For much of Jewish history, vast numbers of Jews did not have even one land wherein they could feel secure as Jews and know that they belonged. Most of the American Jews telling their stories here have been fortunate to have not only one such place, but two.
Rhode Island, the smallest state in the US, has less than 20,000 Jews. Over several decades and for a variety of reasons, scores of Rhode Island Jews of different backgrounds have made aliyah (literally “ascent”; i.e., moving to the spiritually elevated Land of Israel). I interviewed these thirteen olim (people who have made aliyah) — most of whom are in their twenties, thirties, and early forties — in Israel during December 2105-January 2016.
For much of Jewish history, vast numbers of Jews did not have even one land wherein they could feel secure as Jews and know that they belonged. Most of the American Jews telling their stories here have been fortunate to have not only one such place, but two. Their stories convey some of the reasons why they have chosen one of these homes over the other.
1. Avraham Allen
I went to a program in Hod HaSharon when I was in high school. I was 15. It was for two months, during my junior year at [Providence’s] Classical High School. I fell in love with Israel and since then my dream was to move here. We learned about the history of the Jewish people and then visited the places where that history took place. The fact that I went to Israel when I was 15 had a great impact. Through that learning, I could see the connection of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel. I saw that this is where I belong; this is where I’m supposed to be. Financially it’s a challenge though.
When we moved to Israel, my family and I were in the merkaz klita [immigrant absorption center] in Be’er Sheva for four and a half months. I actually wanted to stay longer, even though the space was tight, because there you are sharing an experience with other people who have moved to Israel and making connections.
In Be’er Sheva there was a Chabad [Lubavitch] community, a Chabad yeshiva, and a Chabad girls’ school. Rent was reasonable and the weather, too; we didn’t want a humid place. Within a few months of moving to Be’er Sheva, the rockets from Gaza began. I didn’t like it, but I said, “This is life here.”
In 2012, the situation got much worse. I was shaken up by the rockets. It came to the point where there was a fear of rockets at any time. During the 2012 conflict [Operation Pillar of Defense against Hamas in the Gaza Strip], the Appel family from Rehovot invited us to stay with them for as long as the conflict was going on. The conflict ended after nine days. When you find a nice family that welcomes you and is kind, that’s a pull. After being in Be’er Sheva for three years, we left because of a letter from the Lubavitcher Rebbe telling us to move. We decided to move to Rehovot.
Here in Israel, you have more interactions. It’s lively. Helping others and looking out for others is part of the culture.
Edith Henderson, a woman who lived on the corner of Third St. and Highland Ave. [on the East Side of Providence], used to say: “Life is about helping people.” Here in Israel, you have more interactions. It’s lively. Helping others and looking out for others is part of the culture. When you have a culture like that, you can focus your energy more constructively. Your mind, your energy, and your spirit are freed up to do constructive things. I see that here — whether it’s with a Jewish person, a Christian, or a Muslim. In mainstream Israeli society, people try to look out for each other.
I haven’t left Israel in six years and part of that has to do with my fear of not being able to get back after finally getting here.
2. Nathan Japhet
My underlying motivation for making aliyah [in August 2013] was the religious obligation to live in the land. This is the first time in two thousand years that the Jewish people have had sovereignty. I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines and not take part in it.
As a Jew, it feels more comfortable to live in a Jewish-majority country. To be Jewish is to be part of the Jewish people, not just the religion. That being said, I love America; it’s a great country. I wasn’t running away from something. I was running to something.
I wanted to make aliyah and join the army right after my nine months at Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi in Jerusalem, which I attended after graduating from Maimonides [School in Brookline, Massachusetts]. My parents said, “No way!” They argued that I needed to come back to America and do a degree. I studied biology at Yeshiva University. They probably hoped that by the time I was done, I would forget about making aliyah.
In the end, they were very supportive of my making aliyah. My father is very Zionistic. It felt like a natural conclusion of his vision. But they were not happy about my joining a combat unit for a full three years of service. They felt I had more to contribute elsewhere, and they were worried.
I have no regret about joining the army. I joined Palchan Nachal, the elite explosive and combat engineering unit of the Nachal infantry division. It is absolutely one of the best decisions of my life. It has helped me integrate into the country — to learn the language and the mindset. I’ve made incredible bonds and friends for life.
My motivation for joining a combat unit was that I didn’t want to one day send off my kids to do their part for the country without having done my part too. Don’t get me wrong. The army is very difficult. But it’s the best way to discover your limitations and abilities. My friends in the army think I’m absolutely crazy, but they admire what I’ve done. I’m 25. The guys I’m with are mostly 20 and I’m older than all my commanders. But I knew what I was getting myself into. At the end of the day, however scary it is, you want to be the one to protect your friends and defend your country.
The hardest thing for me during Operation Protective Edge [the 2014 conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip] was that my parents were extremely worried. It was strange; I had to comfort my parents and tell them not to worry. It was definitely harder on them than for me. That was when I really felt like a chayal boded [lone soldier in the Israeli army]: I’m alone; my parents aren’t here.
As a Jew, it feels more comfortable to live in a Jewish- majority country. To be Jewish is to be part of the Jewish people, not just the religion. That being said, I love America; it’s a great country. I wasn’t running away from something. I was running to something.
The difficult aspect of aliyah has always been missing my family and friends. Socially, at the beginning, it was tough. There is definitely homesickness. I was born in Manchester, New Hampshire. We moved to Pawtucket [Rhode Island] when I was 3 and my sister was 5, because my parents wanted us to go to a Jewish school. I went to the Providence Hebrew Day School through eighth grade. I grew up in the [Congregation] Ohawe Shalom community in Pawtucket. It was a small, tight-knit community, and a wonderful place to grow up in. I loved growing up in Rhode Island and still miss it. I miss Rhode Island summers: Dell’s, day trips to Prudence Island with my father, Newport, Scarborough Beach, and the mall.
I thought by moving here that I would see my family once a year. But my sister [Beth Japhet] has moved here, though she lived in New York and had a good job. She picked up in the middle of her life. It made me happy and proud. In spite of all the troubles, language barriers, and employment challenges, she’s following through on her dream. My parents will move here too.
It’s family history repeating itself. In a way, it’s my dad’s “fault” I made aliyah; Zionism was always in the house. My father, the younger son, came from the USSR to America and was followed there by his sister, and then his parents. My sister has followed me here, and our parents will follow us.
3. Beth Japhet
I grew up in an extremely Zionist home. Israel was viewed as a gift that was not to be taken for granted and as a home Jews must fight for. Every casualty of war and each terror attack victim was mourned for on a very personal level in my house. Our computer homepage was JPost [The Jerusalem Post] Israel charities were the charities of choice, and the Rhode Island chapter of AFSI [Americans for a Safe Israel] was organized by my father.
When I went on my gap year to seminary [religious studies program] in Israel, as a classic Modern Orthodox Jewish girl does, I didn’t fall in love with the Torah studies as much as the country and its people. By the end of that year I was researching university programs at Hebrew University [in Jerusalem] and Bar-Ilan University [in Ramat Gan]. However, my parents got their way and I came back to the States for school. I ended up staying in the States for eight years to earn my degree and work for a couple years.
During the recent war [Operation Protective Edge], I wanted to physically be in Israel with fellow Jews and my brother. It didn’t feel right being on the sidelines in America. So I made the huge move on July 13, 2015.
