Many wish they could travel back in time to relive a period of their life with the new perspective gained due to the passage of time. Fortunately, in my opinion, this is impossible, as I have learned that unpredictability is an important element of every individual’s life experience.
My wife Hagit and I moved from Israel to Vienna in September 2011, a move that I would not have predicted five years beforehand. In fact, in 2001 I would not have predicted my immigration to Israel in 2006. But I have no doubt that Ramah has played a role in this journey.
I started attending Ramah Wisconsin as a camper in 1988, when Rabbi Sykes was simply known as Loren, Rosh Aidah of Solelim (more on this in a moment). I returned every summer as a camper through Nivonim 1993, attended Ramah Seminar in Israel, and then returned for three summers on staff. While exposure to Israeli history, contemporary issues, and culture is an important part of the Ramah experience, only later in life have I come to understand why it is so appropriate that one’s first meaningful “out of Israel” exposure to Israel occurs at Ramah.
Time is measured according to a different scale at camp relative to the outside world. At camp, not seeing someone for two days can feel like a very long time. This connectedness was fostered by the unique social environment of Ramah. Indeed, retrospectively, this may be what attracted me to Israel.
What do I mean? In Israel, the tight-knit social fabric also influences the way in which time is measured. For example, some of my graduate work in economics entailed collecting data from Shuk Mahane Yehuda, the main outdoor market in Jerusalem. If more than a week elapsed between visits, before sitting down for coffee my friends the vendors and the market manager would want to know (despite the fact that they knew I lived in Tel Aviv), “Where have you been?!” I was in such constant contact with friends and relatives in Israel that oftentimes I felt as if I had returned to camp. The same principle applies to the future – one who proposes making social plans more than a week in advance may be seen as uptight, and if you have a successful first date, it’s best to call the next day – because the conversion rate from the U.S. to Israel in units of time is about three to one.
And oddly enough, this brings me back to Rabbi Sykes. On my first date with my wife Hagit, we discovered that we were both Ramah alumni. In addition, our one mutual acquaintance was Rabbi Sykes, who was the Director of Ramah Darom during the same summer of 2001 when Hagit was a member of the Ramah Darom Israeli Mishlachat. I have no doubt that our Ramah connection helped to establish an immediate comfort level that is uncommon early in a relationship.
After Hagit and I married in 2010, I started to put the finishing touches on my dissertation while beginning to search for my next opportunity in academics. There are a small number of universities in Israel, and many Israeli academic departments prefer graduates from an Israeli Ph.D. program to acquire academic experience abroad before being considered for a faculty position. So one of the handful of places to which I applied for a position was the University of Vienna. Last September I joined their economics faculty, where I research methods in measuring competitive and collusive conduct amongst firms and teach courses in microeconomics.
The extremely warm and welcoming Jewish community in Vienna has certainly eased our transition from Israel. But our move to Vienna was bittersweet as it was the city from which Hagit’s grandparents fled immediately prior to the Holocaust. Listening to Hagit’s maternal grandfather speak emotionally about the city in which he grew up and about the family that he lost to the Nazis carries new meaning as full time residents strolling the same streets.
The downtown center of the former capital of the Habsburg empire emanates a feeling of stark beauty, grandeur, and imperialism. And while the old empire is long gone, a strong sense of hierarchy throughout Austrian society persists. Names on doors everywhere are adorned with multiple academic titles both before and after one’s name. This hierarchy and respect for both written and unwritten order extends to nearly all spheres of life, including what I would describe as an aversion to confrontation. These observations have added a new layer of context to my understanding of European Jewish history that I could not have understood growing up in the U.S., a nation born out of revolution against British monarchy, or Israel, where everyone is on a first name basis.
Living in Vienna has also allowed me to see Israel from afar, for which I am grateful. Navigating through the complexities of life in Israel on a day to day basis can fog one’s view of the society as a whole. My physical distance from the country which I had idealized as a child and which provided me with both fulfillment and periodic frustration as an oleh has given me the type of perspective that we typically associate with the passage of time. In this case, however, in a few years it will be possible for me to travel back – in space – and live in Israel once again with the benefit of hindsight. However, I am certain that traveling back in space will not make life any more predictable in the future.