January 19, 2020

Rabbi Leah Kroll takes solo trip to fulfill aliyah dreams

Rabbi Leah Kroll has been dreaming about living in Israel since she was a teenager at a Jewish summer camp in California, and now at 55, she has said goodbye to her mother, three adult children and one grandchild, boarded an El Al jet and made aliyah.

The Los Angeles native comes from a long line of Zionists, but it was the little emotional tugs that helped make up her mind.

“Every time I visited Israel and landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, I would stand in the foreign visitors line and look with envy at the people standing in the Israeli citizen line,” she recalled, sitting in her spacious Sherman Oaks home crammed with cartons and suitcases just before her departure.

“In Israel, I feel my soul nourished,” she said. “I feel nourished when I go to the supermarket on Thursday and complete strangers greet me with, ‘Shabbat shalom,’ and when cab drivers wish me, ‘chag sameach.'”

She had a less-elated feeling when she spent time in Israel 2006 at the outbreak of the Second Lebanon War and saw American tourists scurrying to the airport to get out of the country.

“I was embarrassed as an American Jew,” she said. “We always talk a big game; we proclaim that we are one, but now when the chips were down….”

Kroll had a different experience last year.

“I went to Mount Nebo and saw for myself how close Moses had come to entering the Holy Land,” she said. “He never made it, but I could. There was nothing to stop me from settling down in Israel except my own fears, and I decided I didn’t want get to the end of my life and have missed the chance.”

Kroll was in the first group of women rabbis ordained by the Reform movement, and, for the past 26 years, she has served as pulpit rabbi, rabbinical director of the middle school at Milken Community High School and supervisor of social action and community service programs at Stephen S. Wise Temple.

In mid-August, she joined 240 other North American olim, or new immigrants, on an El Al flight chartered by Nefesh B’ Nefesh (Soul to Soul), arriving to an emotional welcome in Israel.

Nefesh B’ Nefesh (NBN) was founded in 2002 specifically to revitalize aliyah from the United States, Canada and Great Britain by easing financial, professional, social and logistical obstacles to immigration and to integration into Israeli society.

During the last six years, NBN has welcomed 15,000 new immigrants, including 300 from Los Angeles, with 2,000 more expected by the end of this summer, among them 50 Angelenos.

Kroll settles in Israel with considerable advantages. She speaks Hebrew fluently, enjoys a reputation as a first-class educator, will teach pedagogy and design school curricula at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and is remodeling a newly bought house in the German Colony quarter of the nation’s capital.

She is just about breaking even selling her 2,500-square-foot, five-bedroom house in the San Fernando Valley and buying a 1,000-square-foot house in Jerusalem. The big attraction is that the new house has a backyard, where her two Boston terriers, Samson and Delilah — who have not been consulted about making aliyah — can romp.

Yet even with all the outside help, which includes two months of free Internet access and two months of free use of her current American landline for calls back to Los Angeles, plus her own skills, Kroll realizes that her new life won’t be all joyous hugs and spiritual highs.

“Things have changed a lot in Israel over the last few decades; there is much less pushiness and rudeness, but the bureaucracy can still be infuriating, and the country still has a lot to learn about customer service,” she said.

But Kroll remained upbeat and resilient.

“I am amazingly resourceful. I have a great sense of humor, and I’m not naïve and starry-eyed,” she said.

Like any big move, only more so, the details of making aliyah have been overwhelming, with numerous details and constant decisions on what to take and what to leave behind.

The toughest part was breaking her decision to her closely knit family of a daughter, two sons, grandchild, mother, brother and nephews. After their initial attempts to change Kroll’s mind, the family rallied around, including her former husband, professor Michael Zeldin.

What else will she miss most?

“My house, where I raised my family, celebrated Sukkot and had hundreds of Shabbatons with my students,” Kroll said, choking up.

“I’ll miss coming over the rise on the 405 Freeway and suddenly seeing the San Fernando Valley spread out in front of me,” she said.

Then Kroll cheered up,

“Just think,” she said, “in two days I’ll be at Ben-Gurion Airport, and I’ll stand in the line marked ‘Israeli citizens.'”