Editor’s note: The following is the text of a speech that was delivered at Congregation Shaare Tefila at the special seudah shlishit honoring four shul families who will be making aliyah on August 14.
True story. I was in Home Depot last week purchasing another set of Rubbermaid plastic shelves for our new machsan. The checkout person said I could get 25 percent off if I took out a Home Depot credit card. I told her it wasn’t necessary as we were moving overseas. She asked where I was going, and I told her Israel. She exclaimed, “Oh, you are going home!” I said yes. She asked, “How long have you been away?” Without missing a beat, I said, “2,000 years.” Without missing a beat, she asked how long the trip was. I told her 10 hours. She wished us a safe trip home.
I can’t remember the last time I stood on the steps of the Beit Hamikdash singing shirei Leviim, but I do remember the night of the Churban. It was Av, a long time ago. It was hot, ashes were flying, my entire body was drenched in dirty perspiration. I was just running to save myself and my family. I did not know what would come next as I slipped into a semi-conscious state.
My next memory is our family’s expulsion from Spain. We traveled basically by foot to southeast Europe. This memory was corroborated by my elderly aunt who wanted to make certain I knew of my origins.
I was reborn in 1952 in Brooklyn. I was born into a family that, though not observant, understood the basic meaning of being Jewish. Educated in an Orthodox Talmud Torah I imbibed my Judaism. I remember asking my mother at a very young age if she thought we would ever make it to Israel. I was enthralled by a novel we took out of the mobile Brooklyn Public Library about children living in the early days of the State of Israel. My connection was made.
Over the years, it only grew. I read anything a child and then a teenager could find on Israel, Jewish history and Jewish destiny. In 1967, as tiny Israel was threatened, we were at rallies in support of the State of Israel on a weekly basis. That Israel was victorious was a miracle. I continued to dream. At the same time, every Sunday I would read the advertisements in the back of the New York Times placed by a branch of the Jewish Agency called the American Zionist Youth Foundation about summer programs to Israel, and in 1971, after my freshman year in college, I spent the summer on a kibbutz. My connection was sealed. I wanted to move to Israel. I had a dream. My parents told me we’d discuss it after college. When I wanted to spend my junior year at Hebrew U, they said flat-out no. I asked, “If I found a program for half a year, would that be acceptable?” I guess they did not believe such a thing existed, but it did and I found it. Spending six months in Israel on Kibbutz Lavi, Tel Aviv University Ulpan and Tel Aviv University where, despite having lots of fun, I managed to earn 27 college credits in one semester. I dreamed of going back, but that’s all it was: a dream.
In my last year of college, I met Shelley, who shared the same dream. The daughter of Israeli parents, Shelley and I kept our dream alive. We had both learned Hebrew at Rutgers and connected to Israel at every opportunity. We married and continued to dream. We held onto it. Through three children and dozens of trips to Israel we never gave up on our dream. We visited during times of war and peace. We visited during times that tourism was sparse, but we continued to visit. We continued to dream. We fed our children on love of Israel, and our youngest actually took the bait and, instead of returning to the U.S. after shana alef, joined a hesder yeshiva and the army. He was living our dream. We made a wedding for him and his kallah in Jerusalem.
We began to visit Nefesh B’Nefesh programs. And dream. Dreaming of aliyah. Trying to figure out how to make this work. One shaliach was honest enough to tell us several years ago, “You are so close to retirement; just wait it out. Parnasa will be difficult. Go with your pensions.” We continued to dream. Every trip was an exercise in dreams and imagination. I took one job not that long ago that paid terribly but had an Israel connection and I milked it for all it was worth, visiting Israel five times in one year and not having to take a single vacation day. One of the trips was a pilot to see if the Sheinfeld area of Beit Shemesh would be suitable for us. It was. We continued to dream. We enrolled in the Ulpan sponsored by Maayanot Yeshiva High School and worked on our Hebrew and learning more about Israeli culture in Hebrew.
One time, we thought Shelley would be laid off. I took a three-month gig, and on the day Shelley found out she was not being laid off, my three-month gig turned into a full-time, well-paying position. We continued to dream. Our son Sruli and his family moved to Ma’ale Adumim. It was beautiful in Mitzpe Nevo. A real community. We dreamed of waking up there every morning as settlers in the Land of Israel. In the meantime, we slowly uploaded our documents to the Nefesh b’Nefesh site. And this year, when Shelley was actually laid off (a bit at her request), I planned my retirement. We completed our application documents, and the dream was on its way to becoming a reality. It was exciting. We found a newly renovated apartment rental in Mitzpe Nevo, sold our home and began the cathartic effort of unloading all the unnecessary stuff we all end up carrying through life. We spent 10 days in May and June in our new neighborhood, and the shul and folks could not have been nicer. We left with what we hope will be many new friends.
And now we are going on the August 14 flight with the other families here that you are honoring today. Shelley and I will be arriving on the charter flight to start our new life in Israel. Our daughter-in-law was able to put our names and phone numbers down as the emergency contacts for our granddaughter’s gan. The dream is coming closer to reality. And, on August 15, our dream will be actualized and be our new reality. We will begin our new lives in the modern State of Israel.
Our children here in the States are already planning on sending our grandchildren to us for summer camp, enabling them to learn better Hebrew.
The story that began on that hot night in Av during the Churban will come full circle. I will be returning with my wife, joining family members and friends who preceded us, and my dream will come true.
Shelley and I had a long, long road to get to this point. It was a life not without challenges, but not without a lot of hashgacha pratit. A life of believing in Jewish destiny in the Land of Israel. A dream that is now coming true.
Our advice this afternoon is that if you have any inkling of dreams of living in Israel, don’t give up. Keep dreaming. And one day, b’ezrat Hashem, you will be standing here and telling your story.
By Phil Stein
Phil and Shelly Stein have resided in Teaneck for 20 years. They are members of congregations Shaare Tefilla and Beth Aaron. Their son Marc and his family reside in Bergenfield, where Marc owns and operates Links Residential and Elysia is the executive director of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun. Their son Gil and his family reside in Florida. Gil owns and operates Hercules Roofing in Boca Raton, and Lysee is an administrator and teacher at Katz Yeshiva High School. Their son Sruli and his family reside in Maale Adumim where Sruli works for a startup that does crowdfunding for not-for-profits in Yerushalayim, and also owns and operates Yokra Marketing, and Shira is an administrator at Ayeka. The Steins will be settling in Maale Adumin upon their arrival in Israel.