welcome. The taxi ride is ending. I stop talking to look at the hills. The cabbie looks at me and says, “Kol hakavod! That’s great. It’s wonderful to hear such positive things about our country. And you know what? I know America is great but I am not going to leave. There is no place like Israel. Good luck on your aliyah and welcome home!” I look out the window at my soon-to-be home, smile and say, todah rabbah.

Rabbi Loren Sykes is the new executive director of The Shirley and Jacob Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center for Conservative Judaism. He was the founding director of Camp Ramah Darom, The Center for Southern Jewry and the creator of Camp Yofi: Family Camp for Jewish Families with Children with Autism. The Sykes family is making aliyah in August 2013.