Sunday, March 30, 2014

Aliyah Stories: Moshe Tzvi

Today I present to you the Aliyah story of Moshe Tzvi, from Cleveland, Ohio, who made Aliyah with his wife and four children ages 10, 9, 6, and 3 in August 2013, to Ma'alot in Northern Israel.

His wife is a practicing OB-GYN and he is a former software executive, with previous positions including CTO and Vice President of Product Management, who is currently looking for work in Israel. His wife attended medical ulpan upon arriving in Israel, but Moshe did not, as he is already proficient in Hebrew. The medical ulpan was very helpful for Moshe's wife, who says that there was no way she could have started out at her job as actively as she did if she had not had ulpan. She says she doesn’t know how anyone from the US could be a doctor in Israel without the medical ulpan (unless they were already fluent of course!)

More information on vocational ulpanim offered by the Ministry can be found here.

When planning the move, their biggest concern was for the kids' transition. In Ma'alot it's not predominantly English speakers. Most kids at school don't speak English, so they were worried. But, says Moshe, "thank G-d, it's been fantastic." The kids have acclimated remarkably well. They've made friends and have play dates at home and at their friends' houses. Moshe and his wife are very pleased with how well the kids have adjusted.

Moshe says he and his wife have always felt that Israel is their home. There was no question as to whether to make Aliyah, only a question of timing. They wanted to make the big move while their kids were young, so the adjustment would be easier for them. In addition, the process for medical certification for Moshe's wife took time. She had to finish all her certifications so her license would transfer over and she wouldn't have to re-do all of the testing. There was a lot of paperwork for her to get certified in Israel. Once she sent it all in the certification process worked relatively well. She has to do a three-month residency at a hospital here, which she has now started. But she had to wait a month initially for the bureaucratic details to be worked out. The Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption provides the hospital with funding for her during this period and they had to wait for this to be arranged with the hospital. Other than that wait, the process has been pretty smooth.

The Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption has numerous certification and professional training courses to help professionals transition to working in Israel. More information can be found here.

Moshe, his wife, and their family, have visited Israel many times over their lives. Moshe attended post-high school programs and summer programs, staffed different summer programs, and visited on family trips. Last April he and his wife participated in one of Nefesh B'Nefesh's pilot trips. Moshe describes it as a "very focused trip" where every day they visited a different city that could be their potential home. They met with principals of schools, other olim, and real estate agents in each place. The trip was "exceptionally helpful" for Moshe and his family.

Before the trip, Moshe and his wife were thinking of different cities to live in, but ended up changing their decision based on what they saw and heard during their visits. They had put Ma'alot, where they currently live, on the list because they didn't know much about it, but they were very happy with what they found there on the trip. On the other hand, other cities they had thought would be good fits before visiting turned out to raise questions. In the end, Moshe calls the pilot trip "critical" to their successful move.

Although Moshe has second cousins living in Israel, they don't have any close family, and nobody living near them. He says family in Israel was not a big concern in their Aliyah decision.

Moshe and his family love living in Ma'alot. Moshe and his wife like the suburban feel of the town, with a house and a yard like he and his wife grew up with. They really like the schools in the area as well. The principle of their sons' school actually just won an award a few months ago. They wanted to live somewhere with a more "Israeli" feel, not a mini-America within Israel like some towns are. They also found the northern climate very appealing, as it is cooler than in much of the country.

They have been trying to take advantage of all the beautiful nature in the north by going on hikes and visiting various attractions. They have a map of Israel provided by the National Park Service, with a checklist of the country's national parks, which the kids have started to check off, with the goal of visiting them all.

Upon first arriving in Israel, Moshe says, they felt "excited…certainly emotional" to be here. "We were cautious about the adventure ahead of us, we didn't really know how everything was going to work out, with the kids and work and everything." Moshe says they are definitely feeling more comfortable now, 8 months in. Every day that goes by things get more settled for them. The fact that their kids have done so well was "a huge confidence builder in regards to the move and to some of our uncertainties" he adds. Still looking for work, Moshe concedes that there is still a lot of uncertainty, but a number of their initial concerns have been addressed and sorted out, and they are still incredibly happy to be here. Looking into the future, he says he looks forward to having a job and integrating professionally. He looks forward to his kids growing up, being part of Israeli culture, and starting their own families, hopefully close by.  