I was living in a beautiful apartment in Manhattan with good friends around and an enjoyable job, but I felt that something was missing. It sounds cliché, but I knew that the current direction my life was heading towards wasn’t right and that I was supposed to be in Israel. During the recent war [Operation Protective Edge against Hamas in the Gaza Strip in 2014], I wanted to physically be in Israel with fellow Jews and my brother. It didn’t feel right being on the sidelines in America. So I made the huge move on July 13, 2015.
I lived in an absorption center in Jerusalem for five months with over two hundred other new olim ages 22-35 from all over the world: US, Canada, UK, and South America, with the majority from Russia, Ukraine, and France. It was fascinating to live and learn with an international community united in the goal to succeed in this country. (Not all were here for Zionism — many for a better economic lifestyle).
The absorption center was a beautiful stepping stone to the reality of this crazy, beautiful country. It provided a safe zone to come home to at night after navigating the banks, kupot cholim [national healthcare clinics], phones, taxes, driving licenses, and, later, the job interviews and apartment searches. We learned Hebrew together with twelve different levels, went on tiyulim [trips], ate together, explored Jerusalem, and of course experienced the bar scene from time to time. Coming here, most of us didn’t have much family or many friends, and we all left with a “new” family that helps fill in the loneliness that can come during chagim [holidays] and shabbatot [Sabbaths].
Nathan [Japhet] was a huge factor in helping me make the daunting decision to move here. Our tiny family is very close and I just couldn’t imagine seeing him twice a year for the rest of my life. The thought of our family instead spending holidays and shabbatot together in Israel was an exciting notion. He has been so helpful from the start: making sure to get the day off from the army to meet me at the airport, helping translate important documents, and listening to me cry on the rough days.
What has been difficult is the language. There are times you feel disabled in that you can’t express your needs, especially in state offices or in stores. There is also a wall that you can’t breach in social settings when you sound like a five-year-old. It makes it hard to fully integrate. Surviving financially here is also difficult. Americans and Israelis think very differently when it comes to money and savings. My salary has dramatically decreased and I now understand how Israelis live paycheck to paycheck. Israelis do not (or cannot) save, living month to month. On the other hand, as a healthcare professional, I am happy to make less if it means I am subscribing to a nationalized healthcare system where citizens receive inexpensive good care, as opposed to the American system.
The security situation has also been slightly challenging. At times, in the past few months, the atmosphere in Jerusalem has been tense. [In September 2015, Palestinian terrorists began a campaign of continual stabbing, shooting, and car ramming attacks against Jews in Israel.] Security guards, soldiers, and guns are everywhere, and when the situation was at its worst, the main streets were empty.
The terror attack on the #78 bus [in Talpiot, Jerusalem, on October 13, 2015] was around the corner from my ulpan [intensive Hebrew language school]. We heard the sirens and helicopters and were under lockdown for the day. It was scary to get on the #78 the following day, but you just swallowed your fears and went on with your life. Everyone was more alert. I carried pepper spray and took note of my surroundings. However, I never thought of leaving Israel. I have not once regretted my decision. I am extremely happy here.
Currently, I am working as a physical therapist after having to pass the boards here. My biggest fear making aliyah was working in my profession in Hebrew, but so far it has been fine. The patients have so much patience with me; Israelis love their olim. I spend hours writing notes and have to pantomime a lot of the exercises, but each day gets a little easier.
4. Rhea Diwinsky
I was born in Providence, in 1955. I went to the Providence Hebrew Day School [PHDS] from kindergarten to eighth grade. Then I went to Classical High School. In high school I was president of USY [United Synagogue Youth] at Temple Emanu-El. I was president of Young Judea. I was active with Soviet Jewry. I had a pen pal in the USSR. I kept on going to the afternoon Hebrew school until I graduated from Classical.
The summer after I graduated from high school, I went to Israel for an Israeli folk dance workshop. I liked Israeli folk dancing, even though I couldn’t tell my left foot from my right. We danced across Israel and I saw Israel that way. While on kibbutz, as the sun was beating down on us, wearing tembel hats, we picked plums and peaches, our legs getting cut by the tree branches, and collected eggs from the chicken coops, getting pecked by the chickens, and I fell in love with Israel. I fell in love with Israel on that tour — not kibbutz life, necessarily, but the Israeli life. I came back to America and told my parents I wanted to make aliyah.
In the States there are a lot of traumatic things that happened because I’m Jewish. Living in New England there were a lot of points of antisemitism. I have stories of antisemitism in Providence and Boston. Israel is not perfect, but it’s the Jewish homeland and this is where we belong.
I did my junior year abroad in 1976 at Tel Aviv University [TAU]. I majored in computer science. I had learned Hebrew at PHDS. I didn’t do English courses at TAU; I took my courses in Hebrew. During that junior year, I met my first husband. After my junior year, I went back to the States. He followed me there. We got married the summer after I graduated from Boston University. We lived and worked in Boston. We both wanted to get back to Israel. So we went back to Israel working for the Ovda Airbase project as US expats. During that period, we got divorced.
I came back to the States because my father was sick, and stayed for three years. I got my Masters at Northeastern University in Business Administration, with a concentration in Management Information Systems. The last year I was in Northeastern, SCITEX — which had a branch in Boston — sent recruiters. I told them I wanted to move to Israel. I was thoroughly interviewed by them for two days, to make sure I would actually stay in Israel. While I was on a cross-country bus tour from California to Washington, D.C., I got a job offer from SCITEX.
In October 1984, I packed up everything and made aliyah. My father had a heart attack before I left and was at Miriam Hospital. I told him I decided to move Israel. He told me he was very proud of me and wished me well. My father passed away two weeks later and I came back for the funeral and shiva.
To live in Israel, you have to go with the flow. I learned to read Hebrew without vowels by reading street signs. At the time, the hardest part of being in Israel was not being able to read and write without vowels. The most important thing for learning the mentality and lifestyle was making Israeli friends and learning their way of thinking, and speaking Hebrew, rather than English. Until about four years ago, everywhere I worked, I worked in Hebrew. The American accent will never go away. I never even tried to get rid of the accent.
I met my husband, Professor Gerry Fraser, on a blind date. It was love at first sight. We fell in love over bagels, lox, and cream cheese at Dizengoff Center [in Tel Aviv]. We got engaged on my 40th birthday, motzei Yom Kippur [after Yom Kippur ended]. As of this year, we are married twenty years.
My mother passed away three months before the wedding. Cyril Solk planned the wedding. He was 78 at the time, and was and is like a father to us. He planned the wedding while I was in mourning. Gerry came to the States for the funeral and the shiva. Cyril gave me away at the wedding. It took place in Tel Aviv. Gerry has three daughters and seven grandchildren. For the grandchildren, I’m bubbie [grandmother]. By marrying Gerry, I found more of a foothold in the country because of the children and grandchildren.
Coming to Israel, I didn’t feel different. In the States there are a lot of traumatic things that happened because I’m Jewish. Living in New England there were a lot of points of antisemitism. I have stories of antisemitism in Providence and Boston. Israel is not perfect, but it’s the Jewish homeland and this is where we belong.
Making aliyah is the best thing that ever happened to me. Whenever I came to Israel I felt like I could be myself there. Seeing all the sukkot [booths made during the Feast of Tabernacles] on the balconies of apartment buildings and at the restaurants, speaking Hebrew and hearing people speak Hebrew, I feel more a part of the country than I did in the States. I feel like you contribute, even as one person.
The hardship here in terms of war and terrorism and tragedies is horrifying and sometimes unimaginable. Instead of scaring us and making us leave, it strengthens our resolve to stay and thrive and plant roots in our promised land, building a future for our children and grandchildren. My belief is that the safest place to be is Israel.
