16 years ago, on the way back to the USA from my 8th grade class trip to Israel, I was bawling as we entered Ben Gurion to return to a now questionable “home.” Despite lacking an awareness in many other regards – I was 13, after all – I felt distinctly that Israel was home from the moment I landed. My fellow classmates were devastated to leave as well, but I think their expression of it was less acute than mine. The security guard at the airport smiled and said to each one of my classmates as they passed before her, “I hope you come back!” When my turn came to walk by her and she saw my tear-streaked face, she gave me a knowing smile. “You will come back.” 

This security guard, whose face I cannot remember, unknowingly imprinted those words on my soul for years to come. You will come back. 

Those words were a prophecy which would take years to realize. 

The warm memories of Israel from my 8th grade class trip kept me going for years. In hard times, I would reflect on my trip to Israel and the feeling I had had there. In good times, I would daydream about returning. The yearning blossomed within. 

10 years ago, the yearning became a gnawing. In the middle of college, after much tumult and confusion, I decided to return to Plan A – go to Israel. I had gradually fallen away from Jewish life; while my formative years had been spent at an Orthodox Jewish day school, my teenage years were spent in public school and I was influenced by that environment. I had a long, drawn-out identity crisis, and the whole idea of being Jewish seemed distant. Nevertheless, Israel had been my cherished dream for so long, and it was the one aspect of my identity that I hadn’t forgotten. I was eager to finally actualize this dream. At first, it was unclear to me what I would do in Israel. Kibbutz? Volunteering program? I began to fine-tune my reasons for going. I wanted to resume my Jewish education in the Holy Land. I wanted to reconnect. What better place for that than Jerusalem? Through a series of Google searches, I discovered the women’s program at Mayanot Institute, applied, and received my acceptance. Off I went.

My time there was a whirlwind. I fell head over heels in love with the Land and my people. I felt like I was finding myself again. I made Aliyah. I became a citizen. I knew I belonged. But my identity was still muddled. I had not yet shed my exile mindset and the non-Jewish ideas which had permeated my life.

And of course, life has a way of taking some detours. Sometimes there are needed detours, which recenter and reroute you to the right path. In my case, I followed some detours for too long. I returned to the USA, tumbling out of my 2.5 year high with even more confusion than before. 

The feeling of failure devastated and destroyed me. I attempted to lose myself in the throes of exile. But the small voice inside nagged at me. 

The small voice gradually became a shout. Through many, many trials and travails, I began to learn to listen to myself again. And with that, the dreams and memories of Israel came back full force – this time with the strength of 2.5 years of living there, rather than a 10-day class trip. 

Five years ago, the nagging yearning brought me back, though temporarily, on a visit. I sat praying at the Kotel to return quickly to Israel for good. I also prayed that despite my pending stint in Galut, ostensibly far removed from any kind of Jewish community, I would have a source of connection to HaShem and my people. HaShem answered the latter prayer immediately – on the trip back to exile, while waiting for my connecting flight from New York to  Sacramento, I ran into a Chabadnik and his son whose destination (Chico) was an hour from my house in a remote part of California. They were visiting for a rare occasion – the completion of a Sefer Torah in honor of the Chabadnik’s father’s yahrzeit – and I would imagine they seldom made that trip. I then connected with the Chabad in Chico (the Chabadnik was the brother of the shliach there). I embraced a lost heritage and a lost calling. Chabad of Chico provided the spark that I needed. A source of connection. 

Over four years ago, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area at the spur of the moment and wondered what I was doing there. I had fled – symbolically and literally – from fires which devoured the remnants of a past life and left me confused and lost in its wake. I wanted desperately to go straight to Israel, but felt strangely called to the Bay Area. I arranged my move with no plans, no job, and no one. I took a leap of faith. A reflection of what was to come. 

Shortly thereafter, I concluded that my life needed to be in Israel once again. Leading up to and after Yom Kippur, I made the decision to move to Israel in January (2019). I had been in the Bay Area for a few short months, but knew I had to be there. While I had quickly found friends and community at the amazing Chabad of Santa Clara, and within that space many, many sources of connection, I felt the magnetic pull of Israel very strongly, as I always had. Hampered by fears and concerns about livelihood, I had initially hesitated, but I finally declared to myself and to the world: “I’m going in January.” 

Little did I know that these words would be prophetic. I had never specified which January. I didn’t attach any particular significance to the month (by then, some of my assimilated characteristics had worn off and I didn’t pay as much attention to January as the “New Year”), but I simply felt it would be the right time. 