"We believe this is the right place for us," Moshe concludes, "this is home…and we have a lot of excitement and confidence about what lies ahead."

Our Ministry is here to help families like Moshe’s, with financial assistance in the form of the Absorption basket, with professional development courses and ulpanim, and special programs for scientists, artists, and athletes. You can find more information about how the Ministry helps with employment here.

We also work with community groups and local government to help new olim absorb into their communities. For more information about any of the programs we offer, we encourage you to contact one of our local offices here.

Before making Aliyah you can also contact a Jewish Agency representative or Nefesh B’Nefesh in North America for more information. Arrange a one-on-one meeting with a Nefesh B'Nefesh representative here.   

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Aliyah Stories: Natan

As part of this blog, I'll be interviewing olim, both new and long-timers, about their Aliyah experiences to share with you. These aren't just people with spectacular stories, but regular people like you and me, who decided to make Aliyah for various reasons. My hope is that these stories will give you a better idea of why people choose to make Aliyah, what the process was like for them, and how they felt at different stages. What struggles they faced, and what triumphs.

If you're an oleh/olah and would like to be interviewed for this blog, feel free to contact me at!

To start off this series I spoke with Natan, who is currently living in Ma'alot, in the North.

Natan is married, with four children, and moved to Israel from Atlanta, Georgia roughly 7 months ago. He runs an e-commerce business, and his wife is a homemaker. Here in Israel their four children are all in school, ranging from kindergarten to 8th grade. Natan and his wife just finished their six month ulpan and are now both looking for work.

Natan’s ulpan was provided through the municipality for new olim. Natan attributes this to the government’s desire to promote Aliyah to the North and South by providing additional services for olim to these areas. It is abnormal for them to have an ulpan in such a small town, but there are enough olim here, Russian, British, and American, to support a class. The other nearest ulpan options were Nahariya or Karmiel. 

According to Natan his children are adjusting well to the move, for the most part. Their oldest son had troubles in the beginning, adjusting to the new country, new school, new language. Natan has a mildly autistic son, and accommodating him was a major consideration in his family’s Aliyah preparations. They researched schools and programs before arriving. Because he is very high-functioning, he goes to a regular school but he is in a special class.

As for the adjustment of Natan and his wife, the big question is: finding work.

So far it's mostly the local municipality that has been helping with their job search. They're also searching online. It hasn't been all that urgent yet, because Natan has his own business, so they've been pretty casual about it so far. They would like to find work though, because they want to be more immersed in Israeli life. As Natan says: "we're not going to learn Hebrew sitting at home."

The Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption offers numerous programs to help with the job search, including SELA job-search workshops for professionals, preparatory courses for licensing exams, and professional training and re-training courses, in addition to ulpanim. Our Ministry Advisors are happy to help new olim through the job search process, and more information can be found here.

Coming to Israel

Natan visited Israel several times before making Aliyah. He traveled to Israel for the first time one summer with Camp Ramah, the American Jewish summer camp, and has visited many times after that. He and his wife have visited Israel together twice since their marriage. They also came to Israel on a Go North pilot trip with Nefesh b'Nefesh for a couple of weeks, after hearing about the Go North program.

Natan says they chose the North, and specifically Ma’alot, because they wanted to live somewhere quieter and more suburban. They didn't want to be in an inner city.

As for Ma'alot, the city Natan and his family chose to settle in, Natan says he loves it. They found an apartment with "an amazing view," Natan gushes. It's a little on the expensive side Natan says, "but you get what you pay for." Natan described the people of Ma'alot as "unbelievably helpful." At this time they can't afford a car, but the bus transportation is "fantastic." They've made friends as well. In fact, Natan's wife went shopping for the kids' costumes for Purim with some friends who invited her the day of my conversation with Natan. He feels they have had a great success in getting settled here in Ma'alot.