5. Reuben Beiser
I went to [Providence’s] Classical High School. I’m still in touch with people from Classical. I wasn’t interested in a small parochial school. More than anything else, it illustrates my desire to be mainstream, which also explains my Zionism. Israel lets me live an Orthodox lifestyle while being mainstream.
I came to Israel as a 15-year-old, as part of a mostly-Rhode Island summer trip with the late Rabbi [Jacob S.] Rubenstein [long-serving former rabbi of Providence’s Modern Orthodox Congregation Beth Sholom], in 1983. It was a great trip, great experience. From that trip, Larry Borabeck and I moved to Israel. It was about fifteen kids in the group, which was organized by Rabbi Rubenstein. We studied together, he got us to play music together, and he put together the Israel trip.
On that trip I can remember saying to a friend of mine, “If there wasn’t a financial difficulty, would you live here?” He said no, and I remember being surprised. I wouldn’t say that any one experience or collection of experiences motivated me. I felt connected and wanted to move here. The question was how to do it financially.
I graduated Classical in 1985 and then went to Israel for two years as a yeshiva student. I came alone. Now it’s known as a gap year and many students do it. Now students come as whole schools. We make a big business at Mike’s Place in Jerusalem with the gap year students. It’s packed with American students. Back then, we would send letters home. Today, there is email, Skype. It was before the peace process. It was safer. You could travel anywhere. Since the 1990’s, when the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] came in [to Judea and Samaria/the West Bank and the Gaza Strip] the situation has worsened in terms of travel and safety. During the two years I was studying here, I knew I was going to move here. I graduated from Brown University in 1991 and moved to Israel.
I wasn’t looking for an easy way. I was looking for self-expression, teamwork. And I found it. I have lived here and I have raised my kids here. And I’m satisfied. I won’t say it’s easy, but it’s very fulfilling, and every day is a new adventure.
I was single, 24 years old, and I was looking for myself. I was starting over. Larry Borabeck got me my first job, as a carpenter. I stuck with carpentry until I got accepted to Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design [in Jerusalem]. And that was really my induction into Israeli society. The architecture program was five years. I was part of the team that made the Begin Road; that began my career as an architect in Jerusalem’s largest architects’ office. My best project was probably the Keshet School [in Jerusalem], which combines religious and secular students.
In 2009, I was looking for the next step. The parents of the former owner of Mike’s Place, Assaf Ganzman, were my neighbors. I was talking to him about my dilemma and he said, “You can still do architecture work, but you’d be the perfect person to open up a bar.” This coincided with my desire to open my own business and be involved in the Jerusalem cultural scene. I now run the most American bar in town. I own 80% of the bar and have a partner. I work as a private residential architect, too. It’s important for me to have a finger in that world.
At Mike’s Place we are sort of a home away from home for tourists and expatriates, American yeshiva and gap students, lone soldiers in the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]. That’s what we’re here for. Israelis see it as an American bar. Israelis come here to get ready for their big year in America. My staff is all Israeli, but their parents are Americans, and they speak English and Hebrew. We employ upwards of twenty young and not-so-young adults at any time. Many new immigrants find employment here and get through school working here.
It sounds ironic, but — I fell in love with Israel, wanted to move to Israel, married an Israeli woman, my kids are Israeli — nothing makes you more American than moving to another country. You open your mouth, you are immediately pegged as an American. You will also always miss home. You always miss your youth and home.
My wife’s English is excellent, but we speak Hebrew at home. With my son, I now speak English. It’s coming from him. He’s into languages. My middle daughter won’t speak a word of English to me.
My wife sings in a choir. The carpenter I had worked for sang in that choir. He introduced us. Here were are, eighteen years later — three kids, no dog. She has a large family, which I wasn’t used to, and I inherited a wonderful family. When my brother, Joshua, visited for Thanksgiving, my wife researched it and made a turkey and we had Thanksgiving. If anything, my being American and her being Israeli is mutually enriching.
Look, it’s not at all easy. There are many days when I’m miserable, objectively miserable, and there is no money coming in. But yes, I love it. I think it connects to my move to Israel. I wasn’t looking for an easy way. I was looking for self-expression, teamwork. And I found it. I have lived here and I have raised my kids here. And I’m satisfied. I won’t say it’s easy, but it’s very fulfilling, and every day is a new adventure.
6. Binyamin Beiser
I was in Yeshivat Mevaseret Zion [in Jerusalem] for two years, post-high school, from 1994 to 1996, after graduating from NEAT [Providence’s New England Academy of Torah]. When I was in yeshiva post-high school, I got the bug, so to speak. Even though I left Israel for college in America, I was still here mentally.
I graduated from Yeshiva University in 1999. I returned here right after I graduated, but I went back to the States in the summer of 2003 and met my wife there. Mutual friends set us up. I got married in New York in February 2004 and then returned to Israel with my wife. I’ve been teaching at Yeshivat Mevaseret Zion since 2010. There are about 110 post-high school students here. I’m teaching gemarah [Talmud], primarily.
Overall, I like teaching. My wife is a psychologist. Teaching doesn’t bring in that much money, but we make it work. It’s the ultimate unanswerable question: how to make enough money in Israel?
Americans have hitlabtut [a dilemma]. Fundamentally, it’s pretty simple: I feel I should be here. But I’ve thought about moving to America for pragmatic reasons. When you are married and have kids and get older, ideology begins to fade and you are dealing with life stuff and that can become more challenging.
I didn’t move here for the standard of living. It was definitely religion and ideology. This is the right place to be for Am Yisrael [the nation of Israel]. It’s an idealistic, religious imperative. It’s a mitzvah [religious commandment]. For me it was more religious than Zionism, per se. I saw it as more of a Torah imperative, rather than Zionism or nationalism: Am Yisrael coming back to its place. I live in Giv’at Ze’ev. I guess I’m a settler. It’s over the Green Line [the 1949 demarcation line separating Israel from bordering Arab countries].
At the end of the day, I’m still American. Even though I’m fluent in Hebrew, culturally I’m still American. The religious dynamic is different here. It’s hard with the bureaucracy. There are certain elements where I’m not Israeli. I’m americai [American]. That label sticks forever. My children speak Hebrew as their first language. They speak Hebrew to each other. They speak English too. We speak English to them.
Americans have hitlabtut [a dilemma]. Fundamentally, it’s pretty simple: I feel I should be here. But I’ve thought about moving to America for pragmatic reasons. When you are married and have kids and get older, ideology begins to fade and you are dealing with life stuff and that can become more challenging. Our families are in America, so there is a pull to America. America is more comfortable and easier. I guess the pull isn’t great enough. It’s a harder life here. There are security concerns. But “en eretz yisrael niknet elah beyisurim” [“the land of Israel is acquired only through hardships”].
7. Cheryl Mizrahi Saltan
I was in New York. I was working all the time as an actuary and was miserable. I saved up money to be able to take time off and explore the music business. I didn’t want to regret not seriously trying that. In college, I had worked for the band Guster. I graduated in 2000. When I graduated from college, I said, “Okay. Now is the time to be responsible.” But I quit work in 2008. I was unhappy and it got to the point where I needed to change something.
I had never lived abroad. I originally planned to go to Europe, but had a free place to stay in Israel with my siblings [Lisa Ravitz and Shaul (Alan) Mizrahi] who lived here. I originally came to Israel for three months, but I liked it here and started to make friends, so I extended my stay for a few more months. I sublet an apartment in Jerusalem. I met Yaniv Tsaidi from Heedoosh and became the band’s manager.
