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As Knesset Weighs Official Celebration of Aliyah, One Olah Reflects on Emigration

Barbara Sofer

Walking along the banks of Connecticut’s Salmon River with its covered bridge I imagined myself in the water-challenged Negev site Ein Avdat, near David Ben Gurion’s kibbutz Sde Boker. I couldn’t wave away the image.

A weekend in April, at the end of my senior year of high school. A group of active Young Judaeans were gathering to talk about Israel near Colchester for a weekend of Zionism. We’d be camping in the cabin owned by the volunteer firefighters. I made the arrangements. I was President of Connecticut region and I lived in Colchester, across the street from a firefighter. When we talk a Shabbat stroll, one of the Israel emissaries to Young Judaea came up to walk alongside me. “What are your plans about Israel?” he asked. I told him that I would doubtless be active in Jewish activities at whatever campus I matriculated at. The acceptance letters would arrive that week.

He made a gesture that showed his disappointment. “I thought you were serious,” he said. I was insulted. Here I was spending a spring weekend debating Zionist issues, and I wasn’t serious?

Later, I walked by myself. That’s when I had a vision of the Negev. I had hiked there nine months earlier on the Young Judaea Summer Course. I came home inspired, but hadn’t ever considered Aliyah.

Why not? I couldn’t think of a good enough reason not to make Aliyah. It was inconvenient, of course, to leave my family, friends, and my comfort zone of an English-speaking country. I had no excuses. My parents hadn’t gone through the Holocaust; my grandparents moved to the US in the early 1900’s. We weren’t ever second-class citizens of Arab countries. We weren’t wealthy, but my parents were well-off enough to come and visit me or send for me every few years.

If I believed that all Jews had a responsibility to help build the Jewish State,and who better than a fit, young American Jew?

I made up my mind, but I didn’t tell the emissary. On Monday, the letters of acceptance arrived. I chose the University of Pennsylvania among the colleges that accepted me because they had a flexible Junior Year Abroad program. I knew I was too much of a country bumpkin to move to Israel immediately.

When I made my decision, it was because I “should” live in Israel. On my Junior Year in Israel I fell in love with Israel. The intensive Hebrew program, ulpan, was switched at the last moment from Jerusalem to …of all places…at the Negev campus at Sde Boker. Just like my vision. I loved living by a Jewish calendar, not fitting Jewish holidays into my life schedule. After my first Simchat Torah, I was dancing in the street, (a tradition called hakafot shniyot) and and rain fell. We’d just said the prayer for rain in the morning. I’d only been to Israel in the summer and I’d never experienced rain. I remember the joy of the drops falling in my long hair. Hanukkah was the dominant winter holiday and on Purim, children and adults wore costumes in the street. Of course, in Jerusalem it’s hard to tell who’s in costume. Like the Jewish woman from Kurdistan in the floor-length dress and headdress who sat outside her home eating seeds and wished me—the Jewish woman from Connecticut—“Shabbat Shalom.” I returned to the US to finish my BA and made Aliyah the week after graduation.

I have spent more of my life in Israel than in the United States now. I have brought up my sabra children, and am helping to bring up my sabra grandchildren. That went fast. The hardest times have been when my loved ones have been in mortal danger. I have passed the weight of responsibility for the Jewish people onto their sturdy shoulders. They’re less jaunty than their peers abroad. To borrow the language of the emissary of my youth, I’d say they’re serious.

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