As told to Aviva Engel
I’m twenty-one now and living in Israel. I grew up in Skokie, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. My family was always very involved in Bnei Akiva; my dad was on the parent committee, my sisters and I went to Bnei Akiva on Shabbat, and I spent summers at Camp Moshava. The Zionist values I acquired in both of those places reinforced the values that had already been imparted by my parents and school. Bnot Sherut and Israeli shlichim have always contributed to our community and still do. As a child and teenager, I was highly influenced by their love of Israel.
The summer after I finished seventh grade, I went to Israel for the first time. My grandparents took me for a visit in honor of my bat mitzvah; it was very important to them that their grandchildren experience Israel.
I recall being very emotional at the airport when I saw the El Al plane, and being captivated by the fact that the crew was speaking Hebrew. On my very first day in Israel, I felt a strong sense of Jewish identity and belonging. I knew then and there that Israel was where I wanted to be and that I would end up living here.
The following summer, instead of going to sleepaway camp, I chose to spend five weeks in Israel at my aunt’s house.
I graduated high school in 2019, and that summer, before leaving for Midreshet Torah v’Avodah (MTVA), a Religious Zionist seminary, I started my application for aliyah. As I had planned to do Sherut Leumi following seminary, it made sense to make aliyah while I was already in Israel.
My parents were very supportive and everyone outside my family knew for years about my plan to make aliyah—it was the one thing I never stopped talking about!
I made aliyah in February 2020, on the same day as two other girls from MTVA. I chose to do Sherut Leumi because it was very important for me to feel that I was contributing to the country. When you make aliyah, you receive many benefits; I wanted to give back to the country and to be held to the same standard as citizens born in Israel.
Three weeks after making aliyah, Covid hit. The seminary went online and I wasn’t able to see my friends for months. I moved in with a cousin for five months. I really didn’t know what to do. But I was determined to pursue my plan to live in Israel.
For the first of my two years as a Bat Sherut, I had initially intended to work as a guide at Machon HaMikdash’s Holy Temple Museum in the Old City, which features keilim and other items that will be used for the third Beit Hamikdash. Unfortunately after I completed a summer course, the museum shut down for many months due to Covid, and I had to switch paths.
It was meant to be. I ended up working at an elementary school in East Talpiyot, and my experience there guided me to my current studies. My role was to support young olim in grades third through fifth as they acclimated to the Israeli environment and school system. Seeing these kids trying to cope with the transition of being immigrants, and observing how complicated the systems are in Israel led me to envision a future working in community advocacy, such as helping olim or supporting Bnot Sherut.
I spent my second year of Sherut Leumi at Nefesh B’Nefesh, assisting in various departments and helping with the annual MedEx conference, which enables medical and other professionals to convert their licenses to Israeli ones. After talking about aliyah for years and finally making the move, working at Nefesh B’Nefesh presented the ideal opportunity for me to give back to the organization that had done so much for me.
I was a lone Bat Sherut as my parents don’t live in Israel. Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Ori program for lone Bnot Sherut was very supportive during my service.
Despite the setbacks resulting from Covid, I believe things worked out for me in the best way possible. I became more independent and responsible. I think the hardships we experience make us who we are.
Today I’m in my second year of a three-year program at Bar-llan University’s School of Social Work. The program is entirely in Hebrew; I know understanding Hebrew well is critical for me if I plan to work in this field in Israel. I’m not fluent, and I don’t always understand 100 percent of what the teachers are saying, but I marvel at how remarkable it is to be studying in a language that is thousands of years old—this would never have been possible a hundred years ago!
I live in Givat Shmuel with an amazing community of friends. I attend shiurim often at JLIC Mizrachi, and I’m really grateful for the religious and social support programs it offers. I appreciate incorporating Torah learning into my day, and I also get Judaic studies credits toward my degree, which is a wonderful bonus.
I’m an idealist, especially when it comes to aliyah. Of course, realistically, there are elements that are hard, like moving to a new country, dealing with the bureaucracy, having to adjust to a different lifestyle and being without close family. Living here takes humility. There is something very down to earth about life here; things are not as fancy or flashy. True, we don’t have Trader Joe’s spices, and there may not be room on the street to park your minivan. At the same time, life is so much richer and more wholesome here in so many ways. It’s the beautiful experiences that make living here so worthwhile.
Aviva Engel is a staff writer at the OU and an award-winning freelance journalist living in Jerusalem.
Coping with War
By Batsheva Moskowitz
Despite the current war, Aviva Lakser has not regretted making aliyah “even for a second.” She says if she wasn’t in Israel, she “would have felt more lost and less connected. This is home.”
Although not directly affected by the Hamas attack on October 7, Lakser and her peers are still impacted by the ongoing rockets and the horrifying stories that emerged in the first few weeks of the war. Nevertheless, they continue to feel hope: “I know that we are in good hands: G-d’s hands, through the army,” says Lakser.
The most difficult aspect of the start of the war, Lakser recalls, was not being able to assure her family, who live in America, that she was okay until chag concluded in America a day and a half later. While her parents also feel the “utter disbelief, pain and the heartbreak,” this has only strengthened their plans to make aliyah in the near future.
Batsheva Moskowitz is an associate editor at Jewish Action.