I loved Israel, believed in Israel, and was a Zionist, but it was never a dream of mine to live in Israel. But once I was here, I was happier. I think that’s what it came down to.
When I first came it was supposed to be a vacation. I got here and found it’s so different from New York. New York is all about what people do for a living, what clothes they’re wearing. Here it was so much more relaxed. And I was working in music. When I decided to manage Heedoosh, I realized I needed to stay here. The band was the catalyst for aliyah. So I said, “Yeah. This could work. Fine. I’ll make aliyah. And if it doesn’t work out, I’ll just go back to the States.” I still had money saved up.
My parents were totally shocked when I said I was making aliyah. They always asked if I would move to Israel after my siblings. I had always said, “Me? Never.” I loved Israel, believed in Israel, and was a Zionist, but it was never a dream of mine to live in Israel. But once I was here, I was happier. I think that’s what it came down to.
I planned to fly back to the States, pack up everything, and fly back on an aliyah flight. I met Jeremy [Saltan] in July. We went out a few times and then I left. I made aliyah in August of 2008. I always say I had the easiest aliyah ever. I had friends here. I had a boyfriend. I had family. I had money saved up. It was super easy.
A couple of months after making aliyah, I started running out of money. But I was burnt out and didn’t want to go back to my job. It had taken over my life and I had needed to get away from it. I also realized that managing a band is a lot of managing the different personalities in a band. I had gotten it out of my system. I told my old boss I wanted to come back to work, but that I was staying in Israel. I was hired back as a contractor. People say to me, “Wow. It’s amazing. You made aliyah.” It was not, I think, the typical aliyah. I’m definitely lucky.
I’m an actuary. I work for the same company I worked for in the States. I work American hours, though, which is harder when you have kids. It’s hard, but it’s certainly a better salary than anything an Israeli company would pay, and my Hebrew is not good enough anyway. Plus, I get to work from home and there’s tons of flexibility.
I like going back to the States, but I never get the feeling, “I wish I could live here again.” I have two homes. America is familiar. Everything is easier. Shopping: the products are familiar and available and cheap. That I miss. It’s trivial stuff. We’d have a nice big house if we were there. But none of it makes me want to go back. I like that my kids will be Israeli. Mimi [Cheryl’s daughter] is fluent in Hebrew and explains that her mom only speaks a little Hebrew.
I can do basic things. I can order a cab, order in a restaurant. But most of the time, I don’t use Hebrew. Unfortunately, you can manage pretty well without Hebrew in this country. My husband speaks English. All my friends speak English. I have one Israeli friend. I actually got ragged on at Tipat Halav [a government-sponsored center offering health and medical services for pregnant women, new mothers, infants, and children] with Mikey [Cheryl’s baby boy]. I was trying to answer questions and the woman working there asked how long I’d been in Israel. I said, “Seven years.” And she said, “Seven years! And this is how you speak Hebrew?”
I wish there were a way to go to dinner in the States and come back. I miss my friends there. My closest friends are still in the States, but there is so much about their lives that I don’t know. And that’s hard. But if I were there, I wouldn’t see my siblings or nieces and nephews.
8. Orli Mintz
Why did I make aliyah? It’s always such a complicated question. It’s a mesh. Also, the reasons why one makes aliyah are not necessarily identical to the reasons why one stays. I believe for me this is very true. I was raised in a Zionist atmosphere in America. In the States, it’s a Christian country, even if they don’t admit it, and you feel it. Here it’s nice that the national and religious identity is yours. The holidays here are my holidays. I also like that, at least for now, here it is less materialistic — family is happiness, not finances is happiness. To be honest, also, in the back of my head — Germany, the Holocaust, it could happen again.
I graduated from Maimonides [School in Brookline, Massachusetts] and my sister helped me apply to a Young Judea program. I worked on a kibbutz and picked pomegranates for three months. I fell in love with the land itself. It was hard not to. I studied Public Health for three and half years at Brandeis University, graduated a semester early, and made aliyah two weeks later. I’ve been living in Israel for seven years.
There are a lot of people here from Rhode Island, which has a small Jewish community, and some find that surprising. But if you think about it, it makes sense. Most young Orthodox Jews grow up in Rhode Island knowing that they probably won’t live there when they’re older and will move away, maybe to the Boston area, or New York, or the West Coast. Since they know this and plan to move away anyway, Israel is a more real option to them, and one many choose.
My career is more or less the same kind of career I would want to have in the States. Here, I actually have more career opportunities because there are less people here with my exact same resume. Nursing is how I can do public health, but it’s also a safe financial decision. Patients and coworkers ask me why I’m here in Israel and not in America — most are referring to the financial gain in America, few the religious freedom. To the few who mention the religious freedom in America, I explain the complexities of a Jewish identity in a country where your assumed faith is Christianity. To most, I explain that it’s nice to work in a health system where I can give care to any citizen — complicated care, expensive care that they can get for free or a low cost. Yes, I make a lot less money, but knowing that I am able to provide care for all citizens (as well as many non-citizens) increases my work fulfillment.
There is a big difference between the cultures of the US and Israel in terms of saving. One is a capitalist country and one is a largely socialist country. People save less here and there is less of an expectation or need to save. Health care is offered by the state. Education is cheaper. Debt from student loans, schooling, and health care are not a burden for most people. College students are expected to pay for their own education. People’s expectations of what a home looks like are a bit more modest, for now.
There are a lot of people here from Rhode Island, which has a small Jewish community, and some find that surprising. But if you think about it, it makes sense. Most young Orthodox Jews grow up in Rhode Island knowing that they probably won’t live there when they’re older and will move away, maybe to the Boston area, or New York, or the West Coast. Since they know this and plan to move away anyway, Israel is a more real option to them, and one many choose.
The minute I stopped thinking that it is all or nothing, I started to love Israel more, and to find my place here. It’s too much pressure and not fair to mold people into symbols of the fulfillment of the Jewish dream if they make aliyah, and to paint them as failures if they decide to return to America.
I don’t want it to seem as though I didn’t or don’t like America. I love America. America was and is great to me, and shaped a lot of my mindset and of who I am. I think that, in general, aliyah is put out as something that is all or nothing: you move to Israel for the rest of your life, or you never make aliyah, or you make aliyah and have failed if you come back. I think it’s not fair or healthy to think of it that way. In my case, what 22-year-old knows what she wants for the rest of her life? The truth is I still am not sure what I want for the rest of my life.
The minute I stopped thinking that it is all or nothing, I started to love Israel more, and to find my place here. It’s too much pressure and not fair to mold people into symbols of the fulfillment of the Jewish dream if they make aliyah, and to paint them as failures if they decide to return to America. Like most things in life, people should choose what works best for them as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else.
9. Michael Mintz
I should say upfront that Lea and I are considering moving back to the US in about a year. I’m looking forward to it — living as an adult there for the first time. I’ve been in the country consistently since I came for a year after high school. I went to an obscure yeshiva. It was both very academic yet decidedly political, especially when it came to Zionism. Very quickly, I was roped into making aliyah. I got there in September of 2008. By December 2010, I knew I was going to make aliyah. Looking back, I would say I was a young, impassioned kid — and when you get an idea hammered in day and night, and you’re in a bubble, and really pushed by the rabbis . . .
When you’re in New York, you may need Israel less. The draw for people growing up in Providence with a strong Jewish identity is that there is nowhere to go forward there as an adult. In every non-major Jewish community in America there is a struggle, a downward spiral.
