Rabbi Lee Buckman discusses his early memories of his visits to Israel, his move to Israel and what he misses about living in Detroit.
Sitting down with Rabbi Lee Buckman, 60, founding head of school at the Frankel Jewish Academy, was the highlight of my week. He spoke passionately about his early introduction to Zionism, his work as an educator, and how much he enjoys meeting Israelis and hearing their stories.
Q: What are your early memories of visits to Israel?
LB: My first visit to Israel was 1978 with Ramah Seminars. It was then that I first began to realize that Israel was my home and that I wanted to make aliyah. Shortly after that summer in Israel, I read Hillel Halkin’s Letters to an American Jewish Friend, which convinced me that the future of Judaism and Jewish life was in Israel. About a year or two before I made aliyah, I read the book again, and by then I disagreed with this thesis because, after working as an educator/rabbi all my professional life in America, I saw how vibrant Jewish life could be for kids and future adults, but that book got me thinking when I was 17 years old.
Q: What years did you live in Detroit and what did you do there?
LB: We lived in West Bloomfield from 1999 to 2009, and I was the founding Head of School at the Frankel Jewish Academy.
Q: Tell me about your family and who moved with you to Israel.
LB: My wife, Rachel, and I have four boys. One of them of them served in Machal (a soldier who serves in the IDF as a non-Israeli) for a year and a half; our second son spent a year post-high school on Young Judaea Year Course, our third spent a year at Yeshivat Eretz Hatzvi, and our fourth son studied at Yeshivat Maale Gilboa and made aliyah.
We raised our boys bilingually, and I spoke to them in Hebrew since their birth. Every Hebrew word was another connection that deepened my love of Israel. Rachel also dreamed of making aliyah, and eventually we turned our dream into a reality. After our fourth son made aliyah, we followed him, and he helped us acclimate and learn the ropes. We’ve benefited from Nefesh b’Nefesh, which made making aliyah extremely easy, and we’ve also benefited from Skype and Zoom, which made communicating with our family very easy.
Q: When did you make aliyah?
LB: We made aliyah in 2017 from Toronto. I was the head of school at the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto at the time. When we announced our interest in making aliyah, they were surprised that we were choosing to leave the school, but not surprised that we were making aliyah, as Israel had always been a major focus of my vision as a school leader, also a prized value in the Toronto Jewish community.
Q: What do you do professionally?
LB: I head up the Israel office of the Holocaust Claims Conference that funds education, research, documentation and films related to the Shoah. We fund all the Shoah museums in Israel, the archives, teacher training, and student and soldier visits to museums, as well as films that are produced here.
I love meeting the representatives of the institutions we support and learning about the incredible and important work that they’re doing. In addition, I am always learning about different aspects of the history of the Holocaust and personal stories of heroism and tragedy. It’s an incredibly enriching opportunity, and I’m blessed to be doing something important on behalf of the Jewish people.
Q: What do you do for fun?
LB: I run marathons and like to discover Israel through running (I also cross-train a lot). I enjoy working on my Hebrew, interacting with Israelis and collecting their stories. When I do, I fall even more deeply in love with the country that I live in.
Q: What do you miss about living in Detroit?
LB: We have close family in Detroit that we miss and friends who, because of COVID, we can’t visit. We’re looking forward to the skies opening up and people being able to fly again.
Q: Do you have a message for anyone who’s reading this interview?
LB: From afar, Israel seems fraught with problems and challenges. Some of those inequities are manifest in America today as well, but it’s easier to see others’ problems than solve one’s own.
The beautiful thing about living in Israel is that these are my problems, our problems, the Jewish people’s problems. I enjoy trying to contribute to the solution. Living here, I get to see the complexity but also the diversity and beauty of Israel. That’s the greatest benefit of having made aliyah.