Former Berkeley couple says Israeli life is no paradise

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Three years after Jo and Jacob Milgrom immigrated to Israel, she looks back on their decision as a "minor miracle."

Past retirement age and considered pillars in East Bay Jewish life, the pair of academics nonetheless left behind three decades in Berkeley and moved to Jerusalem in 1994.

"We were blessed with living in the earthly Garden of Eden for almost 30 years," said Jacob Milgrom, a 74-year-old Conservative rabbi, biblical scholar and retired U.C. Berkeley professor of Near Eastern studies.

"But we wanted something of a spiritual Garden of Eden as well…This was my dream."

But Israel is not paradise. And while neither regrets the decision to make aliyah, the couple acknowledged during a recent visit to the Bay Area that they cannot idealize or idolize the Jewish state anymore.

"When you're no longer a tourist, your whole attitude changes," said Jo Milgrom, a 69-year-old Judaica artist and retired adjunct professor at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

For one, she said, "the threat of terror is very real." And both acknowledge that Jerusalem offers a mixed bag for non-Orthodox Jews.

At the same time, the Milgroms — back for several days in late November primarily to attend a biblical scholarship convention in San Francisco — consider their move a success.

Jo Milgrom attributes the feat to their ability to transfer their professional and social lives to Israel, which is not something everyone can do so easily.

Both spoke Hebrew already and had "meaningful work" available, she noted. They had purchased a home in Jerusalem about 15 years ago, so they had ready housing. They had numerous friends in Israel. And one of their four children, Rabbi Jeremy Milgrom, and his family had already made aliyah.

For Jacob Milgrom, known for his commentaries on Leviticus and Numbers and his work on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the move has given him direct access to top-level biblical scholars.

He is now teaching at the Hebrew University and Jewish Theological Seminary in Jerusalem.

"I have the richness of both colleagues and resources…I was a loner [in Berkeley]," said the rabbi whose wispy, white hair is capped by a colorful kippah of rose, gold and green embroidered on black.

For Jo Milgrom, who taught art and Judaism at GTU, the circumstances were a bit different. She didn't need to move to Jerusalem to better her work. But she sees Israel as a fertile place for her methods of relating the Bible through the visual arts.

She is now teaching at the Hebrew Union College and Jewish Theological Seminary in Jerusalem, as well as at the Hartman Institute and for Israel's education department.

"I am as fulfilled there as I was in Berkeley, professionally," she said.

Being Conservative Jews in Israel isn't easy, though.

"It's like feeling you're second class. It pervades your every waking hour," Jo Milgrom said, adding that it's twice as bad for women.

She can't find the Israeli equivalent of Berkeley's Conservative Congregation Netivot Shalom, which the Milgroms helped create.

"We don't have a lively, egalitarian worshipping community that is open to pluralistic concepts and is not afraid of change — or at least we haven't found it," she said.

On Shabbat morning, Jacob will walk to a neighborhood minyan. He loves the stroll.

"The air is filled with `Shabbat Shalom,'" he said, as the couple sat in the lobby of San Francisco's Hilton Hotel. "You do feel the spirituality of the day. You don't have that in the diaspora."

Jo Milgrom will stay home and pray alone on Shabbat. Sitting behind a curtain during Orthodox services is just not for her.

"I'm mostly on my own," she said, matter-of-factly. "My own spiritual practice at home is sustaining me."

Even the Conservative synagogue in Jerusalem, she said, doesn't call women to the Torah or give them the honor of reading the blessings for the Torah reading.

"The Conservative movement in Israel is asleep at the switch," she said.

Even so, Jo Milgrom said she has a "fuller Jewish life" in Israel.

She loves turning on the radio and hearing interviews with biblical scholars in Hebrew. She loves reading Ha'aretz, which is considered Israel's New York Times. She loves speaking Hebrew on a daily basis. She loves knowing she can go out every night and hear a different scholar speaking on the weekly Torah portion.

"I felt in the diaspora that much of the life around me was surface. There is a deeper thrust to living in Israel," said Jo Milgrom, who wears a necklace holding a large silver plate with Hebrew lettering.

The jewelry looks like an amulet — "It protects me against pregnancy," she jokes — but it contains no magical or kabbalistic formulas. Instead, the words describe the seventh day of creation when God rested.

The polemical tensions between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox have affected Jacob Milgrom in a different way.

"I did not in any way dream of the tension that would develop spiritually," he said.

He feels like he is constantly contending with "medieval" or "primitive" opinions from Orthodox Jews. For example, he said, some Jews in Israel believe that a child might get into a terrible accident because a family's mezzuzah isn't kosher.

"You don't have that in the States," he said.

Though the couple's candid talk about Israeli life may seem discouraging to potential immigrants, they don't see it that way. Jo Milgrom said she simply wants to tell the truth.

"Diplomacy is unfortunately not my strength," she said. "You have to be honest."