Monday, March 16, 2009

Living the Dream?

Last spring when I was still in Oak Park, a well-known rabbi from Israel came to Detroit to speak over the weekend, and gave a shiur in my shul. After Shabbos, when he learned that I was making aliyah he came over to me and said, "I hope that your yissurin (sufferings) aren't too bad." I laughed. He laughed. But inside I wondered and worried not a little.

Speaking to a local Yad Binyamin resident recently, I asked her how she was doing.
"Not so well," she told me. "Actually, we've decided that we're going back."
Saddened to hear the news, she shared with me some of the details. Her husband retained his job in North America (don't want to say where). He decided to commute back and forth - two weeks here and two weeks at work.
Now, six months in they feel like things are falling apart for them:
He's always exhausted, and never feels settled in any one place. His kids feel like he's never home - and they don't like it. Actually, they hate it, and have told him so. Now he's having trouble disciplining them, as they are beginning to see him less as an authority figure. In addition, the work situation is quite difficult because his business suffers greatly from his two week absence every month. Compounding the issue is that their children, after a good few months of misery, have finally begun to get the hang of school. They're speaking Hebrew fluently. Whereas a year ago they didn't want to come to Israel, now they don't want to leave.
So, while it was disheartening and distressing to hear their story, I didn't have much to say to her. What would you say? "Stay"? "Remain miserable"? "It'll work out"? How do I know that it will, especially when things are so difficult for them.

Nefesh B'nefesh does an amazing job of promoting aliyah. They've truly put it on the map in a powerful way, making regular people think about and consider moving to Israel. I think that the tools they bring to the aliyah process also make a huge difference, helping people streamline the process, understand it better, and deal with the bureaucracy (which was really not nearly as bad as I expected). I think that Nefesh B'nefesh has also, to a large degree, changed the culture of agencies here in Israel towards a more customer-oriented focus.
Still, the way that they promote aliyah still bothers me. NBN exhorts Americans to make aliyah by encouraging them to, "Live the Dream." (It's interesting, but when I checked their website, the "Live the Dream" slogan is nowhere to be found, although it's still in their logos and other publicity materials.) Sounds amazing. You take an incredible flight. You have a tremendous celebration which they beam around the world. And it is amazing.
But it's not. Because then you have to go about the business of building a real life. Which is anything but easy, especially here in Israel.
Don't get me wrong. I'm a huge, huge aliyah booster. I think that every Jew belongs in Israel. But I have said often that I think the NBN slogan should be much closer to Home Depot's: "Aliyah: You Can Do It, and We'll Help".
This, I think, is the one of the first things that people need to understand about moving to Israel. Nefesh B'nefesh can help you - and they do amazing work - but they're not going to do it for you. You need to learn Hebrew to truly fit in (unless you live in very specific communities). You need to find your own job - although they can give you leads. You need to enroll your kids in school, fight for their benefits and ulpan, advocate on their behalf, and deal with their very real struggles and sometimes tears.
And I fear that some people, enticed by the "dream," wake up one morning in Israel without a job yet, not understanding the morning news (or the letter their child brought home from school, face a screaming child who refuses to even go to school, and begins to wonder: when does the "dream" start? Where's the dream?
It's not a dream. It's hard work. It's a sacrifice and a struggle. You give up a tremendous amount to move to Israel and live in God's land.
The Gemara in Berachot (5a) really says it best:
תניא רבי שמעון בן יוחאי אומר שלש מתנות טובות נתן הקדוש ברוך הוא לישראל וכולן לא נתנן אלא ע"י יסורין אלו הן תורה וארץ ישראל והעולם הבא
We learned: Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: the Holy One blessed be He gave three good gifts to Israel, and he gave all of them through suffering. They are: Torah, the Land of Israel and the World to Come.
So I guess I'm not saying anything new. It's not a dream. It involves giving up a lot. It involves sacrifice and hard work.
Is it worth all that? Of course it is. The Mishnah in Avot reminds us that לפום צערא אגרא -- "according to the toil comes the reward." Or, reversing the same statement, there are no free lunches in life, and anything that you get for free isn't really worth that much at all. Some costs are monetary. Other things don't cost money, but take an emotional, physical or even spiritual toil. Anything in life that's worth something requires sacrifice and hard work. Why should Israel be any different?
But I guess you can't say that to Americans. Hard work doesn't really sell. Dreams do.