Six months ago, I leapt with both feet into the unknown of life in Israel. February 18 marks half a year since I, along with over 220 others from the United States, made aliyah.

Six months feels like our first major milestone; no longer are we “fresh off the boat” (or chartered airline flight, as the case may be). I now know most of the little shops in my city, how to take the bus to the next city and/or Jerusalem, and have even given directions a few times, which never fails to make me smile, when I think back to those early days when I patted myself on the back for just finding my way to the mercaz (which is basically, “walk up 8 flights of stairs and then go straight until you see a lot of stores)”. While my family is definitely more settled, I certainly can’t claim that we are vatikim and “old-timers” yet. We’ll get there, b’ezrat Hashem!

In honor of our six month Aliyah-versary, I wanted to share my top 6 Tips for New Olim:

1. Go to Ulpan; New olim are entitled to a free 5-month course of intensive Hebrew instruction. My course met 5 times per week for a weekly total of over 21 hours, and my Hebrew showed phenomenal improvement. Graduating from “Aleph Plus” level, I found myself no longer immediately panicking when spoken to in Hebrew. While I may not know the answer now, I also don’t have that “deer in headlights” feeling, which is a great help. (When my session ended last week, I immediately started in the next level, so I can do more than not panic. Next up: actually answering the question or comment correctly!).
Ulpan is not just language-building: it’s your built-in support group and social network. Most people are also new olim (although I just met a man who made aliyah in 1992 and, now that he’s retired, decided to improve his Hebrew!), and you become each other’s main supports as you get used to your new lives. Your ulpan classmates also become your Israeli social circle because each of you is ready and willing to make new friends. The first time I “went out” with a friend from ulpan (I use the term loosely because we went grocery shopping together, which wasn’t exactly a wild evening out on the town) we laughed about how great it was that we had made friends with each other and we would use this to show our tweenagers that it was, indeed, possible to make new friends. I can tell you that our Shabbos table, full almost every week, would be a lot more sparsely filled if not for our ulpan community….

2. Reach Out: Coming from Malden, Massachusetts, a small and very sweet community that is considered (very) “Out of Town”, and where newcomers are delighted in, I wasn’t sure what it would be like moving to Israel, where being new (or being Jewish, for that matter!) is no big deal. I want to thank those that reached out to us when we came, from those who hosted us for Shabbos meals, to the friend who invited us for a Rosh Hashanah meal just when I was starting to panic about making two days of meals with the two pots and one knife I had brought in my luggage, to the woman who, like me, has a daughter with celiac disease and who, right after we arrived, took us on a field trip to the local store with the best selection of gluten-free products.

The flip side is that there are neighbors on my street who I still haven’t met. I remind myself that “Dorothy, we are definitely not in Malden any more” and do my best to say “Shabbat Shalom”, smile at the kids when they’re playing in the street and introduce myself when I see someone I don’t know. It is just….different….being in a place where others, being settled (or from different cultures), don’t necessarily reach out to those who are new. Thankfully, this topic sometimes gets brought up during ulpan break and is always met with laughter all around and smiles of recognition. And I, for one, feel much better that I still haven’t met some of my next door neighbors.

3. And Reach Back: Keep in touch with family and friends. I have found this rather challenging. The time difference has been the hardest thing to deal with in keeping connections strong. As someone who is peppy in the morning (but not too early), I find there is no one I can talk with when I’m at my best, my friends and family being the types who, in general, like to sleep at 1:00 a.m. My sister started a Whatsapp group for my family, which has been a good way to send little video snippets of our life (“look at Ilana sliding down the railing of an entire flight of stairs! Grandma, breathe! It’s [reasonably] safe!”).

Sunday being a regular work/school day in Israel has also made things more challenging, as my parents assumed that we would Skype each week on Sunday, but my family has found the transition from “Sunday Funday” to “Sunday School Day” to be challenging, leaving most of us in no mood for chatting…..And when my 9 year-old Skypes with her friends, it’s challenging for me, her *and* her friends when she needs to get off and go to bed, while her friends are still raring to go, it still being afternoon (and on a Sunday, too) in Boston.

The best thing I have done is set aside the times my daughter is in after-school chugim to call family and friends in the U.S. This, unfortunately, only works with those who are retired or not working, but it does ensure my 88 year-old friend gets her “Good Shabbos” call every Thursday.

4. Explore: Every tiyyul you can possibly go on: DO IT! Every community where you are offered to spend Shabbat: DO IT! Every little side trip you can take so that you know more and feel more at home in your new country: DO IT!

I have no family here and the few friends I know are all centered around Jerusalem. My husband, thankfully, has cousins in the Golan who, aside from being wonderful and fun people, are also terrific amateur tour guides. With them, my family has seen parts of the country we never would have gone to, and learned far more about the history of the area as well. Israel is truly an amazing country, and the more I see and learn, the more honored I feel to be a part of it.

Through ulpan-, city- and Nefesh b’Nefesh field trips my family has explored places that it’s doubtful would have been on our agenda, but which we found quite enjoyable. Supreme Court? Loved it–planning on returning with my kids around Pesach. The Begin Museum? Was sure it would be a snoozer, but found it really amazing.

Open yourself to each possibility to learn about your new country. You will likely be pleasantly surprised.

5. Their Issue is Not Necessarily Your Issue: For me, one of the hardest things to deal with is hearing of the doubts and concerns of other olim who are considering returning from whence they came. My family’s life is so much richer, so much easier in many ways, so much more full of Yiddishkeit in every way, shape and form that the hard parts about being in Israel recede into the background (at least for us parents). It is not that way for everyone, however, and that can be challenging.

Last year, the family of my daughter’s best friend from camp made aliyah. Liat and her family did an amazing job on their “absorption” and Liat even transferred this year to one of the top girls’ schools where she learns totally in Hebrew. They have been our role models in many ways. And then we heard that they were thinking about returning to the U.S…..Liat’s dad continues his former job in the building industry and is away from his family for weeks at a time while he supervises work at sites in several different states. Okay, we understood. No one wants a spouse and parent away for three weeks in a row. No one wants to ask a spouse or parent to BE away for three weeks in a row! But, still, we hoped they wouldn’t go. Because, just as their successes became our successes, their doubts and concerns also became ours. When we heard that they were staying and even buying an apartment here, I was so relieved I almost cried.

Each of us must keep in mind our reasons for making aliyah. No one comes here on a whim (at least, I hope not!). We each had reasons behind such a major life change and it is vitally important, especially when talking with others who are sad/dissatisfied/unhappy enough to consider returning to their previous country, to keep those reasons front and center in our own mind. I can’t imagine anything I could say that would help someone decide to stay in Israel, but I know with absolute certainty that my attitude affects my family, and I will, therefore, strive to keep it positive.

6. Keep a Sense of Humor: Try to look at every interaction that makes you say, “that’s crazy” as “wow, that will make a really good story” instead. Which friend or family member would most appreciate hearing this story? I started a blog to note all the fun, beautiful, interesting, unusual, and flat-out weird things my family sees and experiences.

We’ve just started looking into buying a home here, and every time I stare open-mouthed at a real estate agent and wonder “did you really just say that?!” I think what a great story I will have to tell my sister, who is a Realtor. My favorite was the agent who recently showed me an apartment that had less bedrooms than advertised and she told me if I just put walls up in the living room, it would have the additional bedroom. Life here is rich with story fodder! While lots of times my good stories don’t even make it out of my brain, just reframing each difficult interaction in my mind had been tremendously helpful.
So, for those who are new here: welcome! Bruchim Habaim! May your klita be easy and filled with many blessings. And if you’re in Ramat Beit Shemesh, drop me a line. I’d love to invite you for a Shabbos meal.