I was browsing my local library after studying and noticed an excellent section of books about Zionism. As someone who has become increasingly interested in making Aliyah, I immediately picked up Liel Leibovitz’s book “Aliyah: Three Generations of American-Jewish Immigration to Israel.” I read the book hoping to learn more about the process of making Aliyah and why it has become such a phenomenon for American Jews. The author, Liel Leibovitz, helped me to understand the stories of three generations of American Jews who made Aliyah. I decided to interview him by phone and ask some questions about his book.
As an Israeli who moved to America, what made you interested in writing this book?
I think of myself as a creature of both the American and Israeli communities. Although this is a strenuous job, it embodies duality between both communities. I wanted to highlight the relationship between Israelis and Americans, and I think that people who make Aliyah really take on this role of bridging these two communities. Since Talmudic times, we have been in this situation of a “bipolar Jewish community.” We have to shape the future by understanding each other and most importantly bridging the gap between these two communities.
Who were the three generations of American Jews who made Aliyah?
There were three waves of Aliyah since the founding [of Israel] in 1948. The first being the classical Zionists some of whom served in World War II. These people didn’t want to take this newly claimed land for granted. The second wave was young people who made Aliyah after the Six-Day War in 1967. There were lots of social changes in American culture and in both America and in Israel it was very dramatic. After the miraculous military victory in 1967, these people wanted to channel all of their energy into Israel. They were overwhelmed by the political, social and cultural movements of the 60s in the U.S. They also saw the military victory as a divine intervention where Israel was triumphing. The third wave of Aliyah was in the late 1990s and 2000s. These immigrants were the children of people who didn’t make Aliyah in 1967. They were more observant, and they felt that the price of living a Jewish life in America was too high. They valued the non-materialistic culture in Israel and they could really live a Jewish based life.
How did you choose the people that you wrote about in your book?
I went to the Association of American and Canadians in Israel and started interviewing people. It was a hard process. For some people, it was emotionally difficult for them to tell their stories because they had lost loved ones in wars or terrorist attacks during their Aliyah journey. I made around six or seven trips to Israel during the interviewing process.
What was your main goal when writing this book?
I wanted to tell the stories of people who had life-changing experiences, as well as shed light on a phenomenon that is not really talked about. I wanted the stories to serve as pathways for more Americans to understand Israel. I feel like both communities have preconceived notions about each other, and I wanted these stories to change that. Growing up in Israel, I knew nothing about American Jews. When I came to America for the first time and went to a conservative shul, it was crazy for me. How could there be a way of living life as a non-Orthodox Jew? There was this sense of a nuanced society for me. I want both Israelis and Americans to understand each other more, and I think that the people who make Aliyah are the best connections for this. Israeli society is extremely insular and tribal, and most young Israelis don’t understand what it’s like to live in the diaspora as a Jew. They assume that everyone is assimilated, and American culture is glamorous.
What do you think the solution is to these preconceived notions? There already are programs in place like ‘Diller Teen Fellows’ where Israeli and American teens visit and understand each other.
I think those programs are great, but we need more. I think the solution is multi-faceted, and it is radical. I think Israel should subsidize education for Jews in the U.S to come study in Israel for a year. I recently wrote an article about this in Tablet Magazine. In American college, it is hard to be a proud Jew, so this program would provide an alternative. This would create a very much connected relationship between American Jews and Israel.
As an Israeli who made “unaliyah,” if you will, why did you decide to make this move?
I am a ninth-generation Israeli, and I have always had a strong love for New York City. The world seemed like it was becoming my oyster, and everything was becoming more cosmopolitan. After finishing the army, I decided to go to Columbia University and then met my wife. It seemed pretty reasonable to stay in the U.S.
I will never call it a mistake because I have raised my family in the wonderful American Jewish community. It has been incredible to watch the transformation of Israel since I left. I also have become more observant since I came to America. I go to shul regularly—something I never did in Tel Aviv. It’s become a choice for me here. I am making sure that my kids have a Jewish and Israeli education. I want them to have a real grasp of Israeli culture. I think you can be very present in both communities.
In the midst of American anti-Semitism, what do you think about American Jews making Aliyah for this reason?
As a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t make Aliyah unless you really want to live in Israel. Israel definitely has challenges to be aware of, and, if you want to escape terror, Israel is not the place to be. There are terrorist attacks regularly, and it is not abnormal for Israelis to constantly be on edge. However, there is this sense of mishpacha in Israel that is not like America. Everyone is willing to help others out. Also, you should think about if it’s where your Jewish self will be happy. You can have a nice life in America attending shul and studying Talmud, and you don’t necessarily have to make Aliyah for that.