Israel’s happy Jews: Living in a joyous place


"Happy are those who dwell in Your house.” — Psalm 84

It’s official. Israel has been named the 13th happiest country in the world. So says the 2019 United Nations World Happiness Report, which ranks no less than 156 countries using such factors as income, social-support networks and life expectancy.

Topping the list was Finland, with the United States lagging behind Israel as the 19th happiest, and South Sudan bringing up the rear at No. 156 (arguably, the most miserable).

In search of some of the happiest moments in a contented Israel? Here are a few: 

The Perseids meteor shower in Mitz-pe Ramon. Every August it happens: The Earth’s orbit lands in the precise spot where it ploughs into the path of the ancient Swift-Tuttle comet and the debris (aka meteors or shooting stars) falls to earth. Taking the name Perseids from the originating constellation Perseus, the display is particularly vivid from the depths of the Mitzpe Ramon crater, where there is virtually no light to dilute the view, including a stunning panoramic peek at the Milky Way.

“Lying in the dark on our sleeping bags, the shooting stars were so vivid,” recalls Bracha Sukenik of Ra’anana who went with a group six years ago. “The entire sky was like a field of stars that felt so close up.”

For the birds. In Israel during Passover, thousands of birds pass over on their migratory path from Africa, where they spent the winter, to Europe, where they build nests and lay eggs in the warmth of summer. Exhausted by the 1,000-mile trek that takes them across the Sahara, they stop at the Jewish state to rest and refuel. And that makes tiny Israel a veritable magnet for birdwatchers from all over.

Becoming a Jew in the Jewish homeland. It’s been nearly three years since Juliane Schiffner came to Israel with her sister for what she thought was a three-week tour.

“As soon as I got here, I felt this is my nation, this is my people,” says Schiffner, a native of Germany who was living in Spain at the time. “My sister was happy to have a vacation and return home, but I knew this was my home, and Judaism was my way.”

Now 27, Schiffner has mastered the complexities of the foreign visa system, is known as Ilana, and has gone before the beit din to become Jewish. It’s a process she is looking forward to completing when she immerses in a mikvah in a couple of weeks.

“I couldn’t imagine doing my conversion anywhere but Israel,” she says. Next up for Schiffner, just as soon as the ink is dry on her conversion: applying for aliyah. She’s also been writing a blog about her adventures.

Summertime celebration of Israeli dance. In a country that now has more malls than kibbutzim, there’s nothing like Israeli dancing to transport one back to the unbounded joy of Zionism’s early days. Each summer, the Karmiel Dance Festival attracts upwards of 250,000, who gather in the Galilee town to dance, enroll in workshops and master classes, see who wins the year’s competitions, and take in three days and nights of performances, described as “incessant dancing.” Though today’s glitzy costumes and gee-whiz staging technologies were unheard of in the 1940s and ’50s when Israeli dance began spreading its happy net over the infant state (and the Jewish world), the joy remains undiminished.

A proud moment of Jewish survival. In 2013, at their son Bentzi’s graduation from his paratrooper-squad commander course, Danny and Gabie Sykora’s parents, Edith and Joel Sykora, who were watching the ceremony at Latrun’s Armored Corps Memorial from their wheelchairs, were being given a mazel tov by the IDF brass as they walked toward the dais.

“There was my mother-in-law, who survived Auschwitz and two death marches, and my father-in-law, who’d escaped from both a train and a forced labor camp, and made it to Budapest where he got false documents from Raoul Wallenberg. The two never thought they would live, never thought they’d marry or have children, and there was no way they could have imagined that someday they’d live in a Jewish country and have grandchildren serving in its army.”

Yom Kippur. “All the synagogues open their doors to the public during Ne’ila [the final evening service when the gates of prayer prepare to swing shut], and people in jeans and T-shirts often join for this service,” says Debby Wine, who made aliyah with her husband, children and dachshund to Modi’in 13 years ago. “Even if they don’t know the liturgy, they close their eyes and sing along. It is a powerful and unifying experience,” she adds. “Knowing that all of Am Yisrael come together to connect with G-d, each individual person in his or her own way.”

Weddings “with a full heart.” At 19 and 22, Rachel and Yoni had no idea how they could afford a wedding — much less be able to set up an apartment. His mother had died and so had her father, and their surviving parents had more medical bills than income. But when a friend told Rachel’s mother Shira (not their real names) that the Israeli philanthropy Yad Eliezer has a wedding fund for just such circumstances, the young couple’s plans suddenly took a turn for the better. They joined the 15,000 Israeli couples who have had weddings in the last two decades with the help of Yad Eliezer.

“Yad Eliezer provided an absolutely gorgeous gown,” said Shira. “It was a wedding any mother and father would want to give if they could, with a full heart.” Just as valuable, she says, was the dignity associated with it all, the fact that “we were never made to feel like we were beggars. They made two families who have been through hard times feel like we’re not alone.”

Birthright Israel does Ben-Yehuda Street. The casual observer walking through Jerusalem’s Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall will have little trouble picking them out. They’re the college-aged kids in bunches of four or six or eight with the big goofy grins on their faces talking and laughing with their friends. Friends they had never met until a week or so earlier, when they set off together on their 10-day Birthright Israel discovery of Israel and their Jewish selves.

It’s been 20 years, and more than 750,000 Jewish young adults later since the plane carrying the very first Birthrighters arrived in Israel in 2000. 

Naomi Hess, is studying public policy at Princeton University so she can be an advocate for others with disabilities, participated in Birthright’s No Limits: In Motion program for those with mental or physical challenges. More than 3,000 have participated in 100 accessibility trips since Birthright’s inception. 

Graduation Day — A family first. As a child growing up in Ethiopia, Girum Abay dreamed of a different life — one in which he could use his mind and, with hard work, “do something that matters.” Moving to Israel at age 18 with his grandmother, he “didn’t know what life would be like here,” but he resisted family pressures to go to work right after the army, insisting instead on attending university. His curriculum at the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering in Beersheva was challenging, he says, as was the Hebrew he was learning in.

But the effort paid off. He emerged from his 2018 graduation with a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering in hand, landing him a job as engineer for the city of Beersheva. Now 32, Abay is a married father of two. “My children were born in Israel,” he says. “I hope I will give them the life here I didn’t get as a kid.”

Welcoming new immigrants at Ben-Gurion Airport: This is where it all begins for tens of thousands of newly minted Israelis every year — a record-breaking 34,000 in 2019 alone. (This brings to 255,000 the decade total of new Israelis coming in from 150 countries). Every year those arriving from North America on the Nefesh B’Nefesh charter flight are greeted by more than 1,000 of their new compatriots waving Israeli flags and belting out “Havenu Shalom Aleichem.” Yaakov and Julie Rosenberg, along with their four school-aged children, were among those welcomed by this wildly enthusiastic crowd as they arrived on aliyah last summer from Bergenfield, N.J., headed for their new home in Beit Shemesh.

“In New Jersey, I would regularly stay up till 1 in the morning to watch online as the new olim arrived, looking for people I knew, and now it was us coming down those stairs,” Julie recalls six months later. “That’s when our 6-year-old turned to me and said, ‘Look, we’re home.’ Our 6-year-old, she got it that we were coming home.”