And, four years ago on Sukkot, days after declaring to my newfound friends and beloved community that I was headed out to Israel in January, I met my husband. He wasn’t my husband yet, but I kind of suspected he would be. We met at a Shabbat dinner on Sukkot and I remember telling him that I was headed to Israel in January. “Why don’t you just go tomorrow?” he teased. 

As they say, the rest is history. A whirlwind of excitement, passion, and engagement. We planned our wedding for December 2019. It seemed, for the time being, that the best laid plans of mice and men (and me) often go awry.  However, it was clear this wasn’t a detour from my journey, like other prior experiences and choices had been. This was a new era of my journey. A journey of reconnecting to the soulmate HaShem had designated for me. 

And this journey was now fundamentally different. My desire for Israel developed and matured. I wasn’t just longing to be in Israel for personal reasons. I wasn’t just suffering in exile because I had my own personal connection to Israel (though I also had that, of course). I began to learn with my husband about the reality of our calling as Jews. We learned about the truth – the objective truth. This was bigger than us, and bigger than my feelings, though my feelings were a good compass to the truth. 

If I attempted to explain the feeling I have had these last seven years in exile, I would liken it to drowning. For seven years, I’ve felt that I could not breathe. I prayed every single day, countless times a day, to return home. I prayed and wept for the Land. And slowly, but surely, it wasn’t just me praying fervently for the Land. It was also my husband. It was also my ancestors, all of the Jewish people throughout the generations. I began to read the Tanach and the prayers with a new understanding. This wasn’t just my galut. This was our galut. And while my first and second significant entries into Israel were very centered on my own personal experience of falling in love with the Land, my third significant entry (my final move) became about the entire national experience of embracing and returning to the Land. 

I began to recognize that my feeling of impenetrable darkness outside of the Land was actually the darkness of exile, and not simply my own subjective experience outside of the Land. And I began to learn about how HaShem promised us this Land and commanded us to enter and possess it. I began to appreciate the fact that He had given us this beautiful gift – a gift that we as a people have repeatedly scorned. I began to read the stories of the Tanach, setting aside fluffy (and often false) spiritual ideas about our role in the exile. I began to internalize the fact that we cannot be a light unto the nations if we are not a nation in our Land. Some time ago, I heard a beautiful analogy: a lighthouse doesn’t chase after the ships, it directs its light to show them the way. 

And this is what we should be – a lighthouse. We do not need to go chasing ships. We must, in order to be true to Hashem’s calling and commandments, be planted firmly in our Land. 

Whenever we got to Parshat Lech-Lecha in the yearly cycle, I would feel the pang in my heart and run my fingers across the words on the page. לך-לך. Go! Go for yourself! For your benefit! For your offspring! This is not just a Land I am giving to Avraham, it is for all of you, the Jewish people, forever! 

For seven years since leaving the Land of Israel, I have wept and prayed for my return. But now, and for the past few years, I weep and pray for all of us to return. For all of us to return home to embrace the beautiful gift HaShem has given us, to embrace our calling as Jews to be a light unto the nations, to be a lighthouse. To honor Him and rebuild His home. If we are truly G-d’s people, then we must follow through on our commitment. He made His commitments to us if we follow Him and His precepts; and what beautiful promises He has made to us – if we only follow Him and listen to Him. 

The darkness of galut is overwhelming, and the androlomussia (chaos) of the world confuses even more. But if we firmly grasp the precious truth HaShem has given us, the path will be clear. This is the path to redemption.

Over four years ago, I decided that I would return in January – of unspecified year. Perhaps it was Hashem’s sense of humor to specify the year. Now, in January 2023, or rather, in Shvat 5783, I have returned home. I have finally exited Egypt – this time not only in body, but in mind and soul. And while my previous move to the Bay Area was a partial reflection of what was to come – a leap of faith which undoubtedly appeared rash and reckless to some – the move to Israel was an even greater leap of faith, filled with real miracles. We made the decision to leap no matter what plans we did or didn’t have in place, and the kind of miracles that I have only experienced in Israel occurred on our way to Israel, smoothing the path in front of us and enabling us to move in possibly the easiest way I’ve ever moved in my life. From our source of livelihood to the apartment which we were given through very little effort on our part, Hashem cleared the way in front of us and gave us all the tools and resources we needed to actualize this mission.

And as I symbolically cross the Sea of Reeds, as I plant my feet firmly on the Holy Land, the Land which HaShem gave to me and my people, I hear the voice of the security guard who unwittingly prophesied my return. You will come back.

I pray that my fellow, beloved Jews in the plague of darkness in exile awaken and return home. I pray fervently every single day that you all come back. 

HaShem – and we – are waiting. 

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