My Experience at the Kotel

Technically my first time at the Kotel was in 2002. I was six years old, and don’t remember much from the experience. I remember it being very crowded, my mother had my brother and I wearing harnesses that resembled dog leashes so that we wouldn’t be separated. But this isn’t the topic of this post. No, my first true experience at the Kotel was during my Birthright trip in 2018.

In the beginning of the trip, we had stayed in and explored Israel’s northern part of the country. We took a bus to Jerusalem on a Friday, and immediately you could tell Jerusalem was different than any other place in the world. The air was crisper, almost sweet despite car fumes and plenty of cigarette smoking courtesy of the locals. It’s hard to describe the feeling. It wasn’t really a physical sweetness but a spiritual one. And I’ve only ever had this feeling in Jerusalem. We toured the Old City, and slowly arrived at the steps to the Kotel in the Jewish Quarter. As we got closer the sweetness intensified, as did my anticipation. The air became still and quiet, the only sounds coming from people’s conversations. I washed my hands and then eagerly made my way through to the women’s section of the wall.

I was in awe that I was actually here, I had finally returned after 16 years. I put my left hand on the stones and was immediately overcome with emotion. I thought about the thousands of years the Jews have been in exile: hoping, praying, and dying waiting to return to Jerusalem. About my family’s journey, and my own path to return. All of the struggle and hardships in the world, war, famine, and illness. I prayed for peace in Israel and the rest of the world. That Israel’s soldiers would be kept safe. That there would be no more sickness in the world, no more pain or suffering. That we would be free live Torah lives without fear. That we may all return to Israel soon. And I begged Him to not make me wait another 16 years to return.

It was then that I experienced something truly special. I felt a connection to the land, and I could feel the souls of every Jew: past, present, and future. And the land itself was calling all of us home. I cannot adequately describe this experience, and I may even sound crazy. All I can say is I’ve never felt anything like it and probably won’t experience it again. As for my prayers, I could feel that everything I had asked for is going to happen soon. At the time it had felt imminent, like it could happen the next day. But Hashem is infinite, and “soon” is relative to Him. Fast forward two years, and these things have yet to occur. But I believe we are close to the redemption era, and eagerly anticipate its arrival. For now, I will continue to visit as often as possible, until I can finally say “נס גדול היה פה– a great miracle happened HERE.”

My Parents’ Pilot Trip

I recently took my parents to Israel to visit my brother. It was the only time all three of us would be able to come. It was also the first time my parents had been to Israel since 2002. Needless to say, a lot has changed since then. There are many more stores with a wider variety of goods, traffic has skyrocketed, and thankfully, there are no more bus bombings. We were there to see my brother, but we also made it their pilot trip. This would probably be their only chance to see Israel before making Aliyah, and it was vital that they experience the country as it is now.

Our journey began with just my mother and I. My father had to work the day before Thanksgiving, so we went ahead to get settled before Shabbat. We landed on Thanksgiving Day, and schlepped our luggage with us to Givat Shmuel. We would be staying at the hotel Lev Yerushalayim, but check in was not until 3 pm. My friend was gracious enough to let us stop by her home and take us out for a delicious lunch. On our way back to her place, we were surprised by my brother, who had been let off early by the army that day. You can watch my mother and brother’s tearful reunion here:

Lone soldier and mom reunite

Once we arrived in Jerusalem, we took the light rail to our hotel. This proved to be quite the undertaking as it was a Thursday evening, and every Thursday evening the light rail is PACKED. In Israel, the weekend starts Thursday evening until Sunday morning. Everyone is getting off work and heading into Jerusalem to go out for fun. We just barely fit all 3 of us on the train, and I’m still not even sure how we brought our luggage.

We woke up early the next morning and rushed to the airport to pick up my father from the airport. We made it back to the hotel just in time for Shabbat. We spent Shabbat at the hotel, and went to the Kotel for maariv and shacharit services. Motzei Shabbat we went out to eat and shop around on Ben Yehuda street.

All together in Jerusalem

On Sunday, my brother needed to return to the army. I took my parents to Chevron for the first time. They absolutely loved it. They saw Maarat Hamachpela (my mother was overcome with tears at Rachel Imeinu’s conspicuous absence), we visited the Chevron Heritage Center, and we ran into the famous Ben Goldstein. Ben is a huge advocate for Israel and provides equipment for IDF soldiers such as winter gear that the army does not provide. You can check out his YouTube channel here, and please consider donating so he can provide more needed supplies!