When you’re in New York, you may need Israel less. The draw for people growing up in Providence with a strong Jewish identity is that there is nowhere to go forward there as an adult. In every non-major Jewish community in America there is a struggle, a downward spiral. I was caught up in the movement of Anglos coming to Israel. For people coming from Providence, there’s a sense that in Israel we’ll never feel that outsider status, that lack. The yeshiva drove home that this was our land.
Already going into my second year of yeshiva studies, I started the process of making aliyah with Nefesh B’Nefesh [an organization that facilitates aliyah from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom]. In so many ways I was more excited for the charter flight than for the aliyah itself. I think that at the time I was in the yeshiva, I felt very special. I loved the idea of arriving in Israel on a red carpet and having people waiting with signs.
I made aliyah on August 18, 2010. You arrive and everyone is there. My friends were there. Orli [Mintz; Mike’s sister] was there. And it’s a party. And then you get into a sherut [taxi], the door closes, and you are alone. I moved directly to Herzliya. I was 20 years old, intensely nationalistic, and intent on living the Modern Orthodox lifestyle. I felt like I had life figured out at that point.
After making aliyah, I started feeling more of a pawn in some new Jewish conquest. It began to feel like a big political movement that doesn’t have the people’s interests in mind — olim or Israelis. The disparity between illusion and reality is a reason many people go back to America; this is just a place. Even though I’m a little bit bitter about the process of how it happened, I would not give up the experience of the past several years for anything.
I went to IDC Herzliya and studied communications. It was such a process building up a life from the ground up, materially and socially. I was basically living off the college fund my parents saved for me. My entire college degree here cost about half of what one year would have cost in America. On the whole, studying at IDC was a great experience. I went in very religious and came out atheist. Once your world is opened up and cracks form and you explore those cracks, religion doesn’t often survive.
I moved to Tel Aviv, like many graduates. I think Tel Aviv as a city has an impact on young people in their 20s. It’s a fantastic place to spend a few years living. To me there’s nothing more Tel Avivi than waking up on Shabbat [Saturday], walking through the quiet streets, sitting at a café, ordering your American coffee and bacon and eggs, and in the process you feel no less connected to your tradition. The menu is in Hebrew. You are ordering in Hebrew. And it’s completely Jewish. It’s the most Jewish city in the world, demographically. More than Jerusalem. I’ve fully embraced my cultural Judaism. At yeshiva, the rabbis would joke that I was a secular person trapped in a religious body. Maybe they were right. Becoming secular has its own form of crisis, existentially, but I’m much happier. I feel I’m living a more honest self.
I don’t believe the two-state solution [to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict] is possible anymore. In the Middle East, everything is going back to tribalism and Israel is a part of that. I don’t think that a country that calls itself a democratic state, for the people, can exist along ethno-religious lines. For me the most frustrating thing with the situation and crisis is that nobody has any original ideas. Everyone lives in their echo chambers. People have a hard time saying Israel has systemic problems while also being a model in many ways. It’s as though they can’t hold these two thoughts at the same time. People can’t say both sides have legitimate grievances. Amos Oz has said that tragedy isn’t a clash between right and wrong; it’s a clash between right and right.
So many things here are just hard. Bureaucracy is a word people throw around a lot, and it’s not a small thing. It also feels very claustrophobic here. Lea and I did a road trip in the US last summer. You can drive for days in the US. Existentially, it feels bigger. Here, it’s a small place. You can drive for six hours. That’s it.
I’m not as fluent in Hebrew as I’d like to be. All of my friends are English-speaking. After seven years, I can get by totally okay, but I never crossed that threshold into complete fluency. I just wasn’t motivated enough. With Orli, it’s different. She works in Hebrew, thinks in Hebrew. She works with Israelis. It’s taken a while to see that this is definitely the place for Orli and definitely not the place for me.
Here, it’s month to month financially. You get paid once a month. Everybody — I mean, everybody — is in a minus [an overdraft at the bank] at some point of the year. If you’re not, you’re an anomaly. People don’t really live on a budget. It’s not part of the culture. The goal here is not to save. It’s to know we’re not going to be in a minus perpetually. Most of the jobs people are offering to young college-educated English speakers are awful. It’s not easy to find a fulfilling job. We’re a generation that grew up with a spoiled mentality that you graduate from college and you find a fulfilling job. I’ve definitely had my times of struggle, and many of my friends continue to burrow themselves down the financial rabbit hole. Israel giveth; Israel taketh away.
So many things here are just hard. Bureaucracy is a word people throw around a lot, and it’s not a small thing. It also feels very claustrophobic here. Lea and I did a road trip in the US last summer. You can drive for days in the US. Existentially, it feels bigger. Here, it’s a small place. You can drive for six hours. That’s it. And the culture is more or less the same everywhere, unless you’re in Tel Aviv. I’m excited about the professional opportunities in the US. I have a nephew there I want to be near. I feel far. I feel removed. I’m an American at heart. I’m an American trapped in an Israeli body. I always thought it was the opposite, but it’s taken me a long time to figure out the honest truth.
I’ve been saying that I’m considering moving back to the US in about a year for a long time, by the way.
10. Ilan Ben Zion
I made aliyah because I was fascinated by the place since the first time I came to Israel in 2001, on an Achva summer program through Young Judea. It’s a land with a living history; here, you have the long view of history. I was taken in by the smell and feel. Having siblings here was a factor. And the Zionist spirit: wanting to be part of the pioneering experience.
I changed my last name from Mitchell to Ben Zion when I moved here. There were a number of factors. One of them was to embrace my Jewish identity more and make it my own. So I took my grandfather’s name, which was Ben Zion.
My final decision was in 2008. I was 22 and had an older brother, Gabi, and a younger sister, Nomi, here. Since then I’ve moved around the country quite a bit. A Masters at Tel Aviv University for two years. A year in Be’er Sheva. Four years in Jerusalem.
I changed my last name from Mitchell to Ben Zion when I moved here. There were a number of factors. One of them was to embrace my Jewish identity more and make it my own. So I took my grandfather’s name, which was Ben Zion. Benjamin Helfner was a Rhode Islander and at one point president of Touro Synagogue [in Newport]. He was an active member of the community and all about doing for others. He was a man I admired and respected. His grandfather’s name was also Ben Zion. In having the name I aspire to live up to his reputation and the values he was true to. That was the main reason. Also, leaving a place where no one could pronounce my first name, I didn’t want to now have a last name no one could pronounce.
The Times of Israel was a month before launch. I contacted the editor and told him, “I’m Ilan Ben Zion and I’m looking for work.” The next day I went in to interview and was hired on the spot. Four years later I’m still there.
I served in the army for ten months. My commanding officer in Beit El absolutely hated me. To punish me, he transferred me to a field base outside Nablus [Shechem], and I happened to be there before Pesach [Passover]. My officer there said to the soldiers, “We have a treat for you. You can either go home early for Pesach or come see the Samaritans’ Passover sacrifice.” Curious as I was, I went to Har Gerizim [Mount Gerizim, the mountain held sacred by the Samaritans, where they carry out the Passover sacrifice]. There I met Daniel Estrin [an American journalist who works in the Middle East]. I met him just before the Samaritans slaughtered the goats or sheep. I told him I wanted to go into freelancing. He told me to be in touch, and after I got out of the army I contacted him.
He suggested I call The Times of Israel and see if they were looking for employees. This was late January 2012. The Times of Israel was a month before launch. I contacted the editor [David Horovitz] and told him, “I’m Ilan Ben Zion and I’m looking for work.” The next day I went in to interview and was hired on the spot. Four years later I’m still there.
