A danger in visiting Israel: You just might want to stay forever

You are exhausted after the long flight.

Perhaps you have come all the way from Chicago or the West Coast without a few days in New York or Paris to sweeten the trip.

Then suddenly, after what has seemed like forever, water gives way to land. You see the sprawl of Tel Aviv and environs, the world's only Jewish megalopolis. Your first glimpse of Israel.

The plane lands and you feel tears streaming down your cheeks, and not only from the relief of landing. This is Israel. This is it! You have come home.

Tell you the truth, that doesn't happen to me much anymore. But I always tell people I envy them their first trip to Israel, sort of the way I envy people who are about to read a wonderful book I have read all my life.

On my first trip to Israel in 1968 at age 20, a girl on the plane whom I knew from high school got off and kissed the ground. I didn't go that far, but I'm sure I cried.

And to tell the truth, I still get misty every time I land.

Like when I recently flew into Ben-Gurion for the umpteenth time, seated beside an American aerospace engineer who gave no sign of being Jewish and often visits from California on hi-tech business. "It's a beautiful country," he remarked, as we looked out the window.

Amen. And getting better all the time.

I now live in Israel.

Why on earth would any American Jew, young or old, not want to visit Israel even once? At least 75 percent of American Jews have never been here, and it can't be, in the very great majority of cases, because they've never in their whole lives had enough time or money to travel.

It must be because they don't want to. But why?

Could it be the "nerd" factor? There are plenty of Jews, young ones in particular, who apparently think that going to Israel is a fairly geeky thing to do, like paying good money to be re-afflicted, however briefly, by the Hebrew school they once dreaded.

Or maybe it's the "fear" factor. People worry, `What if I get killed in a sudden war or by terrorists?' Frankly, it happens. But not very often. I do not know whether a tourist from New York, Miami, Chicago, or Los Angeles is statistically safer in Jerusalem or in his own downtown. But my suspicions are strong enough to allow me to raise my children here.

Finally, there's "the identity factor." This one's complicated, but can be captured as follows: A few years ago I asked a friend, a very secular yet very identified New York Jew, why he never visited Israel. "Because I'm afraid that if I went there I would never leave," he answered.

Was he just being glib? I don't think so.

A trip to Israel can throw your delicately cantilevered American Jewish identity dangerously out of whack. It can even lead to harder stuff, like aliyah.

Certainly the Europeans who flock to Israel in booming numbers — 1 million in 1994, nearly triple the volume of tourists from the U.S.– seem undaunted. Last year Israel had 194,564 visitors from Germany alone, which has a total Jewish population of about 60,000.

Yet only 385,033 visitors came from the United States, which has a Jewish population of 5.8 million.

Israel also welcomed 21,321 guests from Finland ,where 1,300 Jews live; 13,071 Koreans, a 45 percent increase over 1993; and 21,825 from Egypt, an increase of 122 percent.

Experiencing Israel is an antidote to assimilation. It's not a guaranteed one-shot inoculation, but it might indeed plant something in your blood that you'll never shake off.

Jews in America, in a variety of situations, often feel "too Jewish." Here, that anxiety disappears. As any Jew who's been to Israel can tell you, it feels good.

To live by a Jewish clock in a Jewish country fills me with Jewish pride. Sabras take all this stuff for granted, of course, and are often at a loss as to why this should be so moving and meaningful to American Jews. They are especially puzzled, it often seems to me, by non-Orthodox Americans, like myself, who've decided to live here instead of comfortable America.

But a 20-year-old college sophomore who spends time with upscale, American-born Jews here might better understand: It is possible to lead a "normal" Western life that is Jewish to the core.

American Israelis speak English at home and Hebrew at the supermarket, celebrate Thanksgiving and make bonfires on Lag Ba-Omer, go to work on Sundays and don't on Fridays, dig Bob Dylan and the late Shlomo Carlebach, watch the National Basketball Association playoffs on cable television and make kiddush on Shabbat.

Yes, a visitor might never want to leave. Or might want to return, again and again. It's a mighty risk, but one I think that should be taken.