When I think about my move to Israel this month, I am vividly reminded of my first time in synagogue.
I was 14 and exploring the possibility of converting to Judaism. The cantor told me it was actually an opportune time to embark on such a journey because that day was Shavuot, the holiday in which all of the souls of the Jewish people were present at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. Further, Shavuot is when we read the Book of Ruth, whose story centers on conversion.
In that moment, I felt that conversion was meant to be. It motivated me to keep forging ahead in the process. I was determined to be a part of Am Yisrael (the Jewish people).
That sense of Jewish peoplehood represents a notable parallel between converting to Judaism and immigrating to Israel, or even just traveling to Israel. The first time I visited the Jewish state, on a Birthright Israel trip in 2016, I felt the same connection to Am Yisrael which I first experienced during my conversion process. Growing up in San Dimas, Calif., I was not part of a bustling center of Jewish life. Today, I could have moved to a major hub of American Jewry such as Los Angeles or New York City. But nothing compares to living where the Bible says we belong as a Jewish people — and I am proud to say that being a convert does not make me any less connected to the land of Israel.
From my first trip, I already knew that I feel more alive when I am in Israel. Still, before deciding to make Aliyah, I needed to spend more time in Israel to see if living there would be right for me. During a graphic design and marketing internship in Jerusalem with the Israel Forever Foundation in the summer of 2018, I experienced the country’s routine and way of life, from the Israeli workday to taking the bus to living on a specific budget of shekels every day. I confirmed that indeed, this could be my life.
Fast forward to 2020, and Aliyah during a pandemic is not exactly what I had been picturing the past couple of years. I never envisioned spending my first two weeks as an Israeli citizen in self-quarantine. Nevertheless, the show must go on. Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) has infused a comforting element of stability into the Aliyah process, especially in regard to compiling all the required documents for immigration and connecting me with an expert Aliyah advisor.
I am also eager to join the Israel Defense Forces as a lone soldier — to serve my new country. As a Jew, I believe that enlisting in the IDF is one of the best ways to support the Jewish nation.
As I begin life in Israel, it all comes back to being part of Am Yisrael. From my conversion seven years ago to my Aliyah this month, I am gratified to be connected to something larger than myself.
Ondria Rees, 22, made Aliyah with Nefesh B’Nefesh on July 20. She is a native of San Dimas, Calif., and holds a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Since its founding in 2002, Nefesh B’Nefesh, in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, The Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel and JNF-USA, has facilitated the Aliyah of over 60,000 North Americans to Israel.