“Na’aseh V’nishma”- If You Will It...


Katie Matanky, MMY 5769-5770

(Jerusalem, Israel)

Throughout my year and half at MMY, I did exactly what Rabbi Katz predicted - I got more confused than I ever expected. (Does he still say that on the first Shabbat?) Somehow I not only learned more than I ever had in my life, I learned how much MORE there was to learn, way more than anything that would be confined to the classroom. During my year and a half, the classroom magically expanded to include my whole world. I learned from my teachers, from my tour guides, from bus drivers, grieving mothers on Yom Hazikaron, makolet owners and those third cousins of my father’s great-aunt's neighbor's brother's wife who I obviously went to for Shabbat - because we were “family”. This was Israel, and for whatever reason, it became home for me. Over the course of my time at MMY, I began to envision my life here in Israel.

Making Aliyah became fact - not a question of "if," rather a whole bunch of questions of "when" and "how". I vividly remember a time in high school, after a short but amazing summer program in Israel, coming back home to Chicago and writing down (so I even have proof!) "I can be a real Zionist and live in America." And I might still believe that (a whole long discussion that I'm sure would be fascinating and intellectually stimulating to discuss in an MMY classroom) but it changed for me after MMY. I remember writing it and feeling it at the time, and then I came to Israel for more than just a summer program and I changed. I wanted to be here for good – l’ad – as Rav Kook would say.

And so the journey began.

I had to decide my next step - college in Israel or America? In New York or my hometown, Chicago? Long story short I went back home to Chicago and studied at the University of Illinois, which was one of the best decisions of my life. The opportunities I had in college and on my college campus, again in the classroom and out, built me into the person I am today, led me in the professional direction I have taken, and, I believe, have molded me into a more contributive person to society and the Jewish People. It was at home in Chicago, growing up as an adult with my parents there to witness it (which is not a privilege most people are afforded), that I truly began my process of Aliyah. And even though I jokingly question it all the time, it was truly another of the best decisions of my life.

Growing up in the Chicago Jewish community, I was raised with a deep sense of pride in our history. I was taught how to love my community and to love my city because of its rich cultural history. Chicago's Jewish community is marked by people who really care about each other and I knew growing up that I was never alone. 

Since making Aliyah and moving to Israel three years ago, I've realized how fortunate I was to have spent not only my childhood, but also my formative college years, in such a tight-knit place. Yet, in Israel, I feel a distinctly different sense of fulfillment.  I remember on Yom Haatzmaut at MMY, hearing from a man in the neighborhood talk about his life and his experience in making Aliyah. He said that he didn’t hate America, he wasn’t running from anything. This resonated so deeply with me – as such a proud and connected Chicagoan, no one had related to my strong desire to live in Israel but still feel very much at home in Chicago.

Still, living in Israel, I feel as though I am tapping into a living, vibrant communal memory.

One of my Jewish heroes, the educator and visionary Avraham Infeld, says that "being Jewish is like having a five-legged table" standing on memory, family, covenant, Israel, and Hebrew. Interestingly, Infeld refers to Jewish "memory," as opposed to Jewish "history," because unlike a history book, he explains that memory is a living thing driving us forward constantly.

Today, when I ride the bus in Jerusalem, the thousands of years of Jewish memory passing by my window are also pulsing through my veins, bringing me in and making me part of it. These quiet, passing moments help validate my decision to move to Israel, because at the end of the day, it was a choice I made – and it wasn't easy.

Aliyah is an individual decision, and everyone has to make it for her or himself.

I have also realized that, like with any major life decision, whether it's graduate school or moving to a new city, you have to really want it in order to succeed. Otherwise, it can be too easy to get discouraged. That's just human nature. When it comes to Israel, people talk about the wars and the violence and the bureaucracy and the supposedly rude disposition of Israelis, but knowing these issues in the abstract versus dealing with them in real life are two different things. 

No one prepares you for when the IDF enters Gaza and you have a brother fighting there – not an “achenu beit yisrael” brother, a real brother. No one prepares you for when terror attacks start happening on a daily basis, and you stop feeling comfortable wearing headphones while taking a walk or allowing yourself to doze off on the bus. And putting the waves of terror and violence aside, it's tough to prepare to take on a new identity of "immigrant," an identity I will carry for the rest of my life. I've been learning to embrace a new normal and everything that comes along with it as part of the journey. Just like Chicago, or any city, you can't have the good aspects without the challenging ones.

But if you will it, you just make it happen. Ultimately, finding ways to remind yourself that you do, in fact, want to be in Israel is not as hard as you might think. This was an exercise I began in my time at MMY. I kept a list next to my bed and any time I had an only-in-Israel moment, it went on this list. The buses wishing me “Chag Sameach,” a waiting room for Kohanim at the hospital, secular Jews quoting tanach – these were all moments pulling me further and further towards this special place. And now that I live here, the moments continue. Sometimes these moments will be fleeting, and sometimes they plant themselves firmly in my head. 

One of those lasting moments came last April while I was working at Yad Vashem experiencing the national ceremony for Yom Hashoah for the first time. Each year, six Holocaust survivors are chosen to share their stories and light six torches symbolic of the six million Jews who were murdered in the Shoah. One of the torch-lighters was Avraham Harshalom, who told his story about surviving the camps, escaping to Israel and fighting to establish its independence. After the ceremony, I approached Avraham in awe just to say "thank you." I thanked him not only for his service to our country and his contribution to Jewish memory, but also for the stark reminder that living in Israel, today, right now, is a privilege not to be taken for granted, and it's something that I want.

History can be documented and catalogued on paper, sealed in a book or put on a shelf. Memory, on the other hand, can be fuzzy at times - but it moves us and it is personal. That’s why I live in Israel, because being here makes my Jewish memory lucid and enduring and alive and provides me with endless motivation to continue embracing this journey.

There are so many reasons I wanted to and eventually did make Aliyah. But I know for certain where those reasons grew and blossomed towards reality, and that was at MMY. So thank you dear MMY.

Katie Matanky is a proud Chicago native living in Jerusalem. Katie went to MMY for Shana Alef and Bet in 2008-09. Three and a half years of university at UIC and a BA in Psychology later, she made Aliyah on the 50th Nefesh B'Nefesh charter flight in 2013. Upon Aliyah, Katie studied for and received her MA in Non-Profit Management and Leadership at Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School. Since January 2015, Katie has been working in International Relations at Yad Vashem.