Sitting opposite my Jewish Agency shaliach—my personal aliyah liaison—in his cramped but cozy New York City office last spring, I seemed to be doing pretty well. Sure, I was missing a couple of documents, and I had no employment plan for when my yearlong internship at a Middle East think-tank in Tel Aviv was set to end (“probably grad school, I guess”), but I already spoke pretty good Hebrew, which is a start.
Finding a place to live would be easy, he assured me, and I had friends and family there for support along the way. He went puppy-eyed when I mentioned that my boyfriend already lives in Israel (“Now I get it! You’re moving for love!”), and smiled sympathetically while I tried to explain that I’m an independent woman and I’m moving for me. The documents I had carefully tucked into a manila envelope the night before were now spread haphazard over his desk, their margins filled with tiny Hebrew scribbles. He dislodged one loose piece of paper and carefully examined both sides, eyebrows raised.
My heart sank. It was my financial affidavit. If you want to apply for financial aid for aliyah, you need to present the Jewish Agency with a picture of what you’re working with—or without. I was in the final throes of my senior year, weighed down by student debt, I had no assets, and I’d just burned through half my checking account on a semester abroad and unpaid internships. My financial situation was less than robust. “You need money,” he said, looking me in the eyes. “There are people who can help you with that. They’ve been known to give big grants. Up to $1000. It looks like you’d qualify.” He began furiously typing on his computer, turned towards me again, and without even a dramatic pause, dropped the bomb: “They’re an Evangelical group.”
I have always looked at Evangelical Christian Zionists the way I hope pro-Palestinian activists look at the Neturei Karta; I appreciate that they’re there for us, but their ulterior motive is just too distasteful to overlook. Sure, they’re very enthusiastic about Israel’s right to self-defense and her frequent games of foreign policy hardball, certainly more than I am. But the fact that they’re only really into it because they believe that Jews need to return to Israel in order to bring about the End Times, in which all Jews will either be killed or converted, leaves me a little hesitant. I remembered a scene from a few months earlier, sitting in my kitchen chair as my mom told our very opinionated Italian hairdresser that I was moving to the Holy Land. Brandishing a steaming flatiron, she declaimed that the Jews were the true chosen people, and that they would always be defended by God Himself, and they shall not be harmed as they battle the nonbelievers, so says the prophecy. My mother, hair half-straightened, could only tersely nod.
The website of Operation Exodus makes no pretenses. It clearly states that the group was founded after God Himself spoke to its founder, Gustav Scheller, urging him to return the Jews to the land of Israel. This is good for the church, too, it argues, because it fulfills the prophecy of the New Testament. I was glad to see that they don’t downplay the Christian connection–this is no Jews for Jesus “synagogue” front. The message is couched in Christian language; part tract, part time-share brochure. And for the supporters themselves, it offers myriad ways to get involved. There are opportunities for volunteer work, monetary donations (naturally), education, and the chance to join the most important force of all: the prayer network.
From my time browsing the site, I learned two things. The first is that this group is not kidding around. They are 100 percent dedicated to the cause of plucking me from my house in suburban New Jersey and bringing me “home” (or to “the Land,” as Israel is continuously referred to, a Hebrewism I found at once unsettling and endearing). The second is that this group has no intention to convert or secretly baptize me, at least until I touch ground at Ben Gurion airport. They need me, and they need me Jewish.
“Don’t do it,” my mother said. “Who knows what you’re going to do in the future? You might work for the State Department”–a fantasy of hers, where I work in Washington instead of Tel Aviv–“or as an international journalist. They’re going to dig up all the dirt they can find on you, especially who you took money from.”
But I have no plans to work in Washington, no aspirations to be a solemn journalist, and no funds with which to pay back my student loans. I started the application process. “I’m working a system that was built to exploit me,” I told her. “They’re paying me because they want me to die so that Jesus can come back. But he won’t. I’m going to get an apartment with my boyfriend instead. And if Jesus does come back, well, I think it’ll take a lot more than that to bring down Tel Aviv rent.” She wasn’t convinced. I retroactively justified my application with a caveat: if I take the money, I need to write about it, to publish the fact that I did it, with my name on it. I need it to be out in the open.
I put my heart and soul into that application. I cited my hopes and fears, my reasons and rationales, and my glaring need. The woman I was working with asked me to call her when I received my flight confirmation, and when I did, I nervously dialed the number. I expected a Stepford wife, an uptight Church Lady, a Jesus Camp mom who kept invoking “the Land,” but she wasn’t. She was sincere and sweet and bright, reminiscent of my Minnesotan freshman roommate. She read in my file that my family was from Syria, and asked with panic if they were safe. (I assured her that, mercifully, we had all emigrated.) She told me that my money was on its way, and that my first name had been given to a number of people who devoted their time to prayer. “Especially in the absorption period, those first six to twelve months, it’s so hard for olim, new immigrants. So just know that you’re in people’s thoughts, people who want you to succeed.”
I couldn’t thank her enough. I even got choked up. In the year since I’d started my immigration process until that day, I had only told the people I was close to—or religious Jews—exactly where I was going after graduation, and that it was going to be a permanent move. In the past, stories beginning with “when I was in Israel,” were met at my small liberal arts college with the sorts of glares you’d shoot at someone who casually mentioned brunching with Bin Laden. And yet, there are people hundreds of miles away who are thinking positively of me in Israel when they pray.
My check came with a logo-ed tote bag and a letter of support from the representative I had been emailing with, including a quote from Jeremiah and addresses and phone numbers of offices in Israel if I needed further support. “All the best, Linda!” read a handwritten note scrawled in the margin. Also included was a small postcard, part of their “words of encouragement” campaign. A woman named Wendy affixed two stickers in opposite corners; one of cherry blossoms, another of the American and Israeli flags blurring together, an image that usually makes my inner leftist cringe. Wendy thanked me for giving her the opportunity to help “one of G-d’s chosen to return home,” the Jewish strikeout of the “o” all her own, a sentiment that would have made me wince were it not for the earnestness in each looping, handwritten letter. She also included a blessing, and a reminder that I’m in her prayers. I found it charming. She put her time and energy into this note, and to be honest, in a time of war and uncertainty, in a time when support for my move was scarce, her words were needed.
There has been a perceptible shift in the way I say “the Evangelicals” now. I’m not quite prepared to embrace the movement as a whole—I’m still not cool with the fact that they’re limiting my rights as a woman in America, for instance—but my political disapproval has been tempered by the generosity of this particular group. Sure, they might only want to help me because they foresee a future where I’m a casualty in a prophetic war, but they also sincerely want me to thrive here and now. If they can help me make ends meet as a broke 21-year-old starting a new life in a foreign country, I can forgive their apocalyptic visions. They’re doing their Christian duty facilitating my return to “the Land,” I’m allowing them fulfill it by accepting their help: it’s a mutually beneficial gesture, in its own way. An interfaith mitzvah.
Linda Dayan is a writer and Middle East researcher living in Tel Aviv, Israel. You can follow her on Twitter at @tiredestmeerkat.