In 1996, I felt the Holy Spirit tell me it was time to get my Israeli citizenship. I knew we were not going to move there yet, but I just felt I was supposed to get my identity card and become a more official part of the Jewish nation.
It’s not always easy for Messianic Jews to make Aliyah—immigrate to Israel. Over the years, many have been denied. In the early years, it was much harder for them to identify us. However, with modern technology, Google and social media, it has become much easier.
Now they might even ask you out right, “Do you believe in Jesus?” Of course, I would have said yes in a heartbeat, if they had asked me that. Some have actually lied. That does you no good, because if God has called you here, no man, or woman, for that matter, can stop you.
But in 1996, they didn’t have any of those tools. I called up the Jewish agency in Rockville, Maryland and a woman answered the phone. I told her I was Jewish and my wife was Israel—a sabra (native-born Israeli)—and we felt it was time to go home. I knew that would not be suspicious. I am married to an Israeli! If we were two Americans, and not religious Zionists, they may have looked deeper.
She told me that the shaliach (ironically that is the Hebrew word that we also use for apostle, as well as a pizza delivery man) was out for the summer doing youth camps. My heart sank. I genuinely felt that the Lord had told me to do this.
However then she said to me, “why don’t you come in and I’ll do all your paperwork.” Hallelujah! The Lord had spoken to me. Elana and I made an appointment, and we went in.
When you make Aliya, you have to prove that you are Jewish. You have to show that your wedding was not a sham. But the most valuable piece of information that you can give is a letter from your rabbi saying that you are Jewish. I called up the synagogue where I was bar mitzvah’d. Rabbi Berman, the rabbi with whom I grew up, never would have written me a letter. Not since that fateful day a few years earlier.
I was at the synagogue in Richmond and was invited to the bima (stage), to give what is called an Aliya. Yes, that is the same word for immigrating to Israel. But it literally means to go up. It comes from the verb la’alot, to go up, and because Jerusalem is on a mountain, whenever you immigrate, you must go up. It is the same for ascending to the bima, in the synagogue to give a blessing, you go up.
After I did my blessing, as was customary, I went to shake the hand of the rabbi on the bima. He asked me, “Ron, what are you doing these days?” Now understand, I spent a good deal of my formative years in his office being disciplined. I was a horrible student, rude and disrespectful, and had ADHD. So, I’m sure he did not expect me to say what I said next.
“I’m studying in a Messianic Bible school to get my degree in theology!” It was as if I hit him with a 2 x 4. He was completely confused. When my sister came to him after me, he asked her, “What is it that your brother is doing?”
Later, I found him after the service and we had a great discussion. That’s when I discovered that he didn’t really believe the Bible very much; certainly not the idea of Moses parting the Red Sea. He told me it was the Reed Sea (which is the name in Hebrew) and it was very shallow. If I had been quicker, I would’ve said “Rabbi! That is an even greater miracle! The entire Egyptian army drowned in two feet of water!”
Fortunately, he had been fired several years before. And we had a new rabbi who did not know Joseph :-), or Ron Cantor for that matter. He gladly wrote me a letter saying that I had my bar mitzvah there and that I was definitely Jewish, the son of Phil and Susie Cantor.
The letter, along with pictures from our very Jewish wedding, and a Hebrew-speaking, Israeli wife, should’ve been all I needed to sail through without any questions.
So, you can imagine my shock when we walked into the office and the assistant who is going to help us with our paperwork, so I would not have to deal with the scrutiny of the shaliach, looked at my wife and shouted, “Oh Elana, it’s you!” Yikes! I was terrified. She knew my wife.
In those days Elana used to go every Thursday night to Israeli folk dancing. It’s a really big deal in Israel. So it was a way that she and other Israelis living in Montgomery County, Maryland, could stay connected with their culture. Elana is very friendly, and she had many Israeli friends, a good number of whom, knew she was a believer in Yeshua. But she also met a few Americans—like this woman. However, at the time, the assistant did not know of Elana‘s faith in Yeshua.
Now, I began to get nervous. We would be in a nine-month-long relationship with this woman before going to Israel and actually getting my todat zeut, the famous bluish-green covered identity card.
So, here’s the good news, at the end of the day, the very worst thing I think they could’ve done was to say that I was no longer Jewish because of my faith in the Messiah, but still give me citizenship based on being married to an Israeli. However, it was important for me to gain citizenship, not just because I married an Israeli, but also because under the Law of Return any Jew from anywhere in the world can instantly become a citizen of the state of Israel. Which, if I’m honest, citizenship comes with a lot of benefits!
They call it a “sal klita” or absorption basket, and in this virtual basket are tax breaks on your first car (taxes on a new car can be $10,000!) and all kinds of other helpful advantages, like five, free, one-way tickets on El Al! I did not want to lose out on that.
When we finally did move in 2003, I found out about a year later, that the 50,000 to 60,000 shekels they were giving to Russian immigrants, they were now giving to all immigrants. Even though I had made Aaliyah on paper six years earlier, I figured it was worth a try. I went to the Ministry of Absorption and told them I would like to get the benefit. I was denied, but Dorit, who was helping me, encouraged me to write a letter of appeal. I did that and they denied me again. I was ready to give up, but Dorit asked me to write another letter. This time she said, “You’ve got to make it much sadder!” Well, we were in need, as we had spent our entire life savings, including the equity in our home, just to get to Israel and buy a car.
When I called Dorit back to see what had happened, I found out that the government workers were all on strike. That would last six months. As time passed, because my hopes were pretty low that we would get approved, I forgot all about the second appeal. About a month after the strike was over, I remembered about Dorit and I called her up. I asked her if I was approved, feeling sure that I wasn’t. She very nonchalantly told me that yes, I was approved! Two days later, when I checked my bank account, there was 56,000 shekels in there that wasn’t there before.
But back to our story. We made it through the nine-month paperwork process and then in March 1997, we flew to Israel. Of course, I had been to Israel before, but this time was different. When we landed at the airport instead of going through customs, we were taken to a special room, where I was finally given my identity card. I was an Israeli citizen! I left with my virtual absorption basket and returned on my free tickets, six years later in 2003, with my wife and three girls, never to look back again. Well, except for that first difficult day. I’ll tell you about that next week.