Four months after making aliyah: Checking in with Rabbi Daniel Wasserman
The former Shaare Torah Congregation rabbi is enjoying life and learning in the Jewish state.
ASDHOD, ISRAEL – In the Israeli port city of Ashdod, Rabbi Daniel Wasserman is plotting out his next move.
The former spiritual leader of Shaare Torah Congregation in Squirrel Hill made aliyah to the Jewish state on Aug. 31, 2022, 11 years to the day since his first child, his daughter, immigrated to Israel. Today, he is leading services for a small group of Moroccan Jews, considering training as an EMT and addressing how 25 years of 24/7 rabbinic service took a toll on his voice.
“I’m working with someone to repair my voice — that’s part of what I am and what I do,” said Wasserman, seated in his Ashdod apartment in front of a wall of white IKEA shelves filled with books. “Right now, I can’t hold a classroom of rowdy 10th-grade boys. I can’t hold the room the way I used to.”
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“I’m still trying to figure out,” he added, “in what way I can contribute to Israeli society and the Jews of Israel.”
Four months into his new life in Israel, Wasserman is enjoying both its small and big details.
All six of his children – ages 22 to 34 – now live in the Jewish state, and he takes pleasure in spending time with them, as well as with his mother and brother. (His father died in June 2022, as his farewell weekend activities at Shaare Torah were about to kick off. His mourning period has led his salt-and-pepper beard to grow thicker than he wore it in his late Pittsburgh days.)
“It’s a tremendous honor,” Wasserman said, “to come and all the children are here.”
Though his father-in-law died about two weeks ago, he has also celebrated a simcha — the birth of his ninth grandchild.
Recently, Wasserman ventured into the Machaneh Yehuda open-air market in Jerusalem to pick up some rolls and cheese, and sat on a nearby bench, the breeze in his face, with his volume of Talmud and his volume of Mishna, and ate.
“I’m a person of simple tastes … and I need my Jerusalem fix,” Wasserman said. “Hashtag ‘very good morning.’”
While in Pittsburgh, Wasserman volunteered as a scuba diver at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium; he hopes to revisit that role in a new capacity at the Jerusalem Aquarium.
“Hopefully, we’ll be able to hook up,” he laughed, “just like Herzl envisioned it.”
Wasserman laughs at the little transitions he has experienced coming from the Steel City to the Jewish state. For one, he finds Ashdod’s status as the country’s largest port — yes, even larger than Haifa — to be charming. From his porch, he can see the Mediterranean.
“We were able to sit on our porch and literally watch our [container] ship come in,” Wasserman said. “You can’t do that in Pittsburgh.”
He finds Israelis’ sense of distance bizarre. While some Israelis consider a drive from Ashdod to Jerusalem — about 45 minutes — to be a haul, Wasserman cut his teeth in Pennsylvania, where it wasn’t uncommon to take the five- or six-hour one-way trek from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh.
Forty-five minutes to Jerusalem?
“That’s going to the grocery store,” he laughed.
He’s also getting used to living in a drought-stricken country whose residents are thrilled when it rains. On the local news, when the rain is heavy, meteorologists refer to it as gishmay bracha, a Biblical turn of phrase meaning “rains of blessing.”
Wasserman is open to reflecting on his life in the United States but isn’t overly nostalgic, instead focusing on his current and future life in Israel.
“I have absolutely no longing to visit the U.S. beyond the beautiful natural attractions,” Wasserman said. “I miss all of the people of Pittsburgh very much — but I want to see them here. And I miss the weather. I’m a winter guy.”
Why Ashdod? Wasserman admits the choice is not typical, with most Anglos — the Hebrew parlance for native English speakers, like Americans, British and Australians — choosing to live in Bet Shemesh or Rechavia, where there are Anglo bubbles.
On a “pilot trip” to Israel, the Wassermans’ first post-COVID trek outside the U.S., the rabbi visited Ashdod, where his daughter, a doctor, works in an American-style hospital emergency room. While in Ashdod, he met the mayor, who is married to one of Wasserman’s cousins.
“He convinced us to come to Ashdod and put it on the North American aliyah map,” Wasserman said. “North Americans who talk about aliyah, Ashdod does not come up very often. It’s not Jerusalem and it’s not Bet Shemesh — here, the absorption office, they barely speak English.”
Wasserman’s wife, Judith Wasserman, is adjusting to the Hebrew requirements of the land. Though the rabbi’s conversational Hebrew is “very good, a step or two below mother tongue,” Judith Wasserman is taking an online ulpan, or language instruction class, titled Citizens’ Café Tel Aviv. A speech language-pathologist by training, she also is taking a medical ulpan.
Wasserman, who attended an Israeli school in the seventh grade when his family briefly lived in Israel, still keeps ties with Pittsburgh.
Each morning at 5 a.m., he teaches a daf yomi class online, leading instruction on a page of Talmud a day, for people in southwestern Pennsylvania. He also teaches a class at 4:15 a.m. on Fridays.
Wasserman is doing a little teaching in Ashdod, as well. There is a small school near his apartment where he teaches on a volunteer basis.
Then, there are the Moroccans. There’s a large Moroccan community in Ashdod — as well as Russian and French communities, too — and Wasserman leads members of that community in Shabbat services. He jokes that he knows none of the group’s customs or songs but is trying his best to acclimate.
“I am as Ashkenazi as they come,” he laughed. “God’s got a tremendous sense of humor.”
In Pittsburgh, Wasserman is far from forgotten. Shaare Torah hired his successor, Rabbi Yitzi Genack, in the spring. But people still have a place in their hearts for Wasserman, said Jonathan Young, the outgoing president of the shul’s board.
“Rabbi Wasserman was part of this community and this shul for more than 25 years,” Young said. “People miss Rabbi and Rebbitzin Wasserman — they were a big part of our family, our simchas, of our losses. When he left, he left Shaare Torah in a wonderful place, where we have the opportunity to build on the legacies he left us.”
Wasserman rejected the idea that a conversation with the Chronicle was a way to keep tabs on a formerly local rabbi.
“It’s not a question of what I’m up to — it’s a matter of ‘make your aliyah plans, make your come-to-Israel plans,’” Wasserman said. “Every Jew has to have a stronger connection to Israel, whether it’s a five-year plan, a 10-year plan or a plan to visit … the Jewish country is the only home. It’s our land, it’s our home. It’s where we are and it speaks to our heart.
“It’s time to come home — every Jew has a foundation here,” he added. “Everybody from Pittsburgh, if they don’t have a foundation here, then we are now their foundation.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.