Finding Home: Inspiration from a Master
I remember while I was still living in Boston, and my heart was aching for “home.” Thousands of miles away, home, to me, was Israel - homeland, home of my soul, home of my heart. It seemed like every day I had to do SOMETHING to feel BETTER. No matter how much I loved what I was doing, something felt…. missing.
There I was at Boston University, studying under one of the world’s greats for my PhD in Holocaust Studies - walking arm in arm with Elie Wiesel twice a week, to and from his office to our classroom, and exchanging ideas or sometimes enjoying the pleasant silence we so often shared.
It still amazed me, with each encounter, that I had the honor to learn under “Young Eliezer,” the boy who had survived and had come to impact the world and touched lives in so many ways. While our discussions centered on the depth and detail of the human condition and the uniqueness of the Jewish experience during the Holocaust, we shared in common our passion for our homeland as well. In particular, for Jerusalem - as he called it, “heart of his heart, soul of his soul.”
Israel had become ingrained in my soul early on in life, thanks to my parents whose love for the land continues to be ever present in everything they do. I found my way back home to Israel every year at least once, and each time, it was exhilarating. After every visit, I returned to the States with renewed energy to research, write, teach, and I filled my every day with some bit of Israel just so that the pain of the distance wouldn’t be so agonizing.
Elie knew that Aliyah was for me, inevitable. We had discussed at length Israel as a part of Jewish identity. We examined the way tradition, knowledge, connection passed from one generation to the next. With every book we read together, every topic explored, we would find ourselves considering the meaning of our existence as a nation, our destiny and the challenges we must continuously overcome to ensure that destiny is fulfilled.
I will never forget the day I met with him after my 3rd trip in a row guiding in Poland that year. I simply couldn’t return home from there and have the Diaspora as my destination. I ached, yearned to be able to find peace in my soul.
I had wandered through the forest of Holocaust memory since a very young age. I began to teach when I was only a student myself - imbued with the responsibility and a passion for inheriting every story, every memory, every pain. They were as much a part of me as I was a part of their experience, their reality, their memory - even as a complete outsider.
So while I embraced every moment I could of learning from, listening to, and cherishing the kernels of wisdom imparted by my professor, I knew, he knew, that my destiny would be fulfilled elsewhere. And with his blessing, my Aliyah plans began to become concrete reality.
Many have questioned Elie Wiesel’s commitment to Israel, wondering why he never chose to make his life here in our homeland. Personal encounters with this great master shed light on the intimate connection he shared with Israel and what it can teach the next generation.
Back then, Elie travelled often to Israel and I was blessed to meet with him in “our corner” at the King David Hotel, exploring how to advance my writing toward a fulfilling end. Finally in Israel, my private life also blossomed and when I met and married my husband, Wiesel bestowed upon me the most heartfelt of blessings, saying that love and family are the most important assets in life, especially in a life so weighted by my work with the Shoah. Each time he shared how blessed I was to be building a family here in our homeland.
As the years passed, and Elie grew more ill, our correspondences slowed and our meetings ceased. Understandably his family wanted to protect him as his body suffered the torture of illness, fatigue, and, quite likely, emotional exhaustion of the incredible life he had led. His writings remain, for so many in the world, the portal through which to access the heart and mind of this great giant of a man, but his words whispered to me in our meetings will remain with me as a source of inspiration, guidance and honor.
It is still hard to believe that he has passed on, and that I will never hear that voice again. But, just as he implored us all to pass down not only the story of the Holocaust but the humanity of its victims, so, too, must we take a moment and consider the essence of Wiesel’s own being - one that was eternally bound to our land, our heritage, our identity, our pride.
Every day, I remember him as he continues to escort me through a deep, personal journey of discovery and understanding, just as he did on our walks to and from his classes which were but one part of the inheritance he has bestowed upon me.
Above all, his Israel - his love, his connection, his passion - will inspire you just as I hope it will continue to inspire me.
Dr. Elana Yael Heideman, Executive Director of The Israel Forever Foundation, is a dynamic, passionate educator and inspirational leader who works creatively and collaboratively in developing content and programming to deepen and activate the personal connection to Israel for Diaspora Jews.