An Aliyah Journey – By Bonnie Riva Ras

I wanted to live in Israel since I was six years old.

That’s when my grandfather gave me a book about the people of Israel. It had pictures of kibbutzniks wearing blue and white, Yemenite brides bedecked in jewels, and young Israeli soldiers, men and women. I knew that these people were my people and that their land was my land.

When I was 12, I took a train into Manhattan from Long Island, where I lived, and went to the Jewish Agency to pick up information and forms about making aliyah, but I couldn’t convince my mother to go. She promised me that I could spend a summer working on a kibbutz when I turned 16. But on Yom Kippur 1973, my mother said that Israel wasn’t safe and she would not allow me to go. I walked out of synagogue, went home, and packed my flags and books away along with my dreams.

My life took the usual American trajectory. I went to college, married, and raised a family (and later divorced). But there was a Jewish twist; I was a lay synagogue leader and taught Hebrew school; eventually I came to work at United Synagogue.

My Jewish spiritual journey led me to learn Hebrew, become an adult bat mitzvah, and then a shlichat tzibur in an egalitarian synagogue. But I always had a feeling in my gut that I was living in the wrong place, that I was living in galut – the diaspora – and I had to go home.

With my children grown – one made aliyah two and a half years ago – I decided that I either had to move now or give up the idea of ever doing it. I knew that it wouldn’t be easy. I left behind one of my daughters, my siblings, my friends, and my colleagues, as well as most of my belongings. (I did take my United Synagogue job with me, though; now I work at the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center.)

I made aliyah on an August 2011 Nefesh B’Nefesh charter flight from JFK. My paperwork was processed on the plane and I landed with my tuedah oleh – new immigrant identity papers – and a large packet of information about all the things I had to do. These included signing up for health coverage (two visits to two places), opening a bank account (three visits to two places), obtaining my teudat zehut – Israeli identity papers – beginning ulpan classes, buying a cell phone, and getting the belongings that I’d had shipped out of customs and delivered to my fourth-floor walkup Jerusalem apartment. So much that we take for granted in America is harder to do in Israel.

Life is very different in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, especially if you are not Orthodox. Although the haredim are nowhere close to a majority of Israelis, they have a great deal of political clout because they are needed to form coalition governments. Couple this with the fact that there is a state religion in Israel – Orthodox Judaism – and you begin to see the complications.

Masorti (Conservative outside of North America) and Progressive (Reform) kehillot do not receive government funds, as Orthodox communities do here, and our rabbis’ conversions and weddings are not recognized by the state.

Women especially are treated as second class citizens when it comes to religious observance. I daven with Women of the Wall, an organization of women and their supporters from across the spectrum of religious belief who gather in the women’s section at the Kotel to pray out loud, wearing tallitot, which we are permitted to do only when they are hidden under coats or wrapped around bodies like scarves, every rosh chodesh. The courts have acknowledged that they cannot protect women from haredi men, who might riot if they saw or heard women reading Torah. So instead of stopping the men from rioting, the court has ordered WOW to move their Torah service to Robinson’s Arch, an archaeological site where services are held under the auspices of the Masorti movement. (In the last year and a half, two WOW members were arrested for having a sefer Torah at the Wall.) A police detail is supposed to protect us from the chairs and other things thrown at us in the women’s section. They also make sure that we do not pray too loudly or wear visible tallitot. They also have been videotaping us the last few months.

But the Kotel belongs to all of us and all of our voices should be allowed to be heard.

I love living in Israel, and Jerusalem is a hauntingly beautiful city. But there is much work to be done to change the status of women and to further the goal of religious pluralism.

Since making aliyah, I have protested with Masorti groups against haredi stipends to study at yeshivot, I have joined Women’s League for Conservative Judaism in a day of study, I have been asked to join the board of WOW, and I have danced at the Kotel.

Rosh chodesh Adar Aleph was a cold, rainy, dreary morning. A security guard at the Kotel stopped me and two other women and insisted that we could not go into the plaza with our tallit bags because “Women are not allowed to have a tallit at the Wall.” We argued until they finally let us in.

I volunteered to take a shift holding the sefer Torah outside the plaza so I had a good view of the security guards as they opened all the women’s bags. Men were allowed to walk right in. When my relief arrived, the guards would not allow me back in wearing my tallit under my coat. I argued in my best beginner’s Hebrew. I refused to remove my tallit and I refused to leave. My relief went back to the Kotel and brought back our female police officer, and she escorted me into the plaza. I felt a little like Rosa Parks.

Our Hallel was especially moving that morning. We prayed fervently, like the yeshiva boys on the other side of the mechitzah. Spontaneously we grabbed each other’s hands and danced. Dancing turned our sadness into joy.

On rosh chodesh Adar Bet we tried to dance. We were told that dancing is not allowed.

(First published in

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