Aging parents and aliya: Two mitzvahs with one move

An inspiring story for the beginning of Elul, the month of mercy and forgiveness.

Tzvi Fishman

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Tzvi Fishman

This past Shabbat, after morning davening, a friend introduced me to his 45 year-old brother who was visiting from Los Angeles. Since I had spent some time in LA, we struck up a conversation. When I asked him why he didn’t make Aliyah, he said that he would like to, but that his wife had to look after her aging parents.

The need to look after one’s again parents is a reason many Diaspora Jews cite for their not coming to live in Israel. While each case is unique, and medical issues can be very difficult, the truth is that elderly people can live wonderful lives in Israel. If they have children in Israel, what could be better than spending the last years of one’s life in the Holy Land?

My father was 80 years old, and my mother 77, when I brought them on Aliyah. Dad had Parkinson's disease, along with anxiety and depression, and Mom was at the beginning of a long and devastating bout of Alzheimer’s. I had been encouraging my parents to move to Israel for years, but they stubbornly refused, maintaining that America was their country, and always secretly hoping that I would return.

When my Dad couldn’t cope alone with my Mom’s worsening situation, and when she no longer knew the difference between Boca Raton and the 'West Bank', I flew to Florida, met with their battery of physicians, gathered their medical records into two neat folders, stocked up a three-month supply of their assortment of pills, packed their clothes into four large suitcases, and arranged for an uncle to sell their house. I told my mother that I was taking them to Israel for my son’s bar mitzvah.

In the early stages of the disease, my mother had superhuman energy, alternating with bouts of terrible anger, followed by periods of calm when she resembled her old wonderful self. During the long and exhausting flight, I had to follow her up and down the aisle of the plane as she persistently searched for a way to “go home.” When we arrived at the terminal in Israel, she looked around and noted, “There sure are a lot of billboards and signs in Hebrew for Florida.”

We were living in the Shomron (Samaria) town of Shilo at the time. When my mom was seized by one of her spells, I would have to chase after her all over the community, lest she wander into the neighboring Arab village of Turmus Ayya, not known for its love of Jews. My first main task was to set my parents up with a new team of doctors: an internist, cardiologist, neurologist, dermatologist, gastroenterologist, urologist, dentist, and psychiatrist for the both of them.

The strain on my wife and seven children wasn’t easy, but everyone pitched in with the mitzvah. When the constant shlep into Jerusalem to attend to their medical needs proved too demanding, I found two available apartments in the same building in Jerusalem and we all moved to the Holy City.

I found a very affordable foreign caretaker for Mom, and enrolled them both in the English-speaking senior citizens club “Melabev” which Dad loved and he never missed a session. To ease the burden on me, I arranged for a friend to take my parents out every day for a trip to the shopping mall, or for a walk in the park, and a daily learning partner, hevruta, for Dad.

To make a long story short, my parents had excellent and very affordable medical care, a rich and busy new life, and a chance to enjoy their son and grandchildren on a daily basis, which was, after all, my mother’s lifelong dream. Even without mentioning the great spiritual blessing they enjoyed being in the Holy Land, celebrating the holidays with the family in Jerusalem, the quality of their material life was as comfortable as in America.

Dad spent the last nine years of his life surrounding by his loving and supporting family. My Mother passed away this year after 16 years in Israel. They are buried side-by-side on the Mount of Olives, the holiest Jewish cemetery in the world, certainly more at peace than if they were buried near a golf course in Florida or by a canal swarming with alligators.

So I told my friend’s brother that his wife’s parents would be a lot better off and happier living in Israel than in California. I think he believed me. His wife also probably knows that it’s true, but as the old saying goes, “You can lead a Jew to water, but you can’t make him drink.”

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