It’s a little bit surreal looking back on it. In four years, we’ve covered two wars [Operation Pillar of Defense, 2012; Operation Protective Edge, 2014], two Israeli elections, and an American election. It’s been, at times, frantic, hard to take in. When Matti Friedman [a Canadian-born author who lives in Israel and is perhaps best-known for his The Aleppo Codex] left The Times of Israel, I went to David [Horovitz] and asked to take his beat. Until then I was doing mostly desk work. An article here. An article there. Mostly translation. This was the first opportunity to do more hard-reporting and stuff I could be proud to put my name on. The desk was a good place to cut my teeth as a new writer: writing a lead, writing under pressure. The desk work feeds my body and the other writing feeds my soul. I live in an exciting time and in this exciting place to a reporter. I lucked out.
Rhode Island will always be home. That’s the truth. That’s where I grew up and had my formative experiences. It’s home. It will always be that . . . Israel is home too, and I feel at home here. You have two parents; who says you can’t have two homes?
It’s always nice to go to home. Rhode Island will always be home. That’s the truth. That’s where I grew up and had my formative experiences. It’s home. It will always be that. I know every corner of the East Side [of Providence]. I can still walk the streets with my eyes closed. The whole place, every street corner, is laced with nostalgia. It’s my childhood home and will always have a special place in my heart. Israel is home too, and I feel at home here. You have two parents; who says you can’t have two homes?
11. Yaakov Felder
I made aliyah in 2009, just after I turned 18. I felt a basic and crucial part of being Jewish was living in Israel. So much of Judaism and the Torah surrounds being in Israel. My parents wanted to make sure it was a thought-out decision, but they were supportive. The environment they brought me up in was one of leading towards moving to Israel.
I think that in the same way my parents were proud of having a son in an Israeli combat unit, my dream was to have my children’s te’udot zehut [Israeli identification cards] state that they were born in Israel.
The decision to make aliyah I made when I was 17, studying in Israel for a year after high school at Yeshivat Sha’alvim, next to Modi’in. It had a very strong program for overseas students and also Israelis, which is what I wanted. While I was there I had a deep experience. I was able to see Israel at close hand. It was a great time for me to make aliyah while I was in the yeshiva setting and at that age. I made aliyah and went back to Sha’alvim.
In March 2010, I joined the army and became a paratrooper. I felt strongly about being in the army. It was very meaningful because I felt I had the opportunity to be a very strong Jew in a Jewish country and be able to defend the land of the Torah, the land of Hashem [God], and all of the people here. For me, to have the experience of being in an elite combat unit gave me the opportunity to be part of the culture. A lot of Americans make aliyah after college or later in life, without doing the army, and feel there is a part of their Israeli identity and experience that is missing.
Hesder is meant to combine a very intense yeshiva experience as well as a very meaningful military experience. I wanted both. I was in yeshiva for a year and eight months, then active duty for a year and five months, and then back in yeshiva for two years. In terms of hesder, one aspect that was challenging to my parents was that I was pushing off college. It was hard for my parents to process culturally how things work here. A lot of Americans feel pressured or driven to start university right away, but I didn’t feel that need. I was happy to be in the army and yeshiva.
I think with all parents, including Israeli parents, there is concern about children in the army. For my parents it was more so, because of the distance. I wanted to keep them happy and naïve. They were nervous, but it was a source of pride for them that I was living the dream of being a soldier in the Israeli army.
Sivan and I met through my sister, Sophie. She made aliyah with her family in August 2011, which was just after I finished my active duty part of the hesder program. We got married in April 2012, after dating for a few months. Now she works in movie production. She does directing and editing. We moved to Gush Etzion, to Alon Shvut, in fall 2014, into a kollel program where married men get a stipend and heavily subsidized housing while they are studying in yeshiva. We picked Alon Shvut because of the kollel program for married couples. It has a very warm community, which we were looking for, and we’re very happy there. I’ve always enjoyed teaching and I’m almost finished with my four-year degree in education from a teachers’ college, Herzog, in Alon Shvut.
It was definitely a conscious decision to live in a settlement in the West Bank. For me, Alon Shvut is no different than Tel Aviv. Both are Israel. And many people all over the world look at Jews living in Tel Aviv no differently than at Jews living in Alon Shvut: they accept neither. I know that I live in a place where our forefathers, and Samson, and the kings of Israel lived. Yes, I have to be conscious and careful, but the fact that there are people around me who want to kill me is not enough to pressure me to leave. Part of that is also carrying a gun — which I otherwise would not do — to protect myself and others. It’s a protective measure that allows me to live a normal life.
I’m fully a part of Israel. I have close friends from the army. People look at me as an Israeli. Because of my fluency in Hebrew and experience in yeshiva and the army, I’m able to interact naturally and fully with other Israelis. During December 2013, my son was born. I think that in the same way my parents were proud of having a son in an Israeli combat unit, my dream was to have my children’s te’udot zehut [Israeli identification cards] state that they were born in Israel.
12. Shara (Zuckerman) Shetrit
When I was 6-months-old, my grandparents on my mother’s side made aliyah during the Yom Kippur War [in 1973]. My mother and older siblings tried to convince them to push off their aliyah, but they insisted. They were the only civilians on the plane to Israel. When they got off the plane, there were no taxis. They hitched a ride on an army supply van and went to Netanya. The next day all their neighbors came out and applauded.
I was born to a family of New Yorkers in Providence. I’ve always felt one foot in Israel, one foot in the States. My father zichrono livracha [Professor Alan Zuckerman, of blessed memory] took us on sabbatical years and semesters to Israel. He was a professor of political science at Brown University and taught at Tel Aviv University. Many vacations and parts of summers were spent in Israel. I went to Camp Yavneh, a very Zionistic Camp. I came from a very Zionistic home.
I went to PHDS [Providence Hebrew Day School] through eighth grade, went to NEAT [Providence’s New England Academy of Torah] for one year, and then Maimonides [School in Brookline, Massachusetts] for three years. I went to New York University and studied communication and marketing. After college, I moved to Israel without making aliyah initially. I came for a year to check it out. That year turned into eight.
I met my husband in 1999. I was biking home from my hi-tech job in the middle of Tel Aviv, which I took so I’d have email and could be better in touch with family and friends back home, and he and his friends pulled up in a car alongside me while the light was red. I was trying to ignore them. My parents told me not to talk to strangers.
They called out, “What would you say if we introduced you to your future husband?”
They gave me his phone number.
I asked, “Does he keep Shabbat?”
They said, “Yes. He keeps Shabbat, he keeps kosher, and he puts on tefillin.”
I had no response plan, so I gave them my number.
He called me a couple of days later. We ended up going out because his friends forced him out. He wasn’t going to call, but a friend dialed the number for him.
In 2000, we got married. We had to get married after that story.
In 2003, we went to the States. I missed my family and wanted be near my parents. My husband was okay with it and did it to make me happy. He would have preferred to stay here, but was open to the adventure. We said we’ll do it for a few years and see what happens. We always planned to come back. I wanted to miss Israel.
Nine years later, we returned. My father passed away in 2009. In 2012, we decided to come back to Israel. We had no plans. We were going to look for jobs. Part of the impetus to come back was for my husband, who is sick with progressive MS, to be closer to his family. We wanted our children to grow up here. We didn’t want them to have to make the choice to make aliyah. We wanted to make that choice for them. A lot of families who make aliyah — the biggest gift they’re giving their children, even though it’s challenging, is that they’re taking away that difficult decision from them.
