A Yom Ha’atzmaut Essay from a New Olah

I came to Israel and fell in love – with the people, the country, the history, and with who I am when I am here. I fell in love with Israel and fulfilled my dream to make aliyah.

photo courtesy NFTY-EIE
photo courtesy NFTY-EIE

by Shira Kleinman

I never wanted to be a teacher. I was never that kid in kindergarten who spoke longingly about a career shaping young minds. Teaching was a career that fell into my lap, and I have grown to love the job. Every so often, my high school students blow me away with amazing comments or new thoughts. With each one, I’m reminded that there is so much more to these high-schoolers, who just need the right moment to discover what’s on their mind, and to express it. Although teaching has its ups and downs, it was not until recently that I came to understand how truly lucky I am to teach in this place – about this place.

I teach for an American high school program in Israel. The program’s core curriculum focuses on the study of Jewish history from the biblical period until today. For three hours each day, I am privileged not only to teach young adults, but also to instill a Jewish identity and a relationship with Israel within them. One Thursday last month, I traveled – with my class of 15 students – north to the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) as part of their curriculum. Earlier that week we had begun to study the development of Zionist thought that had prompted a series of aliyot, mass immigrations, to the State of Israel. This lesson culminated in a trip to the site of these original settlements. For me, this particular trip is the most meaningful of all the trips we take during the semester, but until last month, I’d never had the chance to express fully why it’s so important.

I had been to this area of the Kinneret hundreds of times. But that day, I walked around with a never-ending smile on my face. We toured Kfar Tavor, learning about the first olim, immigrants, who came with the intent of creating these types of independent agricultural settlements. We learned, too, how many of them returned home or were forced to accept help from European benefactors to survive. We continued on to an overlook of the Kinneret. Now green and flourishing, it was hard to imagine it once was an undeveloped swamp. I handed each student identical inkblot drawings, asking them what they saw. Some saw a face, others a tree, still others a ghost; from 15 students I received nearly 15 different answers. I explained that just as they were able to view a simple inkblot and see something they recognized, so, too, were the chalutzim, pioneers, able to view this area, and envision homes, communities, and a life for themselves and their families in this place.

Zooming in from our birds-eye view, we moved on to the Kibbutz Kinneret Cemetery to learn about the people, many not much older than my students, who saw the potential in the swamps before them. Buried in the cemetery, I told them with enthusiasm, are some of the most well-known poets, authors, Zionist thinkers and supporters, among others. In my own mind, though, they are not the most important people buried there. To me, it’s the young couple whose child was the first one born in this newly established community but who was lost after six short months because of the parents’ lack of experience. It’s the young man who made aliyah with his wife, and fell in love with the couple’s best friend, and it’s the eastern European family who changed their names when they arrived at Kibbutz Kinneret and now, four generations later, are still here. These are the true heroes. Their work is not published nor put to melody, but it is all around us. Their work is the Israel that hundreds of thousands of people like me come to visit and fall in love with each year.

Throughout the day, I was so excited to share every date and detail from this period with my students. Despite my best efforts, I didn’t see that same enthusiasm on their faces. I then remembered something my father said about teaching, “Ten years from now, they won’t remember the dates or the details, but if you did your job, they will remember you and how you made them feel.” In that moment, I uttered the phrase that is music to their ears, “Put your notes away.”

With the students sitting in the reconstructed model of the original Kibbutz Kinneret, I stood in front of my class and told them the story of how I made aliyah. Although I stand in front of these kids every day, for some reason suddenly I was nervous. Maybe it was because they were focused on me, undistracted by note-taking, or maybe it was because I was about to share with them the single proudest day of my life. I was about to give them a glimpse into who I am and why I am that way.

I had explained to them months ago that I am a product of my Jewish educational experiences. One such experience was a semester abroad program, similar to theirs. It was during that program that I realized I wanted to make aliyah.

Slowly, I told them about the process of making aliyah and how both my excitement and my fear grew as the day got closer. I told them about how on August 13, 2013, I arrived at JFK airport with my family, who would see me off as I made aliyah on a Nefesh B’Nefesh charter flight. Standing in front of a group and telling the story of that amazing day for the first time, I struggled to put into words what it was like to arrive at the airport and look around, knowing that, like me, everyone was making aliyah. My students, just months earlier, also had left the states from JFK, and together, we lamented how painful the 12-hour flight can be, and just how different was my experience. They joked about the ideal sleeping scenarios on such long flights and were shocked when I told them no one slept on my flight. Rather, we sat awake, strangers next to one another, asking about the reasons for making aliyah and our plans upon arrival. Each story was different and each one moved me. I described the overwhelming joy when we landed, and how we walked off the plane, finally setting foot on the tarmac for the first time as Israeli citizens. I described the excitement of being greeted by 1,600 strangers who were awaiting our arrival, and the special joy I felt when I picked out two familiar faces in the crowd, friends holding a Hebrew sign that said, “Welcome Home, Shira.”

I choked up talking about how much those two individuals meant to me. All day I had emphasized just how hard life was for the earlier generation of young immigrants, noting the strength they drew from the community they created. It was then that I truly understood what that meant. Having left everything I knew and loved, seeing those familiar faces grounded me and made me feel at home.

Although much of the story I told my student was about me, I explained to them that one of the most amazing things I’ve encountered is the excitement in people’s faces when you tell them you’ve made aliyah. They usually respond by relating how hard it is to set up a life in Israel alone and end with a strong “kol hakavod” – well done. I told my students that it has always felt odd to me when people say kol hakavod.

Kol hakavod? What did I do? I came on a free flight, had all my paperwork done, and stayed with friends for a month so I could decide among some 25-odd apartments I had seen. What’s more, I had a job, great roommates, and a group of friends. It was it this point that I said to the students, “If you want to say kol hakavod, look around and say it to the people here.

Like my students, I came to Israel and fell in love – with the people, the country, the history, and with who I am when I am here. I fell in love with Israel and fulfilled my dream to make aliyah. The people in this cemetery, unlike me, came to this place with only a dream – to create a state, the State of Israel. When they came, there was nothing for them to fall in love with. Ultimately, they built the dream I came here to live.

As I finished my story, some of my students in tears, I explained what a gift it is to stand before them each day, teaching them about this place and how one day it could be one of them, near tears, speaking about their own aliyah experience.

It has been several months since I started teaching and almost two years since I moved to Israel, but it wasn’t until that day that I realized how lucky I am. I woke up today to go to work, where my job is to teach a group of students the history of the land of Israel and help them to love this place. I laugh now thinking that is a job.

Yes, they learn dates and get excited about history, but it isn’t work for me. What really happens is that they learn about dreams and about finding potential in nothing. As corny as it sounds, I teach them the love story between a people and a place that’s thousands of years old, and continues to grow. I share with them my own love affair with the land, which also continues to grow.

I never thought I would be a teacher, but this story, I could teach forever.

Shira Kleinman, a recent olah, teaches Jewish history in the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel program.