Most of the Israelis they come into contact with speak English, but not as a first language. There are some native English-speakers, although Natan would not describe them as living in an “Anglo” neighborhood. “We mostly interact with Israelis,” he says. “We didn't move to Israel to speak with Americans!”

Natan and his wife’s main reason for making Aliyah was their children. They wanted their kids to grow up with a strong Jewish identity. America, as Natan explains, “is not a very Jewish country. Everywhere you turn, there's a holiday season. Valentine's Day, Easter, Christmas. We wanted our children to go to school with other Jewish people, to live as much of a Jewish life as possible. You can do that in the US but it's not as easy, and it's not as free.”

They don't have any family in Israel, says Natan, so that wasn’t a major factor in their decision to make Aliyah or where to live in Israel. They have some contacts here, but nobody close. His parents have discussed making aliyah, they were looking into it at the same time as Natan and his family, but they're not ready yet according to Natan. They’re taking their time. So far, Natan and his wife are the first to make the move to Israel.

As far as the Aliyah process goes, it was not particularly difficult, Natan says. He adds that there were other factors for his family that delayed their departure. They needed to rent out their home in the US and prepare their son for his Bar Mitzvah. They wanted to do that before making Aliyah because they have a large family that wouldn't all have been able to come to Israel. So they intentionally delayed their relocation for a while. They also didn't want to relocate in the middle of the school year. So they chose to move in summer, otherwise they could have done it a few months earlier. In Natan’s estimation, the process takes around a year for a family. For one person, a single, it would probably be much faster, maybe a couple months, considering paperwork, he adds.

Looking to the Future

As of the time of our interview, Natan and his wife’s biggest goal is to find work they enjoy and to improve their Hebrew. For his kids he hopes they become absorbed into Israeli culture and life. “Our hopes for the future are nothing really profound,” Natan says, “except to be happy, healthy, and successful.”

He added that he thinks improving his Hebrew is crucial to his integration here. “Although we're getting along fine as we are, we're not where we want to be. We want to be more comfortable getting out and speaking to people. There's nothing that really prepares you as much as just sitting down and having a conversation with somebody in Hebrew. My wife and I just haven't been able to do that yet. Going to ulpan five hours a day five days a week and then getting home and getting ready for the kids to come home,  we haven’t been able to immerse ourselves in Israeli culture yet like we would like to.”

To sum up where they’re at right now, Natan says, “we’re settled, but I don't really feel settled yet. I haven't had time to take a breath. It's a mixed bag. We're finally starting to get settled and comfortable, and then we realize we have to go do something else!”

A huge thanks to Natan for taking the time to speak with me, and best of luck in adjusting to life in Israel and learning Hebrew!

If you're an oleh chadash, you can contact one of the Ministry’s branch offices with questions here.

Or you can contact a Nefesh B’Nefesh representative or the Jewish Agency if you haven’t yet made Aliyah.

Feel free to comment if you have any suggestions or advice for Natan, or if you would like to be interviewed for my next Aliyah Story!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Flowers in the Desert: A Hike Through the Anemones of Shmurat Pura

I recently discovered an English-speaking hiking group based out of Jerusalem and to escape my usual weekend routine (though I do love lying around watching TV, drinking coffee, and reading in my pajamas) I decided to go on a hike they advertised as a “flower hike”. The fact that it was Valentine’s Day back in the states and my boyfriend and I are separated by about 7,500 miles played no role in my desire to get out of the apartment and distract myself. None at all.

So I woke up at 5:30 Friday morning in order to meet them by 7. Everything went smoothly, so that at roughly 7:15 I was rolling away from the parking lot in Jerusalem in the back of a car with an olah chadash from America and two other veteran olim from the States. We chatted about our respective backgrounds and reasons for ending up in this beautiful crazy country. The new olah came to Israel because there is a lot of work for landscape architects. Another came to study, ended up taking a tour guide course, for which she made Aliyah (although it turned out not to be necessary) and in the process of that, decided to divorce her husband. Now she works as a hypnotherapist. But I didn't find that out until the ride home, as she initially introduced herself to me as a writer. How many jobs does this woman have? Frankly, I think her story must be fascinating. Maybe one day I’ll be able to hear her story in more detail and share it with you all here. I don’t remember her name though, which might be a problem. I am really bad with names and faces. Sorry, world.

