Making Aliyah: From Jacksonville to Jerusalem
One teen’s journey from Bolles to Hebrew U and how P2G helped along the way
BY MATT FRANZBLAU
Federation Communications Director
Its early morning in Jerusalem, the sun hasn't even risen yet, but a frequent pre-dawn riser is Jacksonville native Aaron Abel, who laces up his sneakers for a jog through the student village on Mt. Scopus before a full day of classes at Hebrew U. This now normal routine once seemed unimaginable for this 19-year old Bolles High School graduate, who relishes his new home and his new surroundings.
"If you were to tell me this is what the start to my day would be like just a few years ago, I would say 'what went wrong that got me to this point," Abel jokingly said. "I went to Bolles, which is a college prep school, so all you hear about is kids getting into college, which makes what I did, just not the norm."
But this deviation toward the road less traveled was set in motion nearly a half decade before the former high school football player decided to shift his sites from more conventional American undergrad experience to his current life in the Middle East.
"I had never been to Israel until I was in the sixth grade when I went on a Jewish Federation mission with my parents and sister," he recalled. "Until then, Israel was just a place on the map that I had heard about in Sunday school."
But fast forward another two years and the now soon to be high schooler would develop another more intimate connection with his eventual home.
"I was going into eighth grade and had Bolles football summer conditioning almost every day, when we had the opportunity to host an Israeli teenager for two weeks," he remembered.
The teen was named Nimrod Torati and he was over in the states as part of the Federation's Tikkun Olam summer teen exchange, run by the Israeli Partnership, or P2G program, which Abel's mother Jill is now in charge of.
"I told my mom, 'look, I think this is great and I know you want to do it, but I don't think it's the best thing for me this year," he said.
With his mother's urging, the Abels opened their doors and ultimately their hearts to this teen and the land he came from, turning an already busy summer into even a more meaningful one.
"Overnight we became very fast friends and that really was the beginning of my defining connection to Israel," Abel explained.
Over the course of the next few years that relationship would deepen thanks to return trips to Israel and a friendship forged with another instrumental Israeli from Jacksonville's sister city of Hadera.
"That connection grew when I went back to Israel a summer later with the P2G exchange program," Abel explained. "Then I was hooked and decided to host someone that same summer,” he recalled. “We weren’t supposed to host the following year but ended up hosting a girl named Inbal Bello who stayed with us."
That unplanned hosting experience turned into a planned visit to the home of the Bellos in Hadera the very next year.
"I went back December my junior year and they showed me around, so they really ended up becoming my Israeli family," Abel fondly remembered.
All told, Inbal and Aaron traded trips back and forth to Israel and the United States a total of four times before Abel made another pivotal trip to his adopted home.
“I went back my senior year , and I think that’s when I decided that I’m going to accept the connection that is so obviously there and look into it more,” he said. “I’m not going to say I was fighting it, but I was very much still holding onto the American idea of graduating, going to a four year college, then going to graduate school and getting a job, in that order.”
With a scholarship from the U.S. Navy sitting on the table that would enable the soon-to-be high school graduate to go to George Washington in D.C., for free and then guaranteed employment as a Naval officer for five years afterwards, Abel decided to go with his heart rather than his mind.
“It was very hard to give that up, but as my Dad told me, ‘If you’re not 100-percent sure that’s what you want to do, it’s not worth doing something in the long run that you may end up regretting,” he recalled of a pivotal conversation he and his father had over the kitchen table one day. “It’s a nine year commitment all together, plus another three years of reserve duty after that, so 13 years total and as an 18-year old, I didn’t feel like I was at a point that I could make a decision that affected that much of my life and not be 100-percent sure about it.”
What Abel was sure about was his love for Israel and his desire to explore the pull in his heart toward his homeland, a trajectory that was set in stone with one more trip overseas, this time for two-weeks during his senior year.
“I came back and I pretty much decided that’s what I wanted to do because it gave me options,” he explained. “Going to Hebrew University for my gap year would enable me to apply to schools in the U.S. afterwards.”
But in the back of his head there was still the lingering possibility of him making Aliyah, becoming an Israeli citizen and serving in the IDF rather than the U.S. Navy, another decision that he wouldn’t fully come to and fully communicate until midway through his first year abroad.
“My parents were incredibly supportive and proud of me because they knew I’d be the happiest doing that,” Abel recalled of his mom and dad’s initial emotions. “Because as far away as Israel is, it’s a lot closer to home anywhere in between here (Jacksonville) and there.”
“As far away as Israel is, it’s a lot closer to home anywhere in between here (Jacksonville) and there.”
So with the support of his family, here in the States and his adopted family in Israel, the then 18-year old prepared to live on his own for the first time in his young life, albeit a half a world away.
“When I first got there, I spent about a week with the Bellos, and it was very comfortable for me because it was kind of like being on vacation but with my whole life packed into two suitcases and a backpack,” he recalled of his first few days in his new home. “When I got to school, that’s when the culture shock hit me because no one on Mt. Scopus spoke English.”
