Aliyah: The Call Upwards

May 15, 2020

by: Jo Sarah Stanford, BFP Staff Writer

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“And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God” (Gen 17:7–8).

Four thousand years ago, God made a covenant with Abraham, promising the land of Canaan—now Israel—to him and his descendants forever. Throughout Israel’s ancient and modern history, there have been times when the Jewish people were scattered among the nations. However, through captivity and exile, the Jewish people have always returned. This return is known as aliyah.

More than a Phrase

Aliyah, literally “ascending,” is the term used to describe Jewish immigration to Israel. However, the word carries a weight of meaning beyond a general move to another country. In biblical terms, it is used to describe the times when the people would “go up” to the temple in Jerusalem for the feasts. The Scriptures are also full of the prophets proclaiming God’s promise to return the people to the Land.

In 1948, after 2,000 years of dispersion—though a remnant always remained—Israel was declared an independent, modern nation. Then-Prime Minister David Ben Gurion called on Jews dispersed around the world to “return” to their homeland. “We call upon the Jewish people throughout the Diaspora [the Jewish population outside Israel] to unite with us in our homeland by making aliyah, by building the Land and by taking part in this momentous undertaking of the redemption of the Jewish people, which has been the dream of generations.”

In 1950, the Law of Return officially granted Jewish people worldwide the right to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen. Over the first few decades, hundreds of thousands flocked to the fledgling nation. Today, over 30,000 olim (immigrants) make aliyah every year, with chartered flights arriving to crowds of people cheering and waving flags, welcoming Israel’s newest citizens home.

Answering the Call

Orly Wahba made aliyah in March 2019. Leaving behind family and friends in America, she made the lone journey to begin a new life in Jerusalem. Wahba grew up in the Sephardic (mainly Jews from Spain and Portugal) community of Brooklyn, New York. Her parents, of Jewish–Egyptian descent, met in America. Her father immigrated there after serving in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), while her mother went as a child.

Even from the age of four, during family visits to Israel, Wahba felt a connection—especially to Jerusalem—and felt that she was meant to be there. There were many points in her life where she wanted to “make the jump,” but she was very close to her family and her community. Her parents, two brothers and two sisters all lived on the same block. It was not easy for her to leave the support that her close-knit community provided.

At 35, Wahba moved to Israel temporarily, planning to live there for just one year. However, within the first 24 hours, she suspected that it might be for longer. Very soon she began plans to make the move permanent. Wahba lived in Israel for a year and a half before returning to the States for three months to make the final preparations for aliyah. At 37, and not wanting to wait for a special chartered flight, she hopped on a plane by herself. She was met at Ben Gurion Airport by a friend holding a sign, welcoming her to her new life.

“While I love New York…there is something that this place—and specifically this city [Jerusalem]—fills you with that is very difficult to describe. You can only feel it.” Wahba explains the reason behind her move. “It feels like, here, I am really living.” During her one-year adventure, the call to make aliyah only grew stronger and stronger. “It’s like hearing a sound so loud you can’t ignore it. So I knew I had to stay, and I knew I had work to do here.”

Wahba holds strongly to the Jewish principle of tikkun olam (“repairing the world”), and feels that in making aliyah, she is best positioned to make a positive impact in the lives of others. “I feel in my heart something very magical and special—emerging from here, from this city, from this place—that is going to impact change around the world.” She knows without a doubt she made the right choice.

An Everlasting Promise

Many people, even pilgrims and tourists, feel the pull of Jerusalem, though most—like Wahba—are unable to put it into words. Israel’s long history and ancient call upwards seems to permeate her very stones. Yes, God’s everlasting covenant to Abraham still calls His people home today.

“Then they will know that I am the Lord their God, for though I sent them into exile among the nations, I will gather them to their own land, not leaving any behind” (Ezek. 39.28 NIV).

Photo Credit: Photos provided by Orly Wahba

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