Anyways, back to this hike. When I said I work for the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption the new olah mentioned her difficulties in reaching an actual person to talk to here, and I told her to try asking us questions on Facebook, as we always try to respond and point people in the right direction. I don’t really know enough about how this giant ministry works to give more help than that, I've only been here 4 months and my less-than-perfect Hebrew knowledge makes t a bit more difficult to understand everything that's going on in this huge Ministry.

Anyways. So we get to Shmurat Pura, which apparently is famous for the flowers at this time of year. And sure enough, pretty little red flowers that looked like poppies carpeted the rolling green hills. Not as many as I’d hoped, it wasn’t exactly a thick red carpet, so I was slightly disappointed at the beginning, but I held out hope that it would improve as time went on. And it did! It was an easy 3-hour hike, which would probably be even faster with fewer people. For an area called the Northern Negev it was extremely green. There were lots of green fields of some plant—wheat perhaps? Hills spotted with red anemones (Fun fact: not poppies, poppies have black spots anemones lack, and anemones have a little wreath of green just underneath the blossom that poppies lack). I tend to be pretty quiet when hiking, as I look around me at nature and let my mind wander and reflect, so I mostly walked alone. Occasionally I would end up next to someone and we would chat. Our group of about 30 people combined with another group of about 30 that hikes to raise money for disabled children, so we had a pretty big group. I was definitely the youngest, as I usually am in my activities because I have the tastes of an old lady (no, I really do. I like cats, reading, tea, antiques, bed and breakfasts, flower hikes…the list goes on).

When we were almost back the woman I was walking with spotted a smartphone lying on the ground. Someone had dropped it, so we tried calling the previous called number, which got us the name Jill and a home number, and luckily we found said Jill once we reached the parking lot. Success! The panicky fear of losing a phone is something I wish on no one.

At the parking lot, somebody had set up a little juice stand squeezing fresh juice. This was a genius idea, as Israelis love juice (well ok, who doesn’t?) and it was a pretty hot sunny afternoon. I didn’t get any juice, but on the way back we stopped at a gas station for a bathroom break and I got an ice café. That really hit the spot. If anyone reading this has never had an ice café…please, please try one. It’s like a coffee milkshake and it is so good my mouth waters every time I think about it. They have “diet” ice cafes too but…they just don’t have the same sinfully delicious taste. They sell them everywhere but I prefer the ones at a certain large café/bakery chain found all over Israel (that I cannot name for legal reasons, but hopefully you’ll figure it out).

I was home by early afternoon, tired, dusty, sweaty, and sticky from ice café drips, but glad I had forced myself out of the house to experience some of Israel’s gorgeous landscapes.

I have been on several hikes around Israel, including a daylong hike through the Negev during which we climbed an incredibly steep canyon (read: sheer cliff face with metal rings for handholds and occasional ropes) and I can see why it’s such a popular pastime here. Israel has some of the most beautiful natural landscapes I have ever seen. Lonely Planet listed Israel’s Negev desert as a top destination in the world and I have to agree. Those rocky formations and reddish brown vistas sweeping down to the salty sheen of the Dead Sea are breathtaking.

Our hike through the Negev

I’ve also done an uphill hike in the northern Galilee region, up to the ruins of a crusader castle, surrounded by forested hills. That was another gorgeous one.

The view as we began our hike

Compared to these hikes, this flower hike was very tame, but it was nice to meet new people and see some pretty flowers. I met another UCLA alum, who then gave me a ride to a UCLA alumni event in Tel Aviv a few days after the hike. Connections! Bruins! All good stuff.