Meeting Ben Goldstein at the Cave of the Patriarchs

On Monday we visited Givat Shmuel again, and met with a friend of mine for lunch and to speak about my dad’s employment prospects post Aliyah. One tip they gave was to take advantage of the connections you have- it’s all about who you know. Afterwards we went to the Jerusalem beach in Tel Aviv, where the sand is so incredibly soft it feels like powder! After we saw the sunset we headed over to Petach Tikvah and met with another friend of mine about employment opportunities and living in the Tel Aviv area.

My parents at the City of David

The next day, my parents took a tour of the City of David. In 2002, the City of David had not yet been discovered and excavated. But today, actual historic locations mentioned in the Tanach from more than 3000 years ago can be explored. Artifacts from King David’s palace were being discovered before their eyes. While this was happening I met with a friend and we listened to a couple of inspiring lectures at the Aish HaTorah World Center. After their tour ended, we returned to the Kotel and took pictures together.

Placing notes in the wall on behalf of people from Dallas

Wednesday morning we set out for Modiin. We met with a realtor who took us around the city and showed us a few apartments. He talked about the community, the cost of living, and local employment opportunities. We ate lunch at the mall, and returned to Jerusalem. Once there, my parents decided to see how well they could explore around on their own. They did pretty well, but they still have a lot to learn when it comes to interacting with Israelis!

We woke up the next morning and packed for our evening flight. It was our last day for activities. Once everything was packed we went on a tour of The Temple Institute. This experience was absolutely incredible! You aren’t allowed to take photos, or I would have shared some here. But the things we saw there were absolutely breathtaking. So many of the vessels are built and ready to go for the next Beit Hamikdash. Kohanim are being trained for all of their duties serving in the Temple. All that’s really needed is the construction, which will be soon B”H.

After this, we visited the Kotel one last time. There was a bar mitzvah celebration with lots of singing and dancing. Everyone who wasn’t part of the group was participating and celebrating, because we are all one big family. We exited the quarter and waited for our bus. Outside of the security entrance you could still hear the singing, the voices of our people united in absolute joy. I was overcome with emotion. I usually cry every time I leave Israel, but this time was especially difficult. How was I supposed to leave this place, my home? My home where I’ve never actually lived, where my brother is currently serving in the army, risking his life for it’s defense? When my parents are finally here with me, and we can all be together again? And I know in my heart, no in my soul, that I am meant to be here. My future is here, my family is here, my people are here, how can I possibly leave? I was sobbing under an olive tree when a woman from a Christian tour group came over to me. She hugged me and told me that Hashem has a plan for me, that right now I can’t be here because I still have a mission to fulfill. That my love for Israel is beautiful. And when the time is right, I’ll be able to finally come home. She followed this by showing me this video on her phone, and it was exactly what I needed in that moment. It’s amazing how we are all interconnected, and feel the same light that exists in Jerusalem.

Leaving this time was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. But I know I’ll be back, and one day it will be forever. But for now I will get ready, and fulfill my mission from Texas. My parents now have a better understanding of what it will be like to live in Israel, and are more prepared for their own journey. They too can’t wait until it’s their time to make Aliyah. May we all merit to live in Israel and see the Beit Hamikdash rebuilt speedily in our days.

Your Story: Natan Bessner

My name’s Natan Bessner. I’m 23 and I made aliyah in August 2015 from Montreal after spending a year at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. That summer Operation Protective Edge broke out, and the disconnect upset me so I decided to return to Israel ASAP. Growing up I went to a Zionist school, took part in Bnei Akiva, and my parents always fostered the importance of the Jewish State. All of these reinforced my need to get back.

After a year of college, I made aliyah to Jerusalem to be back in yeshiva while dealing with my draft. Being a Type 1 Diabetic, I was initially given the profile of 21 which means exemption from service. After submitting loads of medical documents and many visits to the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv draft offices, my profile was raised to 25. This allowed me to volunteer in a non-combat position. I drafted in November 2016, and served with an elite combat unit in the West Bank for my entire enlisted service, after which I signed on for an additional year in the Artillery Corps. My proudest moment would be when I got the award for being one of the top soldiers in my platoon. If I were able to serve in any unit it’s really a toss up between Yahalom (the elite engineers), Duvdevan (counter-terror and under-cover operations in the West Bank), or Shayetet 13 (similar to the Navy Seals).

I’ve been living in Jerusalem since I’ve made aliyah. It’s rather central to everything and I have family members who live in the city. Having made aliyah and only having worked odd jobs there wasn’t really any career transition, the army being my longest term job. The army does provide a pension plan for career soldiers, which I am now considered so I do receive that for the time I have remaining in the army. Not really the longest term plan, but it’s a start!

A couple of tips I’d give to people considering aliyah: thoroughly research the rights that come with aliyah and be open to people correcting your Hebrew. It cracks me up how far I was from getting words right.

Overall I’m very happy with my aliyah. I’ve met people from all over the world and experienced things I don’t think I’d experience anywhere else!

What About My Dog?

I have a dog. Actually he belongs to my brother, but he acts like a family dog. His name is Romeo, and just as his name suggests he is extremely loving and affectionate. We could not imagine making Aliyah without him, he is as much a member of our family as any of us. It’s no surprise then, that he will be a part of our Aliyah story. In preparation for this, I researched what it will take to bring him with us.

Luckily bringing your pet with you to Israel no longer means having to leave it in quarantine for a period of time. As long as all of the conditions are met prior to your Aliyah, moving across the globe with your pet should be relatively simple.

Common types of pets such as cats, dogs, birds, rabbits, and gerbils are allowed, with the approval of the Misrad Hachaklaut (Ministry of Agriculture). More exotic pets must also be cleared by Reshut Hateva V’haganim (Nature Reserves Authority- for pets considered wildlife).

According to NBN, dogs that unfortunately are not allowed entry into Israel include: the Pit Bull Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier (Amstaff), Bull Terrier, Fila Brazileiro, Staffordshire Bull Terrier (English staff),  Tosa  Inu  (Japanese  Tosa),  Rottweiler  and  the Argentinian Dogo.

You’ll need to make sure your pet is up to date on all of their immunizations and titers. They may also need to be micro-chipped (for dogs, cats, and certain other types of animals). The chip Israel requires isn’t usually used in the United States, so you’ll have to have your veterinarian special order them.

The last items you’ll need to get approval are a health certificate completed by a licensed veterinarian and an endorsement of the health certificate. The latter will need to be signed by a USDA Veterinary Services Officer.

The final hurdle in your pet’s Aliyah process will be El Al’s requirements for boarding the flight. There is a pet fee based on the size and weight of your pet and it’s carrier. Any pet weighing over 8 kg (including their carrier) cannot fly with you in the cabin. There is a special temperature controlled cargo hold for pets, just verify with the pilot that the temperature control is in fact switched on prior to take-off. Whether your pet is flying in cabin or in cargo, there are set dimensions for their carrier that must be in accordance. You’ll want to be very clear on all of the rules when it comes to travelling with a pet. I recommend speaking with an El Al representative or reading from their website.

Your Story: Jason Marx

I grew up on the coast of Cape Town, South Africa. After finishing school I was hungry for adventure, I wanted to learn more about Judaism as well as live on my own. I packed a bag at 19 and went on a gap year program in Israel, fully expecting to come back to Cape Town to start uni at the end of my gap year. 

I had a really life-changing first year in Israel. I focused on inner growth as well as learning in yeshiva because this was the first time in my life that I had the opportunity to do so. While in yeshiva I begin to travel the country visiting as many places as I could, especially for Shabbas. I began to meet the most amazing people living here, with fascinating and inspiring stories. The more I explored the land, the more I grew to love it and then it was all over- in a flash my amazing year in Israel was coming to an end.   

I felt that I’d gain so much in that year yet I had so much more I wanted to experience. The thought of college lingered over me like a black cloud, I wasn’t really even sure what I wanted to study. I realized that Israel could be my home, but I couldn’t even read Hebrew from a Siddur let alone speak it. One of the requirements for making Aliyah at my age was serving in the army- how was I supposed to do the army with no basic Hebrew?

After a lot of research, I found out that you have a year before the army calls you up. So I decided to make officially make aliyah while still living in Israel, a process that took about 3 months. I started looking at ulpans (places that teach you Hebrew) and I realized that the most effective way to learn a new language is to be immersed in it. Ulpan is great for learning grammar, but if you don’t practice it then you’ll never be able to speak it. So I decided to make a radical change and moved to an all Hebrew speaking Yeshiva. It was the first time I was living with Israelis, and in the beginning it was very tough and lonely. After about 8 months, my constant exposure to Hebrew had paid off. I’d learned to speak Hebrew fluently enough that I could understand my classes in Yeshiva as well as participate. 

All of that happened 7 years ago. I have just finished a 3-year degree. There are many things that happened in the middle that are beyond the scope of this article, but to make a long story short I can say that my aliyah was at times very difficult and lonely. But every year I integrate more into society, I make fewer mistakes both with the language and the bureaucracy, I connect more with myself, and most importantly I make deeper connections with our land and the people around me. With each new year here I strive to build and live a purpose-filled life. 

One of the most important things to having a successful Aliyah journey is to find a good community of people that you connect with. For me, after asking around about different areas where religious young professionals are, I found out about Givat Shmuel. It’s the largest student community in Israel with over 1500 students. Living here and making close friends all while studying has really made it so much easier and enjoyable living in Israel.   

I’m at an exciting new stage in my life where I’m actually about to finish university and embark on the next chapter in my story. If you are considering making a life change and taking the plunge and actually making aliyah I would implore you to come knowing there will be bad days but know that if you are willing to make this work it is no dream!     

If I had to give you a few tips from my personal experience I would encourage you to:

-Be open to trying new experiences and new things. Having the mindset that Israel’s culture should be like the county you are from will only disappoint you.

-Try and be positive and easy going, in Hebrew we say zorem…or go with the flow.

-Learn about how to budget and manage your finances. 

-Do ulpan, but know it’s not enough to learn the language. You need to find a way to immerse yourself in it so that you can practice using conversational Hebrew.

-This last point is one that’s quite literally changed my life, it’s helped me to land the position in the army that I wanted, a full scholarship to a university, a large group of friends and many other things… it’s a general tip not connected to aliyah but one that has positive consequences in any area of your life. Learn to be charismatic, in other words, learn how to connect to many different types of people. If you can do this, then any problem you face in Israel you will be able to use your people skills to find the information and help that you need. A good place to start is by checking out “Charisma on Command” on YouTube.

Aliyah was just the first step but the rest of the journey is still ahead. The key is to try to embrace the ups and ride the lows, because at the end of the day all we can do is live and try.

Your Story: Andrew Fowler

When did you make Aliyah?

August 2018.

What made you decide to make Aliyah?

In 9th grade I watched the documentary Beneath the Helmet. Two of the soldiers were chayalim bodedim (lone soldiers), and I fell in love with the idea of moving to Israel and volunteering to serve in the IDF.

How did you decide which community to move to?

Since I am a lone soldier, I was taken in by an adopted family in Har Homa. It’s a predominately Israeli community, with secular and Dati Leumi neighborhoods. It’s close to Ramat Rachel and Gilo. A bus ride away from Shuk Mahane Yehuda.

Why did you want to be a lone soldier?

I’ve always wanted to serve in the military, and Israel has a greater need.

How is your Aliyah experience going so far?

I just finished a year at a mechina (pre-army program). I am now looking for a place to live on my own. I’ve had my Tzav Rishon (first summons) for the IDF, and I’m set to draft in August.

What tips do you have for someone who is considering Aliyah?

Learn Hebrew. If you know Hebrew, you can get through anything in Israel.

Your Story: The Stolovitskys

What made you decide to make Aliyah?

We considered ourselves Jewish communal workers all our lives. We wanted to strengthen Jewish learning and identity through our work and it was especially gratifying. We were proud to have been a part of building up so many future Jewish leaders. Some of our students are rabbis or leaders in the Jewish community, some were strong Zionists and now live in Israel. Others have fashioned meaningful Jewish lives and others have focused on needed goodness of a shared humanity. At some point, however, we decided to do something strictly for ourselves and live In the State of Israel where the next phase of Jewish history is being written. We love it here and while it is harder to make ends meet, my wife teaches English privately and I teach English full time in a great little elementary school in Haifa. I also edit articles for university professors and teach Russian lawyers via Skype. For them, I use the great American constitutional cases to teach English.

Are you still working in the same field you were in America? Did you have to change careers?

I haven’t changed careers so much as gone back to my first love of teaching. It’s actually great to be protected by a union. We are considered a successful Aliyah story.

How did you decide which community to move to?

We have found a great small community. We have not yet bought a house because our inexpensive Dallas homes don’t really go that far here.

Do you have any plans in place for retirement?

When you have a job being paid for what you love to do, you don’t really think that much about retirement.

What tips do you have for someone who is considering Aliyah?

Just know that houses are more expensive here and salaries are not that great. Hi-tech does well. But idealists will always find ways to do what they want and find tremendous satisfaction just being part of the incredible story here.

Your Story: The Tannenbaums

When did you make Aliyah?

August 1, 2018

What made you decide to make Aliyah?

😊

Really, before I got married

We had lived here for several years after we got married and planned on making Aliyah and coming back. Initially, we thought we would do so when we retired but for many reasons, we realized we didn’t want to wait that long. The idea that we have Israel to go to and we aren’t there was a dream that we didn’t want to push off any longer!
Different transitions and stages of life for our kids actually was a big part, being a Tanach teacher where Israel is THE focus of so much and working/learning in a ציוני school all contributed towards it.

How did you decide which community to move to?

We chose a place which would be a soft landing for our children.

Are you still working in the same field you were in America? Did you have to change careers? How did you enter the Israeli job market?

Pretty much- yes–Jewish education. Definitely had to figure out to make it work here. For my husband, the “shape and form” of Jewish educator is a very different one from what was. He was determined to come here with a job since this field can be quite full here and I am grateful to him for that. It means that he travels a lot which we don’t love but know that it part of the trade-off of adjusting career. This year gave me the opportunity to help settle us all in so I worked only part time. I applied to Seminaries from the U.S. and was fortunate to find a perfect start. Since being here and settling in, I have been fortunate to find more full-time work for the coming year. I had just started contacting NBN Employment to learn different options of how to branch out more when Hashem sent me a special opportunity! I am now involved in starting a new high school.

How is your Aliyah experience going so far?

BH, very grateful! It’s wonderful. Yes, there are some challenges but we are very blessed. I think the fact that we lived here for four years and have a decent Hebrew etc and REALLY want to be here are all contributing factors to our blessing but mostly, Hashem! Challenges can be in all forms – being new will always have its adjustments anywhere etc.

If you have children, how have they adjusted with the move? How did you decide which schools they should attend?

BH overall great. They definitely are on the ‘front lines’ with a lot of experiences and for the most part are doing really well. Working through challenges and planning ahead so some of them are limited or eliminated in a proactive way is critical. “Being there” for them and putting them in schools that match who each of them are etc are all important pieces.
Choosing schools has to do with both how a family is “hashkafically”-aligned and the type of learner the child is. Researching beforehand and if possible visiting are all important in making those decisions.

Do you have any plans in place for retirement?

Great question! Somewhat!

What tips do you have for someone who is considering Aliyah?

😊

I think really wanting to be here is key! I think putting yourself into situations (that you want to be in) to meet people is important. Those situations are different for everyone. Some people like social gatherings etc. I personally like meeting people organically as well. Showing up to shul or continuing with hobbies (running learning for me) helped me meet people that have common interests for example
Focus on the positive –in general in life—is a good one. We have a ‘line’ in our house that if people are complaining about something in Israel, we call out ‘meraglim’ – that doesn’t mean not being supportive of real issues to work with but the things that can make someone kvetchy…

Your Story: Yonah Taurog

When did you make Aliyah?

I made Aliyah in October, 2018.

What made you decide to make Aliyah?

After I finished a year of yeshiva in Israel, I knew that the Jewish State is the place to be and I would eventually make Aliyah. What made me make Aliyah now is Basia, my now-wife was already living here and I wanted to be closer to her.

How did you decide which community to move to?

I didn’t know that many American communities, and I wanted to be close to Americans when I first moved. I knew a few people in Givat Shmuel, and Basia is there studying at Bar Ilan. 

How did you enter the Israeli job market?

I graduated from Yeshiva University with a degree in computer science. I’m taking this boot camp program to teach data science in order to get into the computer science field.

How is your Aliyah experience going so far?

So far so good, but I haven’t had to face a lot of the challenges other olim have had to face yet.

Do you have any tips for someone who is considering making Aliyah?

Everyone says this, but have low expectations. Everyday there is something else to complain about, “In America it would be like this. In America we would have that. People would act like this….” Don’t expect Israel to be like America. The biggest challenge in Israel is the healthcare system. It’s really hard to get appointments to see a doctor. The easiest way to get care is to check yourself into an urgent care clinic.

Your Story: Simcha Lopez

When did you make Aliyah?

I made Aliyah November 15, 2017.

How did you decide which community to move to?

When I first came here, I was in Yeshiva. After I looked for places close to the center because that’s the location I was most familiar with. After living there for a year and a half, I moved to Katamon. It’s a very nice part of Jerusalem, quiet and a close bus ride into town.

How did you enter the Israeli job market?

I am not working in the same thing I was in America mainly because usually the only jobs a person who hasn’t done the army yet are in restaurants and cleaning. People don’t want to hire people that will only be working for a few months. Finding a job in Israel mostly comes from friends and contacts. There are also apps and Facebook.

Do you have any plans for retirement?

I barely have plans for tomorrow, much less retirement haha.

What tips do you have for someone who is planning to make Aliyah?

You have to have your values straight. Israel is a country where everyone struggles financially, culturally, and with the language. To move to Israel you have to be strong and ready to grow as a person. When it comes to potential, Israel can bring out the best in people.

What's Your Aliyah Story?