Working as an educator at Hebrew University High School for the past three years, I’ve had the privilege to teach the next generation of Jerusalem youth. Like any other job, there are good days and bad days, but occasionally there are also rewarding days. It is that rare day when you’ve imparted a lesson beyond the grammar rule in the English textbook that makes teaching a profession worth the minimal paychecks and sometimes obnoxious students.
I was fortunate to have experienced such a day about two weeks ago, when I took my class of 33 eighth-grade students to Israel’s national airport.
To clarify, I wasn’t getting rid of the students and flying them out of the country.
The visit to the airport came in light of a class project about aliyah, the Hebrew term for the immigration of Jewish people to Israel, a phenomena that has spanned centuries since the Babylonian and Roman exile of the Jewish people from the land over 2,000 years ago. On that particular Tuesday, a group of 45 North American newcomers (olim) had arrived with the U.S. organization Nefesh B’Nefesh on a free charter flight to begin their new lives in the Holy Land.
The return to Israel always has been a fundamental Jewish aspiration and a central theme in Jewish holidays, prayers and traditions, documented in the Psalms, biblical texts and liturgy by renowned Jewish poets such as Rabbi Yehuda Halevi of Spain in the 12th century.
In the 13th and 19th centuries, the number of Jews returning to the land of Israel rose due to religious persecution across Europe, and partly because of expulsions from England in 1290, France in 1306, Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1498. At the time of the Ottoman Empire’s conquest of the land of Israel in 1517, Jews lived in Jerusalem, Nablus, Hebron, Safed and the Galilee. The Ottoman Turks allowed the fleeing Spanish Jews to seek haven in Israel.
The Jewish community in Israel continued to grow as pious Hasidic Jews in the late 18th century arrived in groups of thousands from across Eastern Europe as did Jews from North Africa and Central Asia. By 1844, the Jews made up the largest community in Jerusalem.
With the emergence of the Zionist movement in the late 19th century, which derived its name from the word “Zion,” the traditional synonym for Jerusalem and the land of Israel, larger organized Jewish immigration began. The first wave in 1882 brought 35,000 Jews from Russia and Yemen.
The Jewish communities continued to develop even after the British defeated the Ottoman Turks in 1917 during World War I. However, by 1939, the British severely restricted Jewish immigration, limiting it to 75,000 people in five years, against the backdrop of the Nazi extermination of European Jewry. More than 100,000 Jews attempted to illegally enter Palestine by ship from 1937 to 1944. Half were arrested and held by the British in detention camps in Cyprus. When Israel was founded on May 14, 1948, Jewish immigration became legal.
Flash forward 64 years later and I watch my students wait excitedly for the new North American arrivals to come out to the reception area. They’ve prepared welcome signs both in English and Hebrew and are holding chocolates (some of which have been eaten) while waving Israeli flags.
The first couple to make their way out of the terminal happens to be the oldest couple to ever make aliyah in the history of Israel. Phillip and Dorothy Grossman, ages 95 and 93 respectively, of Baltimore, Md., wave their mini-Israeli flags as they are wheeled out to be welcomed by their great-grandchildren, grandchildren and 33 Jerusalem students, singing and dancing.
As one student, Natalie related: “It was amazing to see with my own eyes that olim are continuing to come to Israel and make their home here.”
For my students, this was an important day. The arrival of these new immigrants highlighted the fact that Jews around the world continue to want to make their home in Israel — no matter what their age or situation.
The return to the Jewish homeland has always been a dream that has inspired the Jewish people for thousands of years. It is a dream that many continue to seek to make a reality, and for those whom it is a reality, like the young generation of Israel today, it must never be taken for granted.
Anav Silverman is a 2004 Calais High School graduate. She lives in Jerusalem, where she works as an educator at the Hebrew University High School and as a freelance writer.