Millions of Jews have made aliyah, literally “ascent,” to Israel since the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948.
Many, who came from countries plagued by war and anti-Semitism, had no other options. For others, though, who came from safe Jewish communities like Philadelphia, making aliyah was very much a choice.
Though Philadelphia natives Karen Brunwasser and Eric Schorr, who both immigrated to Israel with Nefesh B’Nefesh, seem quite different on the surface — one organizes a Jerusalem music festival, the other has a background in counterterrorism — a deep connection to Israel and a Zionist ideology prompted both to leave their hometown behind.
Karen Brunwasser said she had a mostly typical Jewish, Northeast Philly upbringing.
Her family kept kosher and went to synagogue. Her father was the son of Holocaust survivors. The fact that her mother was a convert maybe made her family different, but to Brunwasser, it only made her appreciate her Judaism more, knowing it was deliberate. She wasn’t raised to make aliyah, yet at the age of 28, she left the Northeast 6,000 miles behind to move to the Jewish state. Now, as the founder of Jerusalem Season of Culture, she organizes Mekudeshet, a summer music festival.
Brunwasser first went to Israel when she was 16 and fell in love with the country.
“It was a place that was intellectually stimulating,” Brunwasser said. “It felt fascinating and rocked my world. It felt like colors were more sincere, and it felt like arguments were more passionately argued here.”
She tried to stay away for the next 10 years but made constant trips to the country. Ultimately, she made aliyah in 2005.
A visceral embrace of Zionism fueled her passion. She made aliyah half for Israel and half for Jerusalem, she said. When she moved — first to Tel Aviv, then to Jerusalem — she worked at the Shalem Center research institute and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation. In 2010, she took her passion for Jerusalem to a new level by founding the Jerusalem Season of Culture.
Her organization aims to explore the city through artistic productions. Its flagship project is Mekudeshet, a music festival that explores Jerusalem’s sacredness from a pluralistic perspective and tries to reimagine the city’s opportunities. Brunwasser, who was named one of the “30 Movers and Shakers of Jerusalem” by the Times of Israel in 2016, said she lives and breathes Jerusalem.
“I went to [George] Washington High School, which is, today still and when I went to high school, an incredibly diverse place, with all of the beauty and all of the challenges that diversity brings,” she said. “That’s why I have to live in Jerusalem. … I really believe that living with diversity in high resolution is an important value for me.”
Originally from Huntingdon Valley, Eric Schorr attended Akiba Hebrew Academy — now Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy — went to services at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park and served as president of the Philadelphia, South Jersey and Delaware region of United Synagogue Youth.
“I’m Philly, born and raised,” Schorr laughed. “I got all the Jewish pedigree from Philadelphia.”
He has always had a connection to Israel. The son of an Israeli and the grandson of Holocaust survivors, he felt he had something to contribute to Israel and the Jewish people, though he’s still figuring out what exactly that is. Zionism, he said, is part and parcel for him. This all informed his decision to make aliyah in 2012.
For college, he attended Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He got involved in the pro-Israel movement at Columbia, a difficult campus at which to be pro-Israel, he noted, though he wouldn’t call it anti-Semitic. (Students at Barnard College, which is affiliated with Columbia, recently passed a pro-BDS referendum.)
After graduating, he made aliyah.
“It’s not an easy thing to do, to leave your home and your family and move 6,000 miles away and just start fresh, even right after college,” Schorr said.
Because his mother is from Haifa, he already had Israeli citizenship. He decided to go through the process of aliyah anyway so he could feel like he had really taken that step.
Schorr first visited Israel when he was 9, for his older brother’s Bar Mitzvah. He recalled the Kotel, the beach at Tel Aviv and visiting his family. He returned to Israel in 2005 on a six-week USY trip and saw his relatives again.
“That strengthened the relationship I had to the country and to the family that I had here,” he said.
After making aliyah, he earned a master’s degree in counterterrorism and homeland security from the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya. During the Israel Defense Forces’ Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza in 2012, he worked on a social media “war room” at IDC just months after he arrived in the country.
Since he moved to Tel Aviv, Schorr has also gotten involved in TLV Internationals, where he helps new immigrants connect to the community through Shabbat dinners, political and cultural events, and charitable functions.
“I still feel like I have something to contribute to the Jewish people, to our country, this country,” Schorr said. “That was something that was important to me. That’s why I decided to make aliyah.”