In March, Yoni Elmalem stood before a government official at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Fairfax and, with his right hand raised, swore to renounce all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty; to support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies; and to bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law.
With that, Elmalem, 42, became a U.S. citizen. He received a certificate of naturalization and a small flag to commemorate the event.
“When I swore in and said the Pledge of Allegiance, it was quite a solemn moment,” he said this week. “I was very proud, of course, to join the American people.”
With the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the residents of the 13 American colonies became the first citizens of the United States. Since then, welcoming new citizens has been part of Independence Day public celebrations. Some 850,000 people became naturalized citizens in 2019, the last year for which numbers are available, according to the Office of Immigration Statistics.
While Elmalem has lived in this country since 2013, Sunday will be his first Fourth of July as an American. Now an Alexandria resident and member of Agudas Achim Congregation, he said he plans to hear the Declaration of Independence read on the steps of the National Archives and later celebrate his new citizenship with friends.
“This year is going to be very special,” he said.
Elmalem was born in Versailles, France, and grew up in the small town of Jouy-en-Josas. He was raised in a Conservative Jewish family and has fond memories of the Sephardic dishes his mother and sister prepared for Shabbat lunches and dinners.
Elmalem said his American journey began when, as a student at a French music school, he became friends with an exchange student from Marietta, Ga.
“I became friends with a Baptist gospel choir singer. He invited me to stay with his family the following summer,” Elmalem said.
When Elmalem stepped off the plane in Atlanta, he was greeted by his friend’s family, who tossed a Braves T-shirt at him. Then they took the jetlagged visitor straight to the stadium to watch a baseball game.
“It was surreal,” he said. “ I was very impressed by the size of the stadium and all the excitement around the game.”
The family welcomed Elmalem with open arms and made it easy for him to celebrate Shabbat and practice Judaism in their Baptist home. This impressed him, too.
One of the things Elmalem said he likes about the United States is how religious it is.
“I felt like this was a country of believers, that faith is very present everywhere,” he said. “Here in the U.S., religion is used as a source of inspiration in everyday life and is seen as a positive source of knowledge.”
The diversity of denominations is another aspect of American life that stands out to Elmalem.
“I think it’s easier to express one’s Jewish faith in the U.S. since Judaism is more diverse than in Europe,” he said. “You can, as an individual, find your own path and choose different ways to practice.”
Elmalem came back to the United States on an exchange program at the University of Central Florida. He was on campus on Sept. 11, 2001. When terrorists attacked New York and Washington, he was evacuated with the rest of the students.
“I remember the faces of the students around me, forced to go home. I felt the pain and sorrow of a whole nation,” he said.
Elmalem moved to Washington in 2013, something he had dreamed of for a long time. He lived close to Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, and was able to walk to Shabbat services for the first time in his life.
Becoming a formal citizen was a gradual process, he said.
“Changing nationalities is something that I take very seriously,” he said. “I wanted to feel fully ready for it.”
He said the stakes were “high” to become part of a country whose people helped defeat the Nazis in World War II.
Elmalem married, his wife gave birth to a daughter in 2018 and they all endured the pandemic.
Elmalem said he felt it was time to apply for citizenship.
“The timing was perfect,” he said. “I felt I had completed a chapter in my life, and that a new one had begun.”
He said he was thinking of his wife’s grandfather, who fought in the Pacific in World War II, during the citizenship ceremony.
“I felt a sense of relief. I belong to the country, I earned my right to participate in civic life and I can relate to the people in a much deeper way.”