It’s the summer of 2002, the weather in Israel is over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet, on July 9, 2002, a charter El Al plane touches down in Ben-Gurion Airport, full of North Americans who have a dream to call Israel home.
For the past two years, Israel has been experiencing waves of terror attacks in the Second Intifada. It’s not the most encouraging time for anyone to uproot their family from a comfortable home in North America and move permanently to Israel.
Where Are Those First Nefesh B’Nefesh Olim… Now?
Today, Nefesh B’Nefesh is a household name. Founded by Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart with the goal of increasing the number of Olim from North America and supporting their retention in Israel, Nefesh B’Nefesh has achieved that goal beyond expectations.
In the past two decades, Nefesh B’Nefesh has facilitated the Aliyah of over 75,000 newcomers, over 90% of whom adjust and succeed, long-term, in their new lives in Israel. Nefesh B’Nefesh Olim establish roots all over Israel, residing in over 180 communities, including 11,440 pioneers in Israel’s periphery. Nefesh B’Nefesh’s services and advocacy remove professional, logistical and financial obstacles, enabling vast numbers of Olim to realize their dream and contribute actively to Israel’s social and economic development.
But back in 2002, it was just the beginning. Five hundred and ten idealistic people arrived on the first Aliyah charter flight from North America.
Where are those excited children, those exhilarated parents, those cute babies, today? What have the past 20 years held for them? What do they have to say about growing up in Israel and – on the flip side – about raising children in Israel?
We talked to Hindy Strauss and Laura Ben-David, two of the Olim who came on that first Nefesh B’Nefesh flight, as well as Laura’s son, Ezra Ben-David. Their impressions and stories give us a window on which it was – and is – to be a child of Aliyah.
Feeling at Home as a Jew
“In America, living as a Jew never felt natural,” notes Laura Ben-David, who made aliyah with her then husband and four children, then ages 5 to 12.
“I had to constantly, actively, inject my Judaism into my American life – go to shul, celebrate the holidays – while everyone around me was marching to a different beat. The hallmarks of Christmas never bothered me, per se, but it wasn’t mine.”
When Laura came to Israel, she discovered with delight that the rhythms of Jewish life flowed naturally. “I didn’t have to force anything, manufacture anything, actively create anything in order to feel my Jewishness. When Shavuot is coming, or Purim, or Tu B’Shvat, you feel that everywhere in the country. In Israel, we are in our place in our space with our holidays. I love that.”
The pervasive nature of Jewish life in Israel was not only key for Laura as an individual, but as a mother as well. “In America, if you’re not religious, you don’t necessarily have any connection to Judaism. Of my six children, now between the ages of 12 and 32, not all of them are religious, but they are all so Jewish.”
Laura’s children all live in and love Israel. They all celebrate the Jewish holidays. “That commitment to Jewishness and Zionism was a major goal of mine as a parent and it’s something I am so thankful for.”
Laura’s 25-year-old son, Ezra, is pretty sure that his parents’ values of Jewishness and Zionism would have rubbed off no matter where they lived, but chances are it would have been relegated to the realm of the theoretical. “When you grow up in Israel, it’s not theory – it’s practice. I grew up in a small community; I served in the army; I protected the borders. I lived these values.
“You cannot ignore your Jewishness or your Israeli-ness here in Israel,” concludes Ezra. “It’s a huge part of who I am, and I wouldn’t change that.”
Be All That You Can Be
For Laura Ben-David, life as a Jew in the United States came with a whole set of societal expectations and financial pressure. “Jewish day schools are so expensive; Jewish neighborhoods are so expensive. And what happens when they get to college and need to go to ‘the best school’?”
Laura, trained as a registered nurse, left her nursing job to become a teacher once she had multiple children in elementary school. Why? So she could earn a discount on tuition. “Here in Israel, giving your child a Jewish education doesn’t put limits on your professional aspirations, on living in a way that is satisfying and fulfilling for you.”
Even more important, emphasizes Laura, Israeli society doesn’t put those limits on your child’s professional aspirations and personal fulfillment. “Here, a nice Jewish boy (or girl) can be a doctor or a lawyer – if they want. They can also be a farmer, a sanitation worker or an artist! There’s less pressure and more flexibility.”
Laura sums up, “In Israel, there’s no prescribed life that you’re pressured to accept. My children grew up here with the awareness that they can be anything they choose to be.”
Living With the Land
Hindy Strauss stepped onto the pioneering Nefesh B’Nefesh flight with her husband and three children, then ages seven, three and 10 months. After their first two years in Israel where they lived in a Jerusalem neighborhood, they decided to make the move to Mitzpe Yericho, then a very small Israeli community situated in the middle of some breathtaking scenery – but very little else. But that, Hindy feels, was one of the best decisions they made for raising their children.
“I loved watching what my older kids did to hang out. Here, they got a group of friends together and went out to make a campfire on the nearby mountainside! One teen brought something to cook on the fire, another brought a guitar – and that was all they needed for a great evening. It was so wholesome, so beautiful.
