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A Maine Rabbi Makes Aliyah to Israel

After seven years in Portland, departing with a mix of sadness and hope

Akiva Herzfeld
July 25, 2014

Recently, a Christian woman in Maine told me that I am like a homing pigeon, and that even after many years away I will know how to fly back to my home in Israel.

Maybe what she said is true, but right now I feel at home in America. The United States is my place of birth and English is the only language that I speak fluently. My mother’s family moved to New York 150 years ago. I have been a rabbi for more than seven years in Portland, Maine, and I love our community. Our neighbors are kind, our home is safe, the water is pure, and the summer in Maine is beautiful. There are children flying kites in the sky nearby, and certainly no missiles outside our window. We don’t have to worry about the number of seconds we have to grab our children to run to a bomb shelter.

In one month, my family will be making aliyah to Israel, and there is still so much to get done. We have a feeling of great hope, but also a great sense of sadness on leaving our home in Maine.

Two years ago, after Superstorm Sandy, I visited my parents on Staten Island, where I was born and grew up. I went to one of the devastated areas nearby and talked with a Russian Jew outside his wrecked home. Everything he had owned was ruined. “I am like a bird,” he told me. “I have nothing and I can fly away or go anywhere.”

I think of this idea now, as my family and I prepare for our aliyah to Israel. We are getting rid of many of our possessions as we get ready to move from a home in Maine into a three-bedroom apartment in Modi’in. Our lives are getting lighter as we get ready to fly. It is a liberating feeling on the one hand, but also very difficult emotionally to separate from what keeps us tethered here.

What did God mean when He told our people that we will be brought to Israel “on the wings of eagles”? In the past, I only thought of how beautiful it is to soar upward to the Holy Land, but now I am deeply saddened at my separation from my home and congregation. I have cried with my congregants and dear friends in saying goodbye to them.

I hope that in addition to the teachings of Torah and secular wisdom that I have learned from my teachers in the U.S., I can share with Israelis how sweet life is in Maine. People here are wonderfully courteous and polite. (See: the four-way stop sign.) In Maine, patience is a virtue. The other day, I was daydreaming at a red light, and when the light turned green and then red again, I was still daydreaming. Amazingly, no one in the line of cars behind me honked. Where else can that happen? In the end of days, the law will go forth from Zion, and the people of Israel will learn how to stop at a four-way stop sign with calmness and quietude from the people of Maine.

Everyone asks me if our family is worried about the dangers in Israel. I try not to think about the added danger that we may face there. I worry more about the religious life and Jewish community here in Maine. I do not know who will be the next spiritual leader of Shaarey Tphiloh, but I hope that whoever it is will be a caring person who will continue the great legacy of our synagogue, a traditional Orthodox shul that was founded 111 years ago.

“O my dove in the clefts of the rock . . . let me see your face, let me hear your voice.” This verse from the Song of Songs describes the peaceful dove hiding away. As we prepare for our Aliyah, we know that peaceful families in Israel are hiding in their shelters and taking cover from missiles. My heart is with those who hide in shelter. I peer at the phone and look through to the faces of my family and friends on Facebook and Skype. I will be in my homeland soon too, trusting in the Israeli military and praying for God to shelter us.

Our children are excited. Our daughter is looking forward to eating a birthday cake in Israel. Our son is excited to see his cousins. A voice is telling me to get moving and finish packing instead of just sitting and thinking about what will be.

The Talmud tells us about a man named Elisha ba’al hakenafayim, or Elisha of the wings. The Romans forbade the Jews to wear tefillin but Elisha wore the tefillin in defiance of their law. The Roman soldiers saw Elisha and chased after him. As Elisha ran away from them, he put the tefillin in his hand and protected them.

“What is in your hand?” The soldiers asked him. Elisha answered: “I have the wings of a dove in my hands.”

The Romans demanded that he open up his hands and when he did so a miracle took place and a white dove flew out. The Talmud tells us that the nation of Israel is similar to a dove, because as the dove safeguards its young, so too does the Law of the Torah protect Israel.

I told my children this story recently. I have not talked to them about rockets or tunnels that are dug from Gaza to kill people in homes in southern Israel. There’s too much to do to talk about such things and no time. I hope and pray for peace, and God’s blessing in Israel, swiftly and in our days.

Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh in Portland, ME.

Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh in Portland, ME.