What Is Aliyah?

Little boy hugging his father while holding an Israeli flag.

Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder of The Fellowship, used to tell a story about the late Ariel Sharon, his friend and Israel’s 11th Prime Minister. When the Rabbi asked Mr. Sharon, “What are the three most important things we at The Fellowship can do for Israel?” Sharon’s response was simple and succinct: “Aliyah, aliyah, aliyah.”

Aliyah is the Hebrew word used to describe immigration to Israel, and bringing Jews from the “four corners” of earth to their biblical homeland is the very backbone of the Jewish state. As Sharon said, helping bring Jews from around the world to Israel was the most important task we could take on. He recognized its importance not just in saving the lives of individuals living in poverty and oppression, but in strengthening the Jewish state as a whole.

Many Israeli leaders have recognized this fact. In 2016, during a ceremony commemorating Israel’s first Aliyah Day holiday, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remarked, “The democratic values of the Jewish state, our military might, our economic strength, our adherence to progress, our scientific and technological innovations, draw hundreds of new immigrants, each one of whom contributes to the bolstering of those values and strengths.”

Each Jewish person who makes the monumental decision to come to Israel brings their talents and professional skills to work for the betterment of Israel. At The Fellowship, this is something we have heard time and again: when immigrants come home to Israel, they are put in an environment where they are able to develop their unique talents and practice them in service of their new country, and the entire Jewish state is better — and stronger — because of it.

Yael Tells Her Aliyah Story

Fellowship President and CEO Yael Eckstein tells her story on making Aliyah, immigrating to Israel, with her new husband. At first, though, she was opposed to leaving everything that was familiar, all that she had known growing up in America. But when God changed her mind, there was no going back and has made her home in the Holy Land.

Blessings of Freedom

These olim (immigrants) are also given the chance — many for the first time in their lives — to live freely as Jews. For Jews who have had to keep their Jewish identity secret for their entire lives — or who have lost touch with their Jewish identity through the generations because of anti-Semitic oppression and violence — the ability to reclaim that identity, and live and worship openly in a free and democratic Jewish state, is truly a dream come true.

Aliyah also sends a powerful message to Israel’s enemies, many of whom still do not accept the reality of a Jewish state in their midst. It is a message that, sadly, is still necessary to restate: Israel isn’t going anywhere. Jews recognize the founding of the Jewish state for the miracle that it is and, having been denied their own sovereign country for so long, they are committed to keeping and protecting this one.

Prophetic Return

Family of olim or new immigrants arriving in Israel from Morocco in 1954.
Family of new immigrants (olim) arriving in Israel from Morocco in 1954.
Photo credit: Fritze Cohen | Wikimedia

When the state of Israel was formed in 1948, Jews from all over the world — Holocaust survivors in Europe, refugees expelled from Arab lands where they had been living for generations, poor Jews from Africa and South America — eagerly took the opportunity to return to their biblical homeland. By 1955, the Jewish population of the Holy Land had more than doubled, to more than 1.5 million.     

Following the call of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, to “make the desert bloom,” the Jews made something of their land. Israeli farmers turned barren desert into fertile land for crops. Industry boomed, and the new nation was greatly productive.

But aliyah — the immigration of Jews to Israel — did not stop with this first wave of settlers. Over the years, Jewish people returned to the land of Israel to escape poverty, to flee anti-Semitism… and simply to fulfill this dream of returning to the Holy Land that had so long been denied to them.

On Wings of Eagles

Family of Ethiopian immigrants arrive in Israel in 2020.
Family of Ethiopian immigrants arrive in Israel in 2020 after flying on a Fellowship Freedom flight.
Photo credit: IFCJ 2020

It was the plight of one of those groups of Jewish people that led to the formation of The Fellowship’s flagship On Wings of Eagles program. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990, the door to freedom opened for Soviet Jews, who under Communist rule had been greatly oppressed and denied the right to come to their biblical homeland. On Wings of Eagles provided Freedom Flights to these people who had suffered so greatly and so long. Christians eagerly took part in this initiative, knowing that they were being used by God to fulfill the biblical prophecy, “See, I will beckon to the nations, I will lift up my banner to the peoples; they will bring your sons in their arms and carry your daughters on their hips.” (Isaiah 49:22).

Over the years, On Wings of Eagles has grown and expanded to help suffering Jews come to Israel from Ethiopia, Arab lands, Europe, South America, and elsewhere. And, when these Jews arrive in the Holy Land, they are also provided with klitah (resettlement) assistance, to help them become full, productive citizens in their new home.

The formation of the modern state of Israel and the Jews’ return to the Holy Land has truly been the fulfillment of God’s promise to “gather the exiles of Israel… from the four quarters of the earth” (Isaiah 11:12). It has been our blessing and our privilege to be God’s instrument in this work — to be part of helping His people return home.

A Spiritual Journey

The root word of aliyah in Hebrew literally means “to ascend” or “to go up.” This word was often used to describe the pilgrimage all Jews made three times a year in biblical times to Jerusalem for the festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Sukkot.

Jews celebrating Sukkot in Jerusalem.
Jews celebrating Sukkot in Jerusalem while holding the four species and praying.
Photo credit: Bibleplaces.com

In fact, Psalms 120—134 are often called “pilgrim psalms,” or “songs of ascent.” These psalms were typically sung by those who journeyed to the Temple in Jerusalem for the annual festivals. Each psalm is considered a step along the journey. It begins with Psalm 120 as the pilgrim sets out from a distant land, surrounded by enemies: “Woe to me that I dwell in Meshek, that I live among the tents of Kedar! Too long have I lived among those who hate peace” (vv.5–6).

The journey continues in Psalm 121 as the psalm writer expresses his hope and trust he had in God’s protection day and night. Read aloud these beautiful words of God’s ever-present watchfulness: “indeed, he who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep” (v.4). And in Psalm 122, the pilgrim acknowledges his entrance into Jerusalem itself, “Our feet are standing in your gates, Jerusalem” (v. 2). In the remaining psalms, the pilgrim moves toward the Temple itself — the very spiritual center of Israel.

When Jews return to Israel, they are returning to their spiritual center, to a land promised to them since the time of Abraham. They are returning home. God has been faithful to His promises to His people throughout time and history. And He remains faithful today as Jews continue to make aliyah and return home.

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