R' Avraham Yitzchok Elbaz, French Hill (HaGiv'ah HaTzarfatit), Yerushalayim
About eleven years ago we moved to French Hill, a Yerushalayim neighborhood which, at that time, was predominantly inhabited by non-observant Israelis. (Today there is a large and significant Chareidi presence here, including many Americans.) We did not yet own a car, and our kids were attending school in the neighboring Chareidi area – a significant walking distance away.
I would often see the bus that would ride the route to our children's school parked in our neighborhood. I assumed then that the bus driver was also a local here. I thought it would be a good idea if I could get the bus driver to keep an eye on them during their ride on his bus, so I decided to try to develop a relationship with him (“shelo lishmah...”). One day I got on his bus and introduced myself as a newcomer to his neighborhood. I offered the driver – who was recognizably unobservant – an invitation for a Shabbos meal. He graciously took me up on the offer (“betach, betach!” – sure, sure!), and that was the start of a relationship that continues to this day. Every year he and his wife join our Purim Seudah, and he still acknowledges my kids when they travel with him.
We didn't start in this neighborhood, though. When we first came as a young couple to Yerushalayim, we started out in Ezras Torah, and then eventually moved to Sanhedria. I used the opportunity Eretz Yisroel afforded me to forge many relationships with gedolei Torah, especially with Rav Yitzchak Berkovits, shlita, who, among other rabbinic positions, is rav of a kehillah in Sanhedria Murchevet, and who I consider to be my rebbi muvhak. We came around full circle when Rav Berkovits was appointed Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah after I was already serving as their posek.
I was also lucky to have a relationship with Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zt”l, as I learned for twelve years in Yeshivas Mir. I had a strong interest in halachah, and although that wasn't an area of focus in the yeshivah (and in the yeshivah world in general back then), the Rosh Yeshiva strongly encouraged the establishment of a halachah chaburah – Mir Yeshiva's first – which I led together with lbcl”c Rav Moshe Yehuda Begal zt”l, who later became rav and moreh hora'ah in the new Chareidi kehillah in Giv'at HaMoreh, Afula. There were many yungeleit in this outstanding chaburah who are now chashuve poskim and talmidei chachomim.
I was born and bred in Brooklyn, and my wife is from Denver, Colorado. Before we got married we discussed and concluded that the best place to start off married life is in Eretz Yisroel, but we never had any thoughts of permanently settling here. Our initial plan was to come for two years, and though that was extended a few times (for just another two...), we were still keeping two days Yom Tov for quite a few years. B"H, we are here for twenty-nine years already, kein yirbu.
Overstaying our initial short-term stay in Eretz Yisroel was the best “mistake” we ever made, with the biggest and greatest dividends. Considering we were willing to give up some gashmiyus for it, the benefits of living here far surpassed anywhere else. This was true not only for beginning married life and my own continued shteiging, but also for our children's chinuch as well.
Although as Anglos we may have had our challenges with the language and the culture, our children were born into the system. They grew up here absorbing the ruchniyus-saturated Israeli culture, where Shabbos is Shabbos and Sukkos is Sukkos. Although at home we spoke English, by Chanukah of their first year in school they were speaking Hebrew smoothly. Their Hebrew is better than ours! We did want them to keep their knowledge of English, so we had both our boys and girls take private lessons in English. Being bilingual serves them well, and they are comfortable in both languages, speaking either one without any trace of an accent.
One of hardest things to get used to is the distance from close family. Though we do have cousins here, there is nothing like being close to immediate family. Travel is not easy, and though in our first years here we did go to the U.S. to spend Pesach with our parents, we didn't really have opportunities to come together for semachos. I give my wife a lot of credit for giving all that up for her husband's shteiging and family's growth. Though not even a close substitute for being together physically, there always was the telephone connection, and there are now of course more advanced forms of telecommunication as well.
Those taking on the challenges of living here see much siyatta d'Shmaya and have a generally positive experience. I see that as more people come to live here, new neighborhoods are being built, and the existing ones seem to stretch and stretch, becoming even more relevant for Chareidi newcomers. Ramat Eshkol used to be entirely chiloni, French Hill wasn't nearly as popular as it is today, and nobody would dream of living in places far out like Afula. But now, all that has changed. There is always room here for another brother or sister. Those who come with the attitude that this is our home, and that there is no place like home, will feel like we do – that this is the warmest, safest, and best place to be.
B'Nissan Assidin Lehiga'el
Ever since we've been staying here for Pesach, I've noticed that there is always something happening here – some Heavenly call for hisorerus – during the Pesach bein hazmanim. I feel as if those who go abroad for Pesach are left out of HaShem's “home calls” here. It can be in the form of a virus, local elections, or something else, but – without fail – there is always something.
With so many Jews calling Eretz Yisroel home – maybe even more than in the U.S. – halevai that the Shechinah should come back Home too, to the rebuilt Beis HaMikdash, bimeheirah.