Overcoming the Challenges
Language, understandably, tops the list of Aliyah challenges. “We put my 7-year-old into an all-Israeli school,” tells Hindy Strauss. “Every day when he came home from school, I asked, ‘Did you understand anything?’ And the answer was always, ‘Nope.’ Then, three months in, around Chanukah time, it suddenly all clicked! He was understanding Hebrew; he was speaking Hebrew. We called it our Chanukah miracle.”
Speaking Hebrew at school is not only an issue for children; it’s also, and maybe even more so, an issue for their parents. “Even years later, I still find it a challenge to fully and effectively communicate with teachers and to understand the class requirements,” Laura Ben-David notes.
What is the advice of experienced Olim regarding managing the challenges successfully? Laura underscores the importance of flexibility and going with the flow. “It’s not always going to go your way. There will be surprises. But if you are ready to wing it and discover your own resourcefulness, it can be amazing.”
In fact, letting your children see you face challenges – and see how you rise to them – can be an incredible gift. “My children thank us for having made Aliyah,” says Hindy. “They appreciate that we left our comfort zone for our values. They’ve taken with them that if something is meaningful, it doesn’t matter if it’s hard: you can do it.”
Israeli, American, Both or Neither?
“I somehow had this expectation that my husband and I would turn into complete Israelis,” Hindy Strauss laughs. “And then a few years down the line, I realized that would never happen – and it was disappointing!”
But while Hindy has accepted her identity as an American Olah and feels that it gives her unique traits and strengths she can contribute to Israel, she is simultaneously happy and proud that her children are “totally Israeli.”
“After two years in Jerusalem, we moved to Mitzpe Yericho, which was at that point a small, warm – and completely Israeli – community. We didn’t want our children to have an identity crisis: am I American? Am I Israeli? If we were moving to Israel, we wanted to go all the way.”
A happy moment for Hindy was when she came to pick her youngest daughter up from high school and stood around for a few minutes conversing with her in English (which the Strausses speak at home). The daughter’s friends walked by, then stopped and said in shock, “We didn’t know you were American!” Without missing a beat, she replied, “I’m Israeli. My parents are American.”
Laura Ben-David’s children feel connections to both worlds, although the exact proportions of American-ness and Israeli-ness vary by the individual.
Ezra, who is described by Laura as “one of my more Israeli kids,” moves in and out of both worlds, connecting with both English-speaking and Hebrew-speaking friends.
“In a way, I don’t fit in 100% anywhere,” Ezra reflects. “When I’m in Israel, I feel Israeli-American. When I’m in America, I feel Israeli. It’s not obvious from the outside; I speak both Hebrew and English without any accent. But the feeling is there.”
Ezra notes that spending time with Americans of his own age – like his cousins in New York and Florida – highlights for him the cultural differences between Israelis and Americans. “A few times I’ve wondered what it would be like to meet a version of myself that grew up in the United States. Would we get along? Would I even recognize him?”
The IDF: The Great Equalizer
“After twelve years of school where the main focus is on academics,” Hindy Strauss notes, “what matters in the army is not what you scored on your bagrut, but whether you can get the job done.” Serving in the IDF gives young Israelis a chance to develop their abilities and to shine.The army experience also brings Israelis together from all walks of life, people who might never meet and connect in civilian life.
A prime example of the connective power of the IDF is Hindy’s daughter Michal, who was just under a year old on the Nefesh B’Nefesh flight in 2002. In the zionist community of Mitzpe Yericho, Michal was raised on stories of groups like the Haganah and the Irgun that fought for the right to establish a Jewish state. The conclusion of the story was always the same: now that we have a state, when every boy or girl turns 18, they have the privilege of serving in the army and defending our country.
While the vast majority of 18-year-old women of Mitzpe Yericho opted to do National Service, Michal waited for the day when she would turn 18; she felt the privilege in doing her part to protect Israel. Michal was drafted into field intelligence, and her sense of privilege and pleasure was palpable. She would volunteer for jobs that were not always pleasant, help fellow soldiers who were having trouble – in short, Michal was always on the lookout for how she could contribute.
“In the army, Michal was able to be a part of the entirety of Israel, outside of the bubble she had been raised in,” Hindy tells. “For many of Michal’s fellow soldiers, it was the first time they had met a religious girl. She made beautiful friendships and wonderful impressions on others.”
Home Sweet Home
Overall, the Strauss children and the Ben-David children both have the same opinion of America: it’s a nice place to visit, but it’s not the home they’ve been yearning for.
After Ezra finished his army service, he spent half a year traveling around the USA. “I rented a car, visited 35 states. When you’re there, it feels so great – the restaurants, the shopping.” But for all the enjoyment, emphasizes Ezra, there was something very important missing. “I came back afterwards feeling like it wasn’t home for me.
Life connected to the land of Israel has given these children of Aliyah healthy, wholesome appreciations of beauty and belonging.
Hindy Strauss’s recollection of the sweetest moment on their historic Nefesh B’Nefesh flight says it all: “There we were, hundreds of olim sitting on the plane waiting for takeoff, and the pilot gets on the loudspeaker and says, ‘Okay, I’m taking you home!”
To learn more about Nefesh B’Nefesh click here