September 23, 2019

Aliyah Perspectives

From Los Angeles, Israel is 20 hours away by plane and 10 hours ahead on the clock; it’s also a world apart. But in the past 55 years of the State of Israel’s independence, thousands of Jews have made aliyah from L.A., generally forfeiting a more comfortable lifestyle to follow their dreams. Why did they move there? How did they do it? How do they feel about it in hindsight? How has the country changed since their arrival? The Jewish Journal went to Israel to speak to former Angelenos, to find out how life in the Jewish state compares to life in the Golden State.

The Good Soldier

Tahg Adler is at the cusp of his youthful idealism, the end of the period when dreams give way to the reality of, say, putting food on the table. The bright light of conviction still emanates from his blond California face as he talks about his move back to Israel. “I felt a sense of attachment, a sense of belonging,” the 26-year-old explains from Atara’s Cafe in Rehavia, the upscale Jerusalem neighborhood in which he has lived since the fall.

Adler has been back and forth between California and Israel for a number of years, first attending the Otzmah one-year program in 1988, after receiving a B.S. from San Diego State University. He returned to California to become the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s West Coast student organizer and made aliyah in January 2000, at which time he took intensive Hebrew at Ulpan. He then served in the Israeli army for nine months, until a stress fracture resulted in his release three months early.

It was back to San Diego for grad school in exercise physiology for him, but he quickly realized “he wasn’t feeling it,” he says, because “I wanted to go back to Israel.” In order to keep that connection, he came to Los Angeles to work at the Israel Aliyah Center as a program recruiter to encourage students to go on programs to Israel.

It’s not hard to see why students might be encouraged by the passionate Adler, who had been voted model soldier when he served in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). During his time in L.A.,the center sent some 160 students on programs to Israel, the feeder for future aliyah. “I wanted to take my experience and pass it on to other students,” says Adler, who believes he was successful because he actively went out to campuses, Israel fairs and Jewish events to engage students and help them find the right program to go to Israel. Despite the fact that they were successful during such a tough year of tourism for Israel (“many more students wanted to go, but their parents wouldn’t let because of security; instead they turned proactive about Israel on campus”), six months ago Adler decided to send himself — instead of others — to Israel.

He continued to work with the Aliyah Center until February, serving as a touchpoint for some of the people he helped make aliyah, however, he is primarily focusing on his own acclimation. During the day, Adler takes on private clients as a personal trainer and also plays drums in a band. In addition, at the unusual hours of 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., he works for CSM (IDT in the United States) as a customer service representative for overseas telecommunications to the United States. “It allows me to live here,” he explains.

The son of Yeshiva University College Dean Dr. Norman Adler, Tahg Adler has a unique perspective on the Los Angeles community, because he worked in it as a recruiter. “I think the L.A. community can raise the Jewish consciousness exponentially by raising its connection to Israel.” True to his background in physiology, Adler gives the following metaphor. “World Jewry is the body, and Israel is the heart. You need a strong heart to keep the body going.”

The Kibbutz Milkman

Boy, does it reek at the Ma’aleh Gilboah milking center in the Jordan Valley. But Lenny Kaplan seems unaffected by the unusual surroundings of two rows of cows flanking him for their daily milking.

That’s probably because Kaplan has been at the kibbutz since 1976, when he moved to Israel. “Bnei Akiva [the religious Zionist youth movement Kaplan had belonged to in Los Angeles since the fourth grade] told us they were establishing a new kibbutz and needed people to go there, so I came here.”

Kaplan’s idealism is a product of his upbringing. Born in Seattle, Kaplan moved to Los Angeles when he was a year old and grew up in the Fairfax area, where his family attended Sha’arei Tefilah, and he went to Hebrew Academy. After the Six-Day War, his father, a Jewish educator at the school, decided to send Kaplan to Israel for the first year of high school, but Kaplan managed to extend his stay for the next three years.

“By the time I was 18, I was very involved and knew it was going to be my home,” Kaplan says. He did return to the United States with the intention of attending law school, but with the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Kaplan returned to Israel as a volunteer: He and his friends served as manpower on kibbutzim. Kaplan worked for three months raising turkeys on Kibbutz Yavneh — replacing the men who were fighting. He went back to L.A. to finish college. “I think that those three months strengthened my yearning to come back to Israel.”

Kaplan, now 49 with five children, manages the dairy farm and also serves as a consultant to agriculture companies. (One of the kibbutz’s innovations is that its milk has the kosher certification of the “Edah Haredit,” the ultra-Orthodox of Israel, because the kibbutz discovered a way to milk cows on Shabbat that does not violate the law.)

When Kaplan made aliyah in 1976, the Kibbutz had just started. Now with over 55 families — 300 people — it recently turned into a moshav kehilati, a privatized community where people earn their own living and reside in their own homes, as opposed to the communal, socialized ideal of the kibbutz, which in the last decade has been in great decline all over Israel, because the younger generation has not opted to live on kibbutzim.

Kaplan says that it’s a pity that the kibbutz movement today is not as attractive as it was 25 years ago, but being pragmatic, the only way the kibbutz movement can survive today “is to make the changes needed, and the only way is to privatize and turn them into agricultural communities,” Kaplan explains. “It’s the only way that [agricultural communities] can exist. It’s important to me that they continue to strive,” he says. “The ideology is less important to me.”

In his yellow plaid shirt and work boots, Kaplan is the very picture of the kibbutznik, not one of those immigrants you can really imagine living anywhere else but here on Ma’aleh Gilboa. He has spent three years in the United States as an emissary “It’s important for my kids to experience what I grew up with, but I don’t regret for a moment making aliyah. I’m very happy that I was born American and very happy that I’m living in Israel.”