Abel started ulpan a month early, placing him with all foreign students including Russians, Arabs and Latin Americans among a spattering of ex-pats like himself.
“I had the shock of being in college for the first time and being in a foreign country but one of the advantages I had over other people was that I knew how I was going to feel and I just had to handle it,” he explained of how he kept his emotions in check. “I just treated it as a mission more than anything else. “
With five hours of class in the morning, Abel had the afternoons free to explore and expand his Israeli horizons, becoming at ease in his new surroundings.
“It was like summer school with more homework and harder classes but I made friends, toured the city with the RA’s and quickly become more comfortable,” he said. “It was hard at first not being able to speak Hebrew because everyone is just moving at a faster pace in Israel, so like even going to the grocery store it’s just at a more accelerated pace.”
What also was at a higher rate of speed than he expected was his adaptation to his new way of life and how quickly it became his new sense of normalcy.
“I had made a lot of good friends and many of them were not American but were making Aliyah, and I knew it was going to be hard for me to leave all of these people after just one year,” he explained.
But it was right around the High Holy Days that everything began to click in the would-be college freshman’s mind, thanks to some inspirational leadership at the head of his class.
“I had a couple of ulpan classes and the teachers were British and Canadian, who both made Aliyah, served in the army and always brought in stories from their service,” he remembered. “That’s when I kind of got the idea in my head that these are just normal people who left home when they were 18 or 19-years old, served in the army, went to college, are now professors, and I thought it was the most interesting thing.”
With an improving use of the Hebrew language in his everyday life and some more research about making Israel his home, it was a simple slip of the tongue that sealed this teenager’s fate as a future olim.
“I was talking to my mom on the phone one day and I was telling her about when I join the army, and she said, ‘what a minute, is this like an official thing?’ and I said, ‘I guess so,” he rehashed of that fateful cross-continental conversation late last year.
Soon after that 45-minute chat, Abel was connected with someone at Nefesh B’Nefesh and received an Aliyah adviser, making the process all but a formality in the weeks and months ahead.
“Essentially in about six months I did the entire Aliyah process, going from not having anything started to the end of this very long, arduous process,” he explained. “I had to go to the American consulate for a new passport because mine was about to expire and then to the Jewish Agency for an interview.”
With everything completed just in the nick of time, Abel boarded a plane bound for the U.S. for Passover break, where he would return on his free flight courtesy of Nefesh B’Nefesh with others making their official Aliyah. This interview was conducted during his time in Jacksonville just before heading back to Israel.
“One of the first things I am going to do when I get back is write to the army and tell them I’m going to waive the year that they give new immigrants to get accustomed to life in Israel,” Abel explained of his intentions. “I will have two years and eight months of service which is the standard for men in Israel and it was important to me that if I did this, I carried out the full term that is required of a regular Israeli soldier.”
That’s because if he had come back to the U.S. and returned to Israel a few years later, he wouldn’t have had to complete full service.
“It was for me primarily, but also for the legitimacy of being Israeli and out of respect for the Amy and the others who serve,” he said.
As for what role the soon-to-be soldier wants to play in the IDF, he sees a number of possibilities, but ultimately has one in mind.
“They may find that my English is useful and put me in a foreign relations or army spokesperson unit, but I’d like to join a combat unit because I feel like it’s the most fitting for my personality,” he explained. “I don’t have a combative personality but keeping calm under pressure is something I learned at Bolles with a giant crowd people in the stands, while I’m holding the ball and making sure the quarterback doesn’t get mauled."
Following his two years and eight months, Abel could continue to serve and become a commander or officer, or even go to school in Israel which will be paid for by the government. Returning to the states to go to undergrad is also a possibility, but no matter what path his life takes post military, he is aware the path he is currently on was paved in large part because of his roots here in Jacksonville.
“The Jewish Federation got me there in the first place but the connection with Israelis that I made in the beginning with the Partnership program is the reason that I went back so many times and was ultimately a huge part of my decision to make Aliyah,” he explained.
But his decision to stay and serve is one he made with poise and purpose, based on his collective experiences in Israel and the U.S.
“I feel like the need is greater in the IDF for soldiers and I can be of the greatest use to them as opposed to the Navy,” the eventual lone soldier described of his logic. “I love the U.S. armed forces, but I felt that serving in the IDF would allow me the opportunity to defend the same freedoms that Americans cherish, while also defending the Jewish people and the State of Israel."
What the future holds following the army for Abel is anybody’s guess, with multiple options in front of him he will try to keep an open mind and open heart, because that approach is what got him to his homeland in the first place.
“In three years anything can happen, I mean look at me now, I ended up in Israel in just one year, so we’ll see.”
What the 19-year old can clearly see is that right now, he is where he needs to be, and he is doing exactly what his heart is telling him to do, and that he is 100-percent sure of.