Care to share some of your favorite hiking experiences in Israel? Feel free to comment! I’d love to hear about some new ones to try!

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Many Colors of Israel

The other week was a hard one for me. Back in the States it is known as “Israel Apartheid Week” on many college campuses. At UCLA, Students for Justice in Palestine, a student group, usually sets up a giant cardboard wall on Bruin Walk, the main thoroughfare through campus, listing statistics on Palestinian deaths and talking to anyone who stops about Israel’s crimes against humanity. This year, being in Israel, I didn’t have to walk past that huge wall and all the hatred, misrepresentation, and outright lies it presented to me.

Instead, I was faced with a new Facebook group “UCLA Divest”, which served to rally students around a new divestment resolution it was putting to a vote with USAC, the UCLA student government.

This post is not about that resolution, or the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. I posted on that group’s Facebook page, and my own, my opinions about that.

This post is about something a friend of mine, a strong supporter of UCLA Divest, said on her Facebook page that really hurt me. Well, honestly everything she said really hurt me, and I can’t see our friendship lasting if she believes those things about me and my people. But after USAC voted down, 7 to 5, the UCLA Divest resolution, she responded on Facebook by saying she was glad to see all the black and brown people supporting the resolution against all the “white Zionists” who opposed divestment from Israel.

“White Zionists.”

Apparently all Zionists are white. Everyone who supports Israel and thinks the Jewish people deserve a country of their own are white. Well I’m here to tell you what should come as no surprise—Zionists come in absolutely every color under the sun.

From what I could see of the discussion happening at UCLA around the resolution, pro-divestment people were talking about it in very racial terms. The black and brown people against the white “privilege-blinded” students. Divestment from Israel was linked with supporting minority rights of every kind. Linking Palestinian rights with other minority groups is not new, and I don’t think it’s uncalled for, as they are a minority whose rights need to be protected.

But by calling all Zionists white, this girl and everyone who agrees with her are negating the rich cultural heritage of Israel.

Israel is a country of immigrants. Yes, initially from Europe, especially after the Holocaust and the few, weak, Jewish survivors of concentration camps had nowhere else to go. But also from all over the Middle East, including Yemen, Morocco, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria…basically anywhere you can think of. And let’s not forget the huge Ethiopian Jewish community of Israel.

Jews are found all over the world. And they are not just white.

Israel is full of restaurants selling food from all these various exotic places. There are Sephardi synagogues and a Sephardi religious political party (Shas). Just last Saturday night I was at a music venue in Talpiyot with some Israeli friends to listen to a Yemeni band (who were amazing, might I add. I hugely recommend Ensemble Yemeni to all—a personal endorsement by the way, not related to the Ministry).

Tonight after work I’m meeting up with a friend from my program to try an Ethiopian restaurant nearby that gets good reviews—my first taste of Ethiopian food!

Ethiopians celebrating the Sigd Holiday in Jerusalem last year

Everywhere I go, everything I do, everyone I meet and everything I see shows me how wrong these people in Los Angeles, and around the world are, who say things others tell them without reflecting on their veracity, or their true consequences.

The “whiteness” of Zionists is just one of the many points this girl made that are just flat-out wrong. Not arguable. Wrong.

When I lived in America and attended UCLA I was scared to speak up against these people with their big wall and their statistics and their passionate hatred. I thought—maybe I’m wrong and everything they’re saying is right. But after living in Israel, visiting the West Bank, speaking with Palestinians and Israelis in both places, politicians and civilians, I know that I have seen for myself. That my opinions are based on information much more real than their pamphlets. These people, the people shouting about racist Zionism, these people have nothing to do with the peace talks going on right now. They have nothing to do with the Palestinians I spoke to who just want to work and live their lives with their families.

And now Israel Apartheid Week is over for another year and the divestment resolution got voted down again at UCLA (although the University of California regents have already stated they will not divest from Israel, even though other campuses like UC Berkeley and UCSD have approved such resolutions). UCLA campus climate is in tatters after the vitriol of the 12-hour debate surrounding the resolution.

