Notes from an aliyah pilot trip

Teddy and and Jennifer MacLeod seen overlooking the city of Karmiel

Our recent trip to Israel was like no vacation ever: a “pilot trip” for our planned aliyah this summer. Just my husband and I – no kids, and a jam-packed agenda of 11 cities in 12 days.

Half the cities were in the central part of the country and half in the north, where there’s a push to resettle immigrants and native Israelis. Not all were contenders, like Jerusalem, with its high cost of living and scarce jobs.

Our story probably isn’t typical: many olim know where they’re heading, near family or friends, or areas popular with other Anglos (if you speak English, you’re an Anglo).  “We’ll know it when we see it,” I said of our future hometown. I hoped so, since even our “short list” was dauntingly long.

The plan was to get around on buses, cabs and trains, because that’s how we hope to live, given that new cars are taxed at 100 per cent and gas prices can triple those here (who does Israel even buy gas from?).

Based in a funky hostel in central Jerusalem, we scooted around the centre of the country that first week, soaking in what each place had to offer.

After an obligatory Kotel visit the first night, we hit the ground running: hopping a bus next morning to Ramat Beit Shemesh, sometimes dubbed “Thornhill East” for its many English speakers.

Surprises awaited us everywhere: Hebrew is essential even in Beit Shemesh; Ma’aleh Adumim is a city, not a “settlement”; the Weizmann Institute particle accelerator is a “geek-cool” highlight of any tour of Rehovot – which also has a great mall and an authentic shuk across the street.

Actually, we found great malls everywhere – each with its own Aroma Espresso Bar and kosher bakery. This would be a tough decision.

Shabbat might have been a restful break, but we decided the hilly streets of Jerusalem’s Har Nof would be most scenic. Six flights of stairs down from our hosts’ home at the very top of the city, we reached the fir trees that surround the neighbourhood and gazed down at picturesque hillsides dotted with red kalaniyot (poppy anemones) in bloom – then sighed and began the shlep back up.

On Sunday – an ordinary workday in Israel – we wound northward by train to join a group pilot trip with Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that works with the Jewish Agency to promote aliyah.

In a small land, with hostile neighbours, going north can be unsettling. We were headed for Nahariya, a seaside resort about 10 minutes from the Lebanon border. Still, on a Sunday night in February, it was heady to gaze from our hotel room over a perfect Mediterranean sunset.

Joining the group, we went from lone rangers, boldly navigating bus fares and street signs, to a dry-land “cruise ship” – all-you-can-eat kosher buffet, head counts, name badges and the ongoing spiel of “on our left, we’re passing…” Everybody said we were lucky to see the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) almost full after a rainy winter – but coming from Lake Ontario, I couldn’t exactly ooh and ahh, no matter how much I knew this was “very good for Israel.”

All 36 of us (from the United States and Canada) are planning aliyah soon. Beyond that, we were a mixed bag: religious and non-religious; born Jews; converts; non-Jewish spouses; young married couples and retirees.

Beyond some scenic lookouts, our no-nonsense tours included apartments, industrial parks and clinics. We visited two city halls and saw countless playgrounds, schools, malls and kupat cholim (health care plan) offices.

Everywhere, we met locals – recent olim living in the north. Due to the limitations of cramming in 36-plus visitors, we mainly saw how the comfortable half lives (I wasn’t alone in wondering how their homes compared to what we could actually afford). They all had great things to say, but our hosts were also very honest about adjusting to a language and to a culture with which we may share common roots, but which is way different from what they were used to.

Between tours, we worked hard, aided by delicious local citrus to keep our strength up, through workshops on real estate, employment, shipping, education and health care – all in three days!

Our last night, my husband and I each made a secret list, ranking every city we’d seen: B’nei Brak, Har Nof, Jerusalem, Karmiel, Kfar Vradim, Ma’aleh Adumim, Ma’alot, Nahariya, Raanana, Rehovot, Rosh Pina and Tzefat. A few dropped to the bottom immediately, but shuffling the Top 5 was tough. Every city had something wonderful to offer.

Then we swapped lists, and through a process I still don’t understand, eliminated every choice but one: Karmiel, in the north, with its balance of green space, city feel, affordable living, mixed religious community, culture, shopping and car-free transportation options.

Is Karmiel (the “K” and I differentiate it from the better-known Carmel) the only place with these things? Nope.  But while some people take more than one pilot trip to choose among many good choices, we want to get on with the business of actually living in Israel.

Heading out, with time to kill, we stopped for supper in Tel Aviv, adding a lucky 13th city to the itinerary. Dinner was so awesome it took a real effort to get back on the train and catch our flight. But coming back to Toronto felt OK, not bittersweet at all. We have a job to do – it’s time to pack up and move on. And somewhere out there, our next home is waiting.