There’s a reason Israel celebrates Yom HaAliyah. Israel is home for Jews from all over the world. It’s a country built by returning immigrants, for returning immigrants. Maybe that’s why Israel has a unique grasp on the Jewish consciousness — because it’s our country, regardless of where we live or come from.
This feeling of a homeland isn’t something I grew up with. From my short stint in Reform Hebrew school, I knew Israel was a place where some Jews lived. My parents never really spoke much about Israel, it wasn’t part of my upbringing. After living in Israel for 10 months with Masa Israel Teaching Fellows (MITF), Israel pulled at my heartstrings and I realized it was a place that meant something to me.
I first visited Israel on a Birthright Israel trip with my sister during my junior year of college, having become more interested in exploring my Jewish identity through “Jumblr”, the Jewish world of Tumblr. I was immediately fascinated by this place where I was surrounded by fellow Jews who were Jewish in such a different way than I realized I could be. I knew I was witnessing something I didn’t comprehend, and I felt I had to go back and explore this idea further, learn more about what it meant and how I could be part of it.
When I graduated college, I decided to explore teaching English abroad. I was filling out a seemingly interminable application for a program in South Korea when I took a Facebook break to restore my stamina. It was serendipitous: an ad popped up for Masa Israel Teaching Fellows…Google had clearly been tracking my every move, and for once, it led me to something good. I immediately closed my application and started researching Masa instead.
My Masa experience gave me the immersion into Israeli society that I had been craving. Over the 10 months of the program, I got to experience authentic Israeli life. I went grocery shopping, I took buses, I even learned Hebrew from my third through sixth grade students — but I didn’t have to deal with the stressful transition of moving to a new country on my own, because my Masa family was there along the way.
I enjoyed seeing the broad variety of ways people in Israel expressed their Jewishness. Having grown up in a very small, mostly Reform-identifying community in Maryland, and then in Boca Raton, Florida, I had never before met people who identified as “secular” or who seemed to fully embrace their Jewish identity. In Israel, because Judaism is an integral part of the fabric of society, I learned that you can have a strong Jewish identity even without being part of a specific denomination.
I strongly felt that Israel was where I belonged, and in the spring of my Masa program, I informed my parents that I would be staying in Israel. They immediately rejected the plan, arguing that I had never yet lived as a fully independent adult in the U.S., so how could I attempt it in a country I still knew little about? I accepted their logic and returned to Chicago, where I worked at Northwestern University Hillel for two years and enjoyed the opportunity to give back to the Jewish community.
During those two years, I had the privilege to staff four Birthright Israel trips and watch my students experience the wonder of Israel, many for the first time. But every time I had to leave Israel, I couldn’t believe that I had a return ticket to the States. I was confused, split in half, like my left side was in Chicago and my right side was in Israel.
After much introspection, I decided to start my application for Aliyah in the summer of 2017, I decided to return to Israel as a citizen. It wasn’t an easy decision: I loved my job at Hillel, I loved my family and friends in Chicago. Nothing was wrong — except that I felt a void, and the void was Israel. This time, my parents accepted my decision. It wasn’t easy for them that I was going so far away, but I was sure of my decision and they wanted to see me happy.
I came back to Israel in August 2018 and took a job with M2: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education while completing my master’s in Nonprofit Management at Hebrew University. In Israel, I can contribute to the worldwide Jewish community.
And while I miss my family in the States, I am sure that making Aliyah was the right decision. I feel that I’ve come home.
Hayley Sklar is an alumna of Masa Israel Teaching Fellows, a program with Israel Experience. She is also an alumna of the Masa-Hillel Fellowship, a professional development seminar designed to prepare Masa Israel participants for Hillel work.