A blog caption shows my son walking along the Tel Dan Nature Reserve with his classmates on a long-awaited graduation trip to Israel. Just a few days before leaving the States, I found myself grappling with worry: Would he be safe? The best image would put my fears to rest: In it, he leaned into the Dan Stream with a red shirt that said “Dunk It,” his red hair fully immersed. Just 10 minutes away was our kibbutz. My longings amplified. My heart’s home.
My husband and I left Israel in 2007 because of terror attacks. After the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life building and the Chabad synagogue in Poway six months later, I felt more vulnerable than ever. I wanted to feel safe again in Israel even though I was triggered by the memories of surviving the second Israel-Lebanon war in 2006 as a young first-time mother.
In the wake of the post-shooting Pittsburgh and Poway dialogue, I struggle daily with an agonizing choice: to stay or return? In the same way the Rebbe Menachem M. Schneerson encouraged every Jew to be in Israel, that there was special protection from God, I knew that Israel was the safest place to be as a Jew and even more so after the attacks. Why sacrifice that kind of safety and security for an uncertain future in America?
Following the Tree of Life shooting, I walked around Squirrel Hill with a “Stronger Than Hate” T-shirt as if to summon heavenly protection. Openly identifying as an American Jew filled me with pride. No one was talking about aliyah as the most obvious and logical possible option to anti-Semitic violence.
After attacks in London and Paris, I’d often wonder why Jews weren’t leaving for Israel in light of the physical dangers they face. Now that it seems the U.S. has joined Europe in terms of violence, have we become nonchalant and numb to violence that it’s better to suffer another attack? Has aliyah become too much of a biblical commandment to consider? Why aren’t we including the subject of aliyah in our conversations regarding the future of America’s Jewish community?
Online I noted how Americans had become so fearful for their safety they started removing their mezuzahs while others avoided synagogue at all costs. How sad it felt to want to flee a country where my grandparents found refuge during the darkest days of humanity.
Struggling for clear-cut answers, I hoped the great gedolim, sages, would offer enlightenment that I might take as discussion fodder. Online, I noted an even more divided approach. From a biblical perspective, the Rambam omitted the obligation to move to Israel in his list of 613 mitzvahs since this obligation was only relevant during the times of the Second Temple when Jews controlled the land. Another perspective came from Rabbi Chaim Kohen, who in Tosafos (Kesubos 110b) emphasizes “the mitzvah to live in Israel does not apply nowadays, for there are many mitzvos and prohibitions that exist only in Eretz Yisroel and it is truly difficult to diligently fulfill all those obligations.”
I tried asking my community. Many agreed with me that as a Jew, it’s safer to be in Israel. The ever-present notion still reigned: Since we are still in exile, we should mobilize, bond and connect with each other. While some identify with aliyah as a form of escape, I’m starting to realize that it’s an illusion to assume that our “safety bubble” for American Jews will always be there. We’ve now joined the ranks of anti-Semitism that Europe has been confronting. Under the Law of Return, aliyah will redefine our collectiveness as Jews in a Jewish state that historically bound the nation. No matter where we go, we would always have the support of my Jewish/IDF guardian angels. Unlike Israel, terrorism and death in America has not secured our sense of protection.
Staying in America implies acculturation, and acculturation should not imply silence. We shouldn’t fear openly identifying as Jewish. More than ever, we need to rise up, connect and nurture our fellow Jew.
Although I cannot account for the perspective every single Jew in America, we as a Jewish nation in exile are still very much vulnerable. So long as I continue to live on this side of the ocean, I will continue to grapple with these questions for which there are no easy answers. I may have left Israel once upon a time, but by creating my own Israel dwelling for God in America, I am creating my own “aliyah” as a form of spiritual ascension. And that will, one day, bring me home. pjc
Dorit Sasson, the author of Accidental Soldier: A Memoir of Service and Sacrifice in the Israel Defense Forces, is a writer who lives in Pittsburgh. Her book Sand and Steel: A Memoir of Longing and Finding Home is forthcoming.