PORTLAND, Maine — After seven years serving the Shaarey Tphiloh synagogue community, Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld and his family are making a move most Americans might find hard to understand.
Herzfeld, his wife, and their three children this week will be doing what is known as “making aliyah,” or immigrating to Israel.
“As a rabbi I’m called to try to make a positive change in society, in the different aspects of society that might need people to help those who are in need,” Herzfeld said last week at the Noyes Street synagogue. “So whether it’s people who have disabilities or people who are seniors or minorities, all different segments of society. I feel like I might be able to make a difference over there. It’s been very meaningful to be here in Maine, but this will be something very different.”
Herzfeld, 36, said the social programs in Israel are part of what drew him.
“As a rabbi I saw these social programs that were making a change in society and I also saw children who were being educated in a way that I felt was to live for a purpose and with meaning, so I wanted to give that opportunity to my children,” Herzfeld said.
He added that the hardest part of leaving is saying goodbye to Maine, and leaving the community in need of a rabbi.
“We have such a good life here in Maine, a pleasant life, but there’s also a need to try to help make society better, not just here but also around the world,” Herzfeld said. “Going to Israel is something compelling, where we have to improve life and make a difference in a way that creates a better world.”
He also said he isn’t going to change his mind.
“The easiest part for me was when I decided I wanted to go,” Herzfeld said. “I wasn’t going to waver from my decision. So once you make a decision, just stick with it and not change from that decision of what you want to do.”
He said the escalated conflict with Hamas in Gaza isn’t going to dissuade him, either.
“I think there’s all types of fear and different ways of expressing that fear,” Herzfeld said. “I feel it’s very important to live in Israel and support the democracy in Israel and keep the state strong. I know that there are dangers that come with living in Israel, maybe not as many dangers as people think, but I’m aware that there were missiles that were just fired at homes in the middle of Israel and there were tunnels built under homes in southern Israel. So I’m aware of the problems that come with that.”
Herzfeld said he is aware of problems in Israeli society, but he thinks “it’s worth it and life can have greater meaning and purpose in being there.”
He said that aliyah isn’t necessarily a permanent move, and he doesn’t know if his family will stay there forever, since his children may want to attend college outside Israel.
“It’s something we’ve always dreamed about, living in Israel,” Herzfeld said. “And we want to support the country, which is very small and surrounded by many threats and also needs to be strong with the social movements.”
He said he and his family are prepared for the challenges they will face.
“We know that there will be many challenges in Israel,” Herzfeld said. “It’s easier to live life in America financially, and many other reasons — safety — but we are excited about living in a place that has a lot of meaning and history, and has a lot of opportunities in the present.”
Part of aliyah means the Herzfelds will give away most of their worldly possessions before they leave. All they are taking with them is what they can pack for the plane.
Herzfeld said his replacement as rabbi at Shaarey Tphiloh has not been selected.