In February 2013, I was hired here at Nefesh B’Nefesh . . . I’m a social media and community manager. I run the Facebook page, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook groups, and Instagram. I call myself a story collector. I collect stories of people who make aliyah, the struggles they’ve overcome. I speak to people every day who have moved here.
It wasn’t easy, but it’s been four years. In February 2013, I was hired here at Nefesh B’Nefesh [an organization that facilitates aliyah from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom]. Working at Nefesh B’Nefesh reaffirms my commitment to living in Israel every day. It gives me the chizuk [strength] to stay and appreciate living here. I live on a street called Sarah Imenu [Sarah our matriarch] in Modi’in [the place where the Hasmonean/Maccabean revolt, commemorated during Hanukkah, began]. Who we are as a people, and our history — our biblical history — is here.
I’m a social media and community manager. I run the Facebook page, Pinterest, Twitter, Facebook groups, and Instagram. I call myself a story collector. I collect stories of people who make aliyah, the struggles they’ve overcome. I speak to people every day who have moved here. And there are definitely struggles. There are always going to be challenges and struggles. You have to take the good with the bad. There are a ton of opportunities to give back to our people and to the country. Here, many people reinvent themselves. There are many more opportunities here for people to work with the skills they have. You can prove yourself in whatever field if you are industrious and scrappy.
It’s easy to be a Jew in America now. I think it’s basically a miracle how we get by here. We make do with less. It’s an Israeli miracle. People take side jobs, both to make ends meet, but also because people are inspired to do more here. They are not working just to make another dollar to spend at Target. We don’t spend tons on summer camp or on fashion. There is no yeshiva tuition to pay here. People have less space and don’t overbuy. People don’t worry about saving as much. There is a lot more of flying by the seat of their pants.
It’s easy to be a Jew in America now. I think it’s basically a miracle how we get by here. We make do with less. It’s an Israeli miracle.
It’s not an easy place to live or an easy country, but the meaning that our lives have here makes it one-hundred-percent worth it. People often call Israelis difficult, but they are the warmest people, who will give you the shirt off their back to help you. My mother [Roberta Zuckerman] came about two and half years ago. She lives in Jerusalem, about forty-five minutes to an hour away from us. Aliyah is something my parents had always planned. They always planned to move here. It was a natural next step for her. She is remarried to an American here.
13. Tova Stark Levine
I was born to my loving parents in Portland, Maine. My parents decided to move because they wanted a bigger Jewish community. My father, Marvin Stark, got a job at the Jewish Community Center in Providence. My mom, Miriam Stark, got a job with USY [United Synagogue Youth] in Providence. I was six. All three of the children were born in Maine. I’m the oldest.
We went to PHDS [Providence Hebrew Day School] because we were looking for a shomer Shabbat [Sabbath-observing] community. My father is Orthodox; my mother is egalitarian Conservadox. We went to [Providence’s Modern Orthodox Congregation] Beth Sholom. We learned a little bit about Israel in school: Israeli Independence Day and Yom HaShoah [Holocaust Remembrance Day]. I remember Mrs. [Rina] Holtzman [long-time Hebrew teacher at PHDS] giving us shokolad marrir [Israeli dark chocolate]. I also had four girl-cousins on my father’s side who all went to Israel for their bat mitzvah trips. My uncle and father were very Zionist. We grew up on stories of how my father was studying abroad as a student at Tel Aviv University during the Yom Kippur War [in 1973]. I think consciously and subconsciously, I admired that my cousins went to Israel. Two of those four cousins made aliyah when I was a teenager.
I went to high school at Maimonides [School in Brookline, Massachusetts]. They focused a lot on Hebrew. Beth [Japhet] and I landed an amazing Hebrew teacher, Tami Arnon, who was a lawyer and Hebrew teacher. Why was she amazing? She taught us how to speak. She gave us the opportunity to learn Israeli culture and songs. I always feel that for some subconscious reason, I made the effort. I said, “This is our language. I want to learn it.”
In the summer between eleventh and twelfth grade, I went on Nesiya, in 2005. My mom discovered it. It was a great trip. It was an arts-focused trip that did art workshops, community service, and involved fully-participating Israeli teens. I think the most impactful things were the Israeli teens and the Hebrew. I think being immersed in Israeli culture is the only thing that teaches you how to speak and imitate the sounds and intonations and learn the slang. It was the summer of the hitnatkut [“Disengagement”; the Israeli military withdrawal from the entire Gaza Strip and removal of all Jews living there]. The evacuations began the day after we left. This affected me politically. I think I was always right-wing. I believe this land is ours. It is the land of our forefathers.
I came back to high school and did senior year. The trend was to go for a year to seminary [religious studies program] in Israel. I didn’t end up spending that year in Israel after high school but I knew I’d go for a junior year abroad. During my junior year at Binghamton University, I studied at the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University [in Jerusalem]. I attended the ulpan [intensive Hebrew language school] in the summer, which also helped my Hebrew. I kept in touch with the Israelis from Camp Ramah when I was at Hebrew University. It was amazing. Literally, every day was an adventure.
Beginning in 2008, I went to Camp Ramah. Every time I went to camp, the three things that kept me going back were: location, the Israelis and Hebrew, and the special needs program there. The camp was extremely important. It was interwoven with high school, college, and post-college adult life in Israel. The camp experience was magical and allowed me to meet Israelis in America and learn Hebrew.
I was completing a double major in Human Development and Judaic Studies. At that point, I knew I wanted to be a social worker or work with people, like my mom. I’m also fascinated with the history of the Jews. After that, I came back to America and finished up at Binghamton. I graduated in 2010. I said, “Parents, I got my year in Israel, but I didn’t get my year of Torah! I need to go to Nishmat [in Jerusalem].” Nishmat is a program for women. It’s half Israeli, half American, and has a small Ethiopian program also.
I met my husband at a Friday evening meal at our rabbi’s house, Rabbi Weissberg. I was reading a Hebrew book to the kids and speaking Hebrew to them, and Evan [Levine] thought I was Israeli. He was studying at Mayanot, a Chabad [Lubavitch] yeshiva. A month before I met Evan, I had opened a tik [file] with Nefesh B’Nefesh [an organization that facilitates aliyah from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom], thinking that I would make aliyah. I met Evan and put aliyah on pause. We dated for four months in Israel and then I visited him in Los Angeles, in 2011, where he had gone back to work as a financial analyst at a law firm. I told my mom, “I’m moving to LA to pursue this relationship.” Purim [the Festival of Lots], we got engaged, a bit over a year after we met.
My parents were very supportive, but sad about me moving halfway across the world, and they wondered how we would make it work financially. The irony of raising your kids as Zionists is that they will eventually leave, pick up, and move to Israel.
Once we were engaged, Evan said, “What do you think of making aliyah?” My response to aliyah was, “Yes” and “Obviously. I love Israel.” My hesitation was in how we were going to make it work. He said he’d start up a small business consulting firm with a friend in LA, and he would work from Israel. This business, Venture Financial Associates, involved writing business plans for people in America. My other hesitation: I love my family. The hardest part is being away from family. No question. The shopping I can do without: the pretzel M&M’s, Old Navy, Target.
I think it was good Evan pushed us. We had just gotten engaged and were going to be starting our lives together, and we may as well start in Israel. It was as easy as that. It was a joint decision. My parents were very supportive, but sad about me moving halfway across the world, and they wondered how we would make it work financially. The irony of raising your kids as Zionists is that they will eventually leave, pick up, and move to Israel.
