May 30, 2024
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Akiva Hess: Israel Is Not Just ‘A Vacation Destination’

Akiva Hess

Akiva Hess, 19, has not made aliyah yet but is drafting into the army in a few days and will serve in Netzach Yehuda, a combat unit for Haredim in Kfir. He has been learning at Yeshivat Shaalvim for the past 18 months. Below are excerpts from our conversation.

Where did you grow up?

Linden and now my family lives in East Brunswick. My father is the rabbi of the Young Israel of East Brunswick.

Where did you go to school?

I went to JEC in Elizabeth for elementary school and high school and in between I went to the Yeshiva at the Jersey Shore for middle school.

Where is your home base while you are serving in the army?

I’m going to be staying with my grandparents in Katamon.

When did you decide that you wanted to go to the army and make aliyah?

Actually, it started last year on Erev Yom Kippur while my yeshiva was davening on Har HaZeitim overlooking Har HaBayit. I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. I realized then that I need to be in Israel. From then on, everything was about what I needed to do to be able to stay.

How do your parents feel about it?

They’re both fully supportive, excited and proud, but of course a bit nervous because I’m starting my army service during wartime.

Did you take any trips to Israel when you were younger?

Thank God, we were able to come about every other year. Many of the other yeshiva guys are here for the first time.

Was your education Zionistic?

Most of my Zionist education was in middle school at the Yeshiva at the Jersey Shore, which unfortunately no longer exists. I learned a lot of Hebrew there and built up my love for Israel for which I have a lot of hakarat hatov.

Has the war changed your life, your perspective, or your mind in any way?

People see the war and are scared away from serving. I saw it as an even better reason to join the army and help Am Yisrael. On Simchat Torah, the guys who were already soldiers got their aliyahs, got a bracha from the rosh yeshiva, and ran out the door to report for duty. Shaalvim has made sure we understand the spiritual as well as the physical call for duty. The yeshiva has sent guys to hospitals to cheer up injured soldiers and who also volunteered in agriculture. We made hundreds of tzitzit for the soldiers, took down sukkot for Miluim families, and have been learning non-stop and storming Shamayim with tefilot.

Our yeshiva also hosted all of Yeshivat Sderot for a couple of months at the beginning of the war. We made room for them in the dorms and they learned in the high school’s beit midrash. We heard about their experiences on Simchat Torah, which was very powerful.

Your immediate family lives in America. How are they feeling during this really hard time?

They are doing so much to help Israel but feel helpless from New Jersey. My parents had the zechut to be able to come on an OU mission in November so they could do something active. They brought in six duffel bags of supplies for soldiers.

What do you love about living in Israel?

To me, it’s clear that Israel is where a Jewish soul can thrive and where Hashem wants us to be. If we are trying to jumpstart the geulah, we need Kibbutz Galuyot. All Jews need to be here and we daven that they will come soon.

Do you miss anything about living in New Jersey?

My family, my friends and my rabbeim.

Do you have a message for a young person considering making aliyah?

If you just open your eyes and look in the Torah, Eretz Israel is the center of Jewish life. It can’t just be a vacation destination.


Aviva Zacks is a writer living in Israel who loves speaking to olim and hearing their stories. If you know of an oleh/olah who is interested in being interviewed for The Jewish Link, email [email protected].

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