Returning Home: Why We Left LA for Israel
by Rabbi Joel Zeff
The prophet Isaiah described the in-gathering of the exiles “as a cloud flies and as doves to their dovecotes.” Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel under the British mandate, interpreted this dual metaphor. He suggested that ultimately all Jews would return to their ancestral homeland, but that there would be two categories. Some would return “as a cloud flies” that is, not of an inner desire, but driven by the storm winds of war, poverty and persecution. Others would return, not fleeing from unfortunate circumstances, but rather driven by an intense internal longing to return home “as doves to their dovecotes”.
A Wonder of History
The Zeff family has been fortunate to have lived in Los Angeles for nine years and to have served as the rabbinic family of the Westwood Kehilla for seven of those years. It was a period of great personal meaning and growth and I am very grateful. If not for the State of Israel and all that it represents we would have been happy to serve Los Angeles Jewry indefinitely. We are truly blessed to be counted among the doves returning to their dovecotes.
Surely one of the things which makes life worth living is the cultivation of an on-going sense of awe at the wonders and miracles which surround us. One does not have to be a religious person to be amazed at the phenomenon called Israel. By 1945, European Jewry, the greatest concentration of Jewish population and cultural vitality in the world, was completely obliterated. Is it conceivable within the parameters of the “normal” that just three years later the Jewish nation would ascend to one of the most glorious peaks in its long history, the establishment of a Jewish sovereign state in its ancestral homeland?!
For 2,000 years the Hebrew language was essentially a language reserved for religious affairs, a Jewish Latin. Could one imagine that within fifty years there will be a country in the world where millions of people will socialize, quarrel, play, learn, buy and sell, and conduct every human activity in Latin? Well, it happened to Hebrew!
Living the Miracle
Our first year in Israel we lived in an Absorption Center — government sponsored housing for recent immigrants near Jerusalem. Our neighbors to one side were from Ethiopia, to the other side from Iraqi Kurdistan. There were also Jews in our housing complex from, among other places, Russia, Yugoslavia, America, Canada, Germany, Morocco, France and England. Was there ever a nation that was dispersed to every conceivable place on the globe and then regrouped to re-form itself?
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Israel is a country where, as a famous Israeli politician once said, not all believe in miracles but everyone relies on them. Israel is a country where, I might add, wonders are so numerous that you can just reach down and scoop them up by the handful.
The opportunity to participate in this multi-faceted miracle, to live in a society that never fails to amaze, was simply irresistible.
There are today two great concentrations of Jewish life in the world. The United States and Israel. But of this there can be no doubt; when the Jewish history books of this period are written Israel will be center stage with American Jewry in the audience, though perhaps in box seats. During the Gulf War, I, together with many American Jews, was totally transfixed to the radio. My obsession with the fate of Israel reached uncomfortable dimensions. Fortunately, I was able to join a UJA Solidarity Mission and reached Israel at the height of the Scud attacks. But I felt better just being there. I refuse to be a spectator to Jewish history. I no longer need to join a UJA Mission to visit center stage. I live there, in the middle of the most exciting event of the last two thousand years of Jewish history.
I was, as Bruce Springsteen intones, “born in the USA”. My mother immigrated to America as a baby and my father was born in the United States to immigrant parents. I am a Yankee. Yet, as much as I appreciate the social and political uniqueness of America and as much as I love its breath-taking natural beauty, for me there is something missing. It is not mine. I, of course, do not mean this in a legal sense, but rather as a description of my psychological-spiritual reality. I must be quite honest. To my eyes, there is nothing in Israel as stunningly beautiful as Yosemite. But when I gaze upon the Judean mountains, I feel an inner connection, a bondedness, a sense of owning and belonging that I never felt in any of the many majestic national parks I visited in America.
This is not always a pleasant feeling. I am capable of reading the LA Times, feeling sincere sympathy for the human victims of the ills of American society, and going on with my daily routine. But a sure way to incapacitate me is to get me near a Jerusalem Post. A recent article about the involvement of Russian immigrants to Israel in prostitution absolutely grieved me and infuriated me. These are not just human tragedies; they are my problems. I own them. The deep pain and exhilarating joy of belonging are more valuable to me than the pleasant anesthesia of the subtle but real alienation I felt as a Jew in America.
We were genuinely satisfied with our lives in the Los Angeles Jewish community. We have chosen to live in a land and a society whose language is not our mother tongue, where we do not yet know how to find our way around and whose cultural and social mores are not always familiar to us. Yet Israel offers us the opportunity to live a life of wonder, a life in the center of Jewish history and a life of belonging and owning. All of this, in addition to upping our mitzva quotient, how could we say no to that!