I worked full-time as a communications associate at Nesiya. I was accepted into an MA program in Community Social Work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and did two years of fieldwork (two days weekly), plus coursework once a week, while working part-time at an Anglo shul [synagogue] called Shir Hadash [in Jerusalem]. Basically, I’m turning into my mother.
Evan is learning full-time at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Gush Etzion. He is also doing part-time writing projects. We live in Alon Shvut. I’m proud to live in Judea and Samaria [the West Bank]. I believe it is part of the Land of Israel. We now live in the yeshiva because he studies there.
Here it’s survival: get by as you can. Some olim have to have three jobs. But we’re living the Zionist dream. We’ll see where the future takes us. If after Evan gets semicha [rabbinic ordination] he can’t get a job as a teacher-rabbi, we may return to America; but the other week, when we were sitting around with our friends thinking about where we want to build a house or move to, Evan said he wanted it to be here in Israel. We want to make our lives here.
These thirteen interviewees are not a representative sample of olim from Rhode Island. Nonetheless, a number of patterns emerge from the qualitative conversations.
All thirteen were raised in Zionist homes in which the land and state of Israel were important components of Jewish identity. Almost all received an early education in Orthodox schools (including Rhea Diwinsky, whose family was affiliated with the Conservative Temple Emanu-El). None come from wholly secular Jewish backgrounds.
In almost all cases (with the exception of Cheryl Saltan), a powerful connection made with the land, state, or people of Israel when they were teenagers, or younger, led to their decisions to make aliyah: Shara Shetrit during family sabbaticals and summers; Avraham Allen and Reuben Beiser during their first trips at age 15; Tova Levine while on a Nesiya program between eleventh and twelfth grade; Orli Mintz and Ilan Ben Zion during Young Judea programs; Nathan Japhet, Binyamin Beiser, Michal Mintz, and (at age 17) Yaakov Felder during post-high school studies at yeshiva; Beth Japhet during a seminary gap year; and Rhea Diwinsky while attending a post-high school folkdance workshop.
With the exception of Rhea Diwinsky (who is of a more senior generation than the others), none describe antisemitism as a conspicuous feature of Jewish life in America (though Orli Mintz discloses a raw fear of this emerging one day). Throughout history, the movement of Jews from country to country has often been dictated rather than chosen, but this has not been the case with American Jews making aliyah.
These olim were not fulfilled by the popular Jewish American notion of Judaism as a universalistic tikkun olam (repairing the world)/social justice religion. Instead, taking Jewish peoplehood and the centrality of the Land of Israel most seriously, they sought to live in a Jewish state in the Jewish land.
The olim refer to the financial struggles of living in Israel rather than the United States (Avraham Allen, Beth Japhet, Reuben Beiser, Binyamin Beiser, Michael Mintz, Shara Shetrit, and Tova Levine), the challenges of being away from family or friends (Nathan Japhet, Beth Japhet, Cheryl Saltan, and Tova Levine), the security situation in Israel (Avraham Allen, Beth Japhet, Rhea Diwinsky, Reuben Beiser, and Yaakov Felder), or the place America (and Rhode Island) still has in their hearts (Nathan Japhet, Reuben Beiser, Cheryl Saltan, Orli Mintz, Michael Mintz, and Ilan Ben Zion). Most of these Rhode Islanders speak affectionately — and some even longingly — about the country of their birth.
There remains the possibility of returning to America (mentioned by Binyamin Beiser, Cheryl Saltan, Orli Mintz, Michael Mintz, and Tova Levine), even after one has made aliyah. Moving back and forth between the two countries (as Shara Shetrit has done) after making aliyah is also an option. American Jews have choices and these choices sometimes result in what Binyamin Beiser terms hitlabtut, a dilemma of where to be: the Jewish state with its relative trials or the United States with its comparative ease.
Still, Rhode Islanders keep making aliyah. Siblings (in the case of the Japhets, Beisers, Saltan/Ravitz/Mizrahis, Mintzs, and Ben Zion/Mitchells) follow siblings. These Jews embed to a greater or lesser degree in Israeli society — enlist in the Israeli army or opt not to serve, master Hebrew or stick to English, stay within the Green Line or become mitnahalim (settlers), find Israeli-born partners and spouses or ones from English-speaking countries — but do not often return to Rhode Island.
According to Orli Mintz, who has effectively integrated into the country, “Most young Orthodox Jews grow up in Rhode Island knowing that they probably won’t live there when they’re older and will move away . . . Since they know this and plan to move away anyway, Israel is a more real option to them, and one many choose.”
Her brother, Michael Mintz, who said he did not intend to remain in Israel — and who has, in fact, moved back to the United States shortly after getting married, but who does not plan to return to Rhode Island with his wife, Lea — expresses a similar idea: “The draw for people growing up in Providence with a strong Jewish identity is that there is nowhere to go forward there as an adult. In every non-major Jewish community in America there is a struggle, a downward spiral.” Their critique, if correct, may not only apply to the Orthodox Jewish community of Rhode Island; in any case, it is worthy of further consideration and discussion.
These olim were not fulfilled by the popular Jewish American notion of Judaism as a universalistic tikkun olam (repairing the world)/social justice religion. Instead, taking Jewish peoplehood and the centrality of the Land of Israel most seriously, they sought to live in a Jewish state in the Jewish land. Craving more than financial success and increased social status, they located the vital future of the Jewish people in the reborn state of Israel. For all but one, Israel has fulfilled their lofty dreams, despite hardships and disappointments. Aliyah has been a compelling, rewarding, and uplifting experience, allowing them to feel that they have two homes.
A note on the text
Thomas Sowell, in his 2001 “Some Thoughts about Writing” (Hoover Essays No. 24), argues: “Pointing out unclear passages, or even suggesting a complete reorganization of a manuscript, are legitimate editorial functions. Becoming an unwanted co-author is not” (p. 8). Sowell goes on to propose that “editors and copy-editors could perform a useful service—if they were not so preoccupied with becoming co-authors” (p. 16).
One phrase for which there is no rhyme or reason is “light editing.” You are better off believing in the tooth fairy than believing that these words have any concrete meaning. Whatever the particular editor is used to doing will be called “light editing.” — Thomas Sowell
My article above was first published as “Two Homes: Thirteen Rhode Islanders Who Have Made ‘Aliyah,’” in Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes 17:2 (2016). Unfortunately, that journal’s editor could not restrict himself to legitimate editorial functions and was instead preoccupied with becoming a co-author with the interviewees, rewriting parts of the text that they had approved for publication and that I had submitted to the journal. Much of my commentary was rewritten by him as well, to express his ideas rather than mine, though I was successful in disentangling my name from most of those changes.
The journal’s editor may be used to engaging in such “co-authoring,” but that kind of approach, in my opinion, compromised the historical record offered by the interviews. Nuance and detail were lost as a result of an insupportable and unnecessary tampering. The published product, in what is ostensibly a history journal, was not one I could feel proud sharing with the people who took the time to tell me their stories.
In his preface to my article in the Notes, the editor writes that he “made some small changes” to what the interviewees approved and I submitted. “Small changes” reminds me of what Sowell has to say about “light editing”: “One phrase for which there is no rhyme or reason is ‘light editing.’ You are better off believing in the tooth fairy than believing that these words have any concrete meaning. Whatever the particular editor is used to doing will be called ‘light editing’” (p. 12). This Times of Israel article represents a necessary corrective (in terms of content and typographical errors) to the version previously published in the Notes, with its “small changes.” All of the interviewees approved the version of their narratives that is found here.