The newest soldier

The Israel Defense Forces doesn’t quite know what to do with Ariella Askrin. Since she joined over a month ago. It’s one of those bureaucratic mix-ups that happen in Israel all the time, especially in the army and especially to new immigrants. “I’m kind of in the middle of a bunch of frameworks, and they don’t know where to put me, and it’s kind of hard,” Askrin says, sounding like a confused and scared 19-year-old.

The mix-up centers around an old test score that shows Askrin’s Hebrew is not good enough to qualify her for the army course she wants. Askrin says her Hebrew has improved since she took the test, but in the meantime, she sits all day at the base in the Galilee and studies Hebrew with an IDF commander. “It’s really important, and it shows me that they care,” Askrin says about her personalized Hebrew lessons care of the IDF.

Askrin’s move to Israel was not the steady religious-Zionist path. Born to a strongly Zionist father, Askrin grew up in West L.A. and attended Hamilton High School for two years and Santa Monica College on early admission. Last year, she went on the Young Judea one-year program.

“On Young Judea, I just fell in love,” Askrin told The Journal. “I came back [to Israel] to go to the army. I didn’t think it was fair if they’re dying for us, and we don’t have to fight for ourselves.”

Before this current stint in the army, Askrin went on Ma’arva, a three-month army basic training program for foreign citizens, to see if she liked the army. On Ma’arva, she met her current boyfriend, who was a commander; when they’re off duty, they live together in Ma’aleh Adumim, a city outside Jerusalem.

Although she finds living in Israel hard, scary and “at times, sad,” she thinks that she will stay.

The hassles have not weakened her resolve. “I came here to go to the army … and that’s the best, because even no matter how hard or boring it is … I know that I’m doing what I came here to do.”

From Boyle Heights to Cairo

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and his older sister, Shimona, were raised in such a Zionist household, that their Russian immigrant parents spoke to them only in Hebrew in order to prepare them for life Israel. Founders of Habonim, the labor Zionist youth movement in Los Angeles, their parents were both Hebrew teachers and took the children to Israel for six months when Zev was 5 and Shimona was 13.

“That clinched it for me,” says Shimona — now Kushner — explaining her move to Israel that fulfilled her parents’ dream a few years after her mother’s death.

That trauma is what Yaroslavsky says probably caused the different paths that he and his sister took. “The question I’m asked is why she did and I didn’t [emigrate],” the supervisor says, wondering if his life would have taken a different turn had his mother not passed away when he was 10.

“If my mother had lived longer, and if I had the opportunity to benefit from her mentorship during my teen years, maybe I would have made ailyah,” says Yaroslavsky, adding that his mother was the one who took them to Israel, and she was the one who gave them Bible lessons each Saturday morning. Not that Yaroslavsky’s career is something to scoff at: his commitment to Judaism, activism and support of Israel are a testament to his parents, but he is glad that at least his sister moved to Israel.

“I know how much it meant to both my parents, and she’s carrying on their tradition and idealism, far more than anyone could have expected an American youngster growing up at that time.”

Kushner’s parents indeed would have been proud — and perhaps even surprised — at where their daughter has ended up. After three sons, four grandchildren and a career as a professor at Haifa’s Technion University, Kushner, now 62, and her husband live in Cairo, running a research library for Israeli and Egyptian students. The library was created 21 years ago as an addendum to the peace treaty with Egypt to promote peace and understanding between the two countries on more than the diplomatic level.

Egypt never opened a similar center in Israel, and since the intifada, attendance at the library has dwindled from about 20 students a day to five, although the number is increasing.

While Kushner and her husband — who is the director of the center — are ending their two-year term in Cairo in September, she hopes their stint abroad promotes peace. “The man on the street has been very friendly, [they say], ‘We are brothers; we should be on good terms,’ but it’s the academics and journalists who were never warm to the peace process,” Kushner says. Although it’s been an uphill battle, she continues, “you hope it’s a long-term investment.”

Nechemia Myers

Nechemia Myers has had one of those careers typical for new immigrants from the United States, doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that, before he did a lot of something else, finding an opening wherever English-speaking immigrants were needed.

Also active in the Habonim as a child growing up in East L.A., Myers was 20 when he made aliyah in 1951 as part of a garin, the Hebrew word for seed, to build Kibbutz Urim for eight years. He then worked at the Israeli government press office in Jerusalem for four years, before finally settling into his job as the head of public relations at Weizmann Institute in Rehovot for 32 years.

Along the way, and more frequently now that he’s retired, Myers has written for science publications, such as Nature, and for California papers, among them the San Francisco Chronicle, the now defunct Heritage and this publication.

Looking back, his five decades were harder than they sound. “Certainly, it wasn’t easy,” Myers told The Journal. His time in kibbutz was the first time he ever went hungry. “Generally, I grew up with everything you wanted and there was no shortage of anything, the war [World War II] didn’t impact on someone living in L.A. Then you come here and you get a tiny piece of meat once a week; olives and bread were the major staples,” he said. How did he deal with it? “There are a lot of things that you can handle if you’re young,” he says.

Recently, Myers attended a meeting with former Habonim members, and the question was asked that if knowing what they know now, would they make aliyah again? Some people said yes, and others said no, that if they knew what Israel was going to be like, they wouldn’t have made aliyah.

“They are disappointed with how Israel’s turned out,” Myers explains, “but I don’t feel that way. I have taken part in a real extraordinary experience. If I compare myself with my brother and others [living in Los Angeles], they have two cars and a swimming pool — I have an old car and no swimming pool. But if I look at what I’ve done with my life — during my life — I look at my [three] children and [seven] grandchildren [who all live in Israel], I think it’s been worthwhile.”