And I am off to enjoy some Ethiopian food before going to a free salsa dancing lesson, with my friends from all over the world. In Jerusalem. And that is all I have to say about that. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

What Does it Mean to Live in a Jewish State?

In my program we have exhaustively discussed the issue of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Does one preclude the other? And what does being a “Jewish state” mean? Well the balance between Jewish and democratic is still being worked out, by politicians in the Knesset and academics in think tanks and universities, by people protesting in the streets and by authors publishing insightful books. As for me, all I can tell you is what living here, in the only Jewish state, means to me.
It means on Fridays everyone is rushing through the streets trying to get errands done, clogging the grocery stores so I can’t find a cart and have to wait at the checkout for ages. The shuk is packed to the gills and I make sure to wear close-toed shoes because I know I will get stepped on, jostled, and ran over by little old ladies with heavily laden carts. There are people selling bouquets of flowers on street corners, and after 3 or 4 PM (depending on the time of year) a hush falls. No buses except the East Jerusalem lines. Which in turn means I am stuck in my apartment on French Hill, at least a 45 minute walk from the city center or a 40-50 shekel ($11-$14) taxi ride. Sometimes I stay in town to see a friend or attend a Shabbat dinner, and then take a taxi back.
It means Saturdays possess a calm that does not exist in America. They remind me of Sundays in France when I studied abroad there, when most shops close. Although it is even more intense in Israel, where public transportation does not work. Schedules are planned around Shabbat. It is a tangible presence in everyone’s lives, unlike in America when whole Shabbats would go by without me even realizing it.
It means starting in October every shop and bakery is overflowing with sweet donuts stuffed with chocolate, jelly, or jam and painted over with colorful icing. The supermarkets are full of festive chocolate packs and cheap Chanukiahs.
It means during Chanukah all the buses say “happy Hanukkah” across the front in Hebrew.
חנוכה שמח.
It means in January all the stores are full of dried fruit and on our program overnight our tour guide breaks out some Tu Bishvat hagaddahs, a platter of dried fruit and some wine to hold a brief Tu Bishvat seder (something I’ve never heard of anyone doing in America).
It means in late February I get an inter-office email advertising our office Purim party, with dancing, face painting, and an “imported bar”.
It means that when I find an English-speaking hiking group and I go on a hike with them, we chat about Shabbat services on the way home. I am told about a fun singing service in Baka and am invited to Shabbat dinner afterword.
It means when I stay at a hotel all the food is kosher and I taste some of the most amazing creamy desserts that I simply cannot believe are pareve (but they are!)
At work I am shown pictures from britahs and we discuss Pesach plans, as we get that week off. I am looking forward to experiencing Pesach in Israel, as it is a celebration of our long journey to Israel and I’ve always dreamed of spending it here.
It means that if I met someone here and chose to get married my fiancée and I would have to prove our Jewishness, and if we were unable to we would have to get married in another country. It means that if I chose to wear a kippah and a tallit, like I did at my Bat Mitzvah when I read Torah, I would get weird looks and maybe worse, depending on where I was.
It means seeing little boys in peyos and their fathers in black hats and mothers in head scarves or wigs walking to or from school or the grocery store as I ride my bus to and from work.
I love feeling like part of a community of Jews here. Knowing that everyone knows what holiday is coming up, that everyone shares the background and values that I grew up with, though with different flavors from all our many upbringings and traditions.
I don’t love feeling like only one kind of Judaism is accepted by the orthodox and ultra-orthodox community and by our government. I don’t love being unable to profit from my weekend unless I pay for multiple taxis (I am working an unpaid internship after all, I can’t exactly afford that).
I don’t love being unable to go to the Kotel and stand with my father, brothers, and male friends.
Hannukah with the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption
Maintaining a Jewish state and respecting everyone’s values and rights is a delicate balance and Israel has not yet found a perfect one. But I would rather suffer the inconveniences and fight to correct what I think should be corrected than lose that special sense of community that results from sharing some sufganiyot with my coworkers as we attend a Chanukah event for work.