Fort Mill Times

Words of Faith: Going up to Jerusalem

This column was uploaded from Israel which I visited recently.

In July, I joined a caravan of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogue members to explore this country. There are about 500 of us spending 2 weeks in Tel Aviv, Akko, a kibbutz and Jerusalem. We will be meeting with writers, farmers, members of the Israeli Defense Forces, and members of the al-Jazzar Mosque, in addition to just interacting with Israelis, Arabs and Jews, in our daily activities.

Israel is a modern nation largely made up of immigrants. The first waves of Jewish immigration began in the late 1800s and lasted up until the first World War. And while there were Arabs and Jews living there in the 1800s, that first wave of Jewish immigration prompted change as thousands of Jews moved to the area, escaping the killings and anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe.

They were looking for safety and a place to build a Jewish nation. After World War II and the Holocaust, more Jews reached this land, even before it was voted into nationhood by the United Nations in 1948.

Living in the U.S., I am considered a “Diaspora Jew,” meaning a Jew not living in Israel. Our diaspora, that involuntary scattering from your home, started the first time in the 8th century BCE, when the Assyrians conquered Israel and dispersed the Jews across the Middle East. This recurred in the 5th century BCE, with the Babylonians and after that with the Romans.

Jews are not the only people who use that term. Africans use it as well to refer to those removed involuntarily from that continent. The Irish use it to refer to their great wave of emigration during the famine years. Stories of being torn from one’s homeland, for whatever reason, are worked into the lore of a people. And often, there is a longing to return to that home.

The Jews use an another term now, “making Aliyah,” or returning to live in Israel. Translated literally, it means “to go up.” Aliyah is referenced in Psalm 147: “The Lord doth build up Jerusalem: he gathereth together the outcasts of Israel.” And in many ways, one does rise up to reach Jerusalem. At 2,700 feet above sea level it’s on a different, more religious level. It’s a place closer to God for all three Abrahamic religions.

It’s the land from which we started. Even if we’ve not been there before, there is a connection. Just as there were waves of diaspora over the millennia, for Jews there are now waves of Aliyah, returning, in recent decades. It’s an in-gathering of Jews again fleeing anti-Semitism and attacks for simply being who they are. Our guide is one of these immigrants. She and her family fled the USSR in 1990, escaping religious persecution.

Others make Aliyah in response to thoughts equally as personal. Israel is the only home where Jews are in the majority. Here, the Sabbath day starts at sundown on a Friday and runs through sundown on Saturday. Sunday here is the first day of the week for work and school purposes. It’s common to see men wearing a yarmulke (skullcaps). It’s a place where you don’t have to explain your holidays every year. There is a sense of people taking care of each other and a sense of shared pride. The country is not full of older men with beards and side curls, despite what you may see on TV.

And the sense of Jewish faith and culture is pervasive. It’s not just street names (King David Street), it’s included in the layout of those streets; a neighborhood in Tel Aviv is laid out like the 6-branch menorah. Even the manhole covers are in Hebrew.

Politics and rationalizations of terrorism aside, Jews have a connection to Israel. Diaspora Jews may fiercely love the country of our birth and passport, but there is some lingering thought of Israel as a place we need to see, and as our other home. Returning to Israel is a recurring theme in numerous ancient Jewish prayers recited every day, and in holiday services on Passover and Yom Kippur. Those holidays traditionally conclude with the words “Next year in Jerusalem.” In Israel, those prayers end with “Next year, here.”

For Jews making Aliyah, moving to Israel, for whatever reason, it’s not considered “immigration” by the Israeli government, it’s a return. As the late Elie Wiesel said, “When a Jew visits Jerusalem for the first time, it is not the first time; it is a homecoming.”

Edie Yakutis is a lay leader at Temple Solel in Fort Mill: