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entries tagged with: Aliyah


To boldly go…

‘I am starting to feel Israeli’

Josh LipowskyCover Story
Published: 04 September 2009
(tags): aliyah

Making aliyah does not end once olim get off the plane.

They must now find work, schools, housing, and adapt to new customs. This can be daunting, and has led many to return to their former homes.

Before the creation of Nefesh B’Nefesh in 2002, almost 53 percent of North American new olim returned within three years of making aliyah, according to the organization’s cofounder and executive director, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass. In seven years Nefesh B’Nefesh has facilitated more than 22,000 olim and claims a retention rate of 98 percent.

“It changed the whole dynamic of how individuals look at aliyah,” Fass said.

Shashi and Yacov Ishai of Teaneck made aliyah in June with their 7-year-old daughter Zehava and 2-year-old son Zaki. Though they made their own travel arrangements, they relied on Nefesh B’Nefesh for advice and help cutting through red tape. In early August, they were still settling into their new apartment in Netanya after a delay of the cargo ship carrying their belongings. Yacov, who had been born and raised in Israel, was preparing for a short trip back to New Jersey to tie up loose ends and bring back such supplies as canned tuna fish in water. In Israel, Shashi Ishai observed, they could find only canned tuna in oil. It would be little things like this that she would have to adjust to, Shashi Ishai said.

“There’s a wonderful sense of adventure,” she said. “You can reinvent yourself. Once you acquire the language you can find anything here if you dig deep enough.”

Yacov Ishai left Israel in 1992, shortly after he finished his army service. He saw greater economic opportunities in America, where he created a soft-drink distribution company and later co-founded a grocery delivery business. He hadn’t planned to stay, but he soon met his future wife and they later adopted two children.

“If there’s any time to start a new adventure you do it in your early 20s, so you have room to start again if it doesn’t work,” he said.

Ishai appreciated the greater number of opportunities in Israel for him and his family to grow religiously. Still, the decision boiled down to one thing: Coming home.

Yacov and Shashi Ishai with their daughter Zehava and baby Zaki in their new Netanya apartment. Josh Lipowsky

“There is nothing like being in a place that’s your home,” he said. “You host a party or you’re a guest at a party. It’s nice to be a guest — I’ve been a guest in the U.S. for 17 years — but I always feel like a guest. Here, people who come are immigrants. I’m home.”

For Shashi Ishai, who grew up Zionist but never thought she would move to Israel — and even made that a condition of her marriage — the transition has not been as easy. When she received her Israeli identity card, she felt as if her skin were afire and she kept repeating to herself, “Hayom ani Israelit,” today I am Israeli.

“As the initiation progresses and things get a little tougher,” she said, “today I feel a little bit more like a stranger, even though the reality is I’m Israeli now. I’m Israeli, but my mindset, my mentality, is still very much American. And that’s my challenge, to blend the two.”

Language has been a large barrier. Her 8-year-old daughter Zehava had attended Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, where she began learning Hebrew at an early age. Ishai’s husband is a native speaker, and even little Zaki is starting to respond to Hebrew.

“You feel your loneliness, your challenge, when you’re sitting in a room and everybody is talking Hebrew,” Shashi Ishai said. “You question your entire belief system.”

Through the Internet the Ishais found the Macdonald synagogue, just a short walk from their apartment. It is made up of Americans, Britons, and South Africans. The sermon is given in English and a kiddush follows Saturday morning services. That, Shashi Ishai said, is where she hopes to recreate the “chevra,” community, she left behind in Teaneck. Despite the challenges, Shashi Ishai’s faith has kept her strong while making this transition.

“I know I’m supposed to be here,” she said. “Why were my particular children, coming from different parts of the world, taken by us — and then with no sense of moving to Israel? And all of a sudden as a family I feel it loud and clear that we’re supposed to be here.”

In early July, 22-year-old Allison Teitlebaum of Fair Lawn said goodbye to her family and with the help of Nefesh B’Nefesh moved to Beit Canada, an immigrant absorption center in Jerusalem.

“Although it’s not glorious living arrangements,” she said in an e-mail, “it’s a really interesting experience living with people who decided to make aliyah from all over the world.”

Teitlebaum has a degree in biology secondary education from New York University. Once she finishes ulpan she intends to teach in Israel, but English instead of biology.

“I still love biology, and I hope to eventually teach it here or work in the field,” she said. “Maybe doing research, or maybe doing environmental education.”

She decided on aliyah four years ago, but she wasn’t ready to leave her family. She finished her degree and thought about teaching in America, but Israel still called to her.

“I could have stayed a few years and tried teaching in the U.S., but starting a job and getting an apartment is a commitment to putting down roots for a new life,” she said. “And I wanted to try and start that new life here.”

Teitlebaum said she has yet to truly immerse herself in her new society. She is getting there, though.

“I still feel a little like a tourist, especially when I’m speaking English with friends,” she said. “But when I’m with other Israelis — which is not too often — I am starting to feel Israeli. I think I’ll feel it much more once I have a job, and if I move into a more Israeli neighborhood.”

Avi Stiefel, 23, arrived in June. “I was thinking about aliyah even in high school,” said the 2004 Torah Academy of Bergen County graduate.

The Teaneck native spent a post-high-school academic year at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut before going on to Columbia School of Engineering. With the help of a fellowship, he will be pursuing a master’s degree at Haifa’s prestigious Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in computer science.

“I have a lot of friends here and I feel very comfortable here,” Stiefel said. “Religiously, it’s somewhat of an ideal, and my family is very pro-Israel. They were supportive of my decision, although they’re upset that I’m so far away.”

Stiefel started planning his immigration during his first year of college by cultivating contacts in Israel. Though he reported that most aspects of his acclimation have gone surprisingly smoothly thus far, he arrived to find that the temporary Jerusalem accommodations he’d arranged did not work out and he had to scramble to find another apartment.

“You have to have a little faith and go with it,” he said. “Things tend to work out if you don’t worry too much about the details.”

Robbie and Howard Taylor, who recently arrived from Teaneck with their three young children and Robbie’s mother, had honeymooned in Jerusalem during the second intifada in 2000.

“We came to Israel the night of our wedding and sat in the Sheraton Plaza Hotel listening to gunfire echoing in the valley,” Robbie Taylor recalled. The couple returned to visit with their children several times over the ensuing years.

Nothing, not even the gunfire, discouraged them from planning aliyah. “I grew up in a religious home in Brooklyn,” said Taylor, “and I never understood why we weren’t here [in Israel]. There were different opportunities in history and very few numbers went. I had a real problem with that.”

Their children love their new life in Ma’aleh Adumim, a suburb of Jerusalem. “I find it breathtaking in the hills here, and so do they,” said Taylor, a stay-at-home mother. Howard, who handled computer security for JP Morgan Chase, stopped working several months before the family left and will shortly begin job-hunting.

“The people here have been remarkable to us from the day we got here,” said Taylor. “Neighbors have been bringing food, offering rides, taking my kids to camp, finding friends for our kids and for us and my mother.”

Arye Weigensberg and Julia Deutsch

Arye Weigensberg and Julia Deutsch have lived in Teaneck since their marriage in 2006, but Israel was always in their hearts.

“We knew wanted to stay a few years in Teaneck because we wanted to save money,” said Deutsch, who has been working as program manager for Jewish life at New York University’s Hillel. “In December 2007, we went to visit and found an apartment [under construction] in Modi’in and bought it.”

The couple moved into it the day after their Aug. 18 arrival — which also happened to be Deutsch’s 26th birthday.

Weigensberg, a Montreal native whose parents made aliyah 10 years ago, is not overly concerned about finding a job. He hopes to continue consulting as an account supervisor for a marketing agency. For the first few months, the couple will concentrate on settling in and improving their Hebrew.

Ideology was their main motive for the transatlantic move. “We have a unique opportunity to support a Jewish homeland in Israel that hasn’t been available for the last 2,000 years,” said Weigensberg.

“My grandparents are all [Holocaust] survivors, so it’s my emotional responsibility to be there [in Israel],” added his wife. “Also, we have always strived to be part of a Jewish community, and if we’re able to do it and both want to, why not go to a place that’s one big Jewish community?”


To boldly go…

Area olim touch down in Israel

Josh LipowskyCover Story
Published: 04 September 2009
Cheering crowds welcome to Israel 238 new immigrants from a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight on Aug. 3.

More than 400 people from Bergen, Hudson, and Passaic counties made aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh this summer, as the organization approached what its cofounder and executive director calls “a tipping point” in North American aliyah.

“Aliyah is no longer on the back burner, it’s discussed openly,” Rabbi Yehoshua Fass said during an Aug. 3 charter flight from Newark’s Liberty International Airport carrying 238 new immigrants. “There’s been a dynamic shift.”

Since the founding of Nefesh B’Nefesh in 2002, the organization has facilitated the journeys of more than 20,000 new olim. Three thousand were expected to move to Israel this summer — a final trip is scheduled for Tuesday. Within the next few years, Fass expects, the annual number of North American olim will approach at least 6,000 a year.

Among those making aliyah on Aug. 3 were doctors, electricians, musicians, and writers. Thirty-six families, with children as young as 3 months, boarded the plane, along with 63 people making the voyage on their own. And the family pets could not be left behind; four dogs and three cats will now have to learn Hebrew commands.

Many were moving for ideological reasons, Fass said, whether they were religious, Zionist, or simply wanted to play a role in developing Israel.

“It’s the package that this is where I want to raise my family, this is where I belong,” he said.


Paul Serkin of Teaneck was one of those going solo. With his children grown, the divorcee decided that the time was finally right to make a journey he had first thought about in 1977 when he spent a year studying at an Israeli yeshiva.

His oldest daughter, Tova, lives in Herzliya with her husband, Yair Yehuda. Serkin will stay with them until he finds work and a place to live. Instead of dissuading him, the uncertainties have only encouraged his decision.

“It was time,” said the 51-year-old while waiting for the Nefesh B’Nefesh departure ceremony to begin in Newark. “I realized each year I wait it’ll be harder to find a job. The economy here being what it was, I was ready to change positions and decided instead of looking for a job in America, I’ll look for a job in Israel.”

Serkin’s younger daughter, Devorah, plans to make aliyah later this month, while his son, Yosef, is employed with the New York Police Department, but thinking of aliyah within a few years.

“I always felt it was a place where Jews belonged,” Serkin said. “I felt at home and comfortable. I’m ready to return to that.”

Fass told The Jewish Standard that Sept. 11 caused a shift in thinking among potential olim worried about Israel’s security. No longer did they see terrorism occurring only in Israel. Serkin agreed about the security situation and appeared confident that while it may be a concern for his friends in America, he does not share their worry.

Amy and Simon Solnica of Bergenfield and their children were among 414 new olim this summer from Bergen, Hudson, and Passaic counties.

“People say to me today, ‘Aren’t you scared, with everything that’s going on?’ I remind them that 3,000 people were killed in New York in one moment and that’s never happened in Israel,” Serkin said. “I feel safer in Israel than I do in New York. It always seems to be the right place to be.”

Twenty-year-old Adam Bachner of Teaneck first visited Israel when he was 14. He spent a week and a half in Italy and then two weeks in the Jewish state. He got “sucked into the whole Israel thing,” he said. He didn’t grow up particularly Zionist or with a strong interest in religion. His parents had honeymooned in Israel but not been there since then, while his older sister Lauren had gone on Birthright. He spent a few years in public school before transferring to the now-defunct Metropolitan Schechter High School in Teaneck. His class took its senior trip to Israel and that, he said, “struck a nerve.”

After graduation he spent a year in Israel. One day he sent a text message to his mother that everything was OK but she should call him.

Upon reading the message, Hildy Bachner told her husband Larry that she knew her son wanted to stay in Israel.

Speaking a few days before the flight, Bachner’s mother said she was nervous about her son leaving but knew it would be a good experience for him. As for his plans to join the Israel Defense Forces upon his arrival, Bachner said her son is “doing the right thing.

“I think more Americans should do it,” she said. “If you want to say, ‘I’m a Jew and Israel is my country,’ you should be willing to send your children to fight for and protect your country. When you go to Israel and it’s safe, it’s because your kids made it that way.”

Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, cofounder and executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh, says North American aliyah is at “a tipping point” and may soon reach 6,000-8,000 olim a year. Photos by josh lipowsky

“It’s a completely life-altering decision but it’s a good one,” Adam Bachner said during a phone interview a week before the flight.

Safety is also a concern for Bachner, but not one he is dwelling on.

“I have just as big a chance of surviving as any of the Israelis who are required to go” into the army, Bachner said. “That’s what keeps me together. I’m not the only one doing this.”

Bachner and 54 other young men and women on the flight planned to head to the IDF. Nefesh B’Nefesh coordinated with Garin Tzabar, a division of the Friends of Israel Scouts, to prepare the future soldiers of the Jewish state. The organization sends olim intent on army service to a kibbutz for almost four months for intensive Hebrew study and bonding — with each other and with their new country.

The program “makes a family out of them,” said Michael Atir, director of Garin Tzabar, at Newark Airport.

“Eventually they’re going to get to the army but as Israelis,” Atir said.

In the air

On the plane the reality of what Bachner is doing has set in.

“I had cold feet but I weighed out the good in what I’m doing and the bad in what I’m doing,” he said. “There’s a lot more good than bad. There wasn’t anything holding me back.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets the new olim at Ben-Gurion Airport, telling them they are helping to change the country.

Bachner realizes that as a soldier he may be ordered to evacuate Jews from the west bank under a future peace deal. That, he said, is likely to be his hardest task, but he will follow the orders he is given.

“That’s not what the Tzahal was established for,” he said, “but at the same time they’re doing what’s best for Israel. You can’t think about one family or one person at a time. You have to think about the whole of Israel.

“It’s hard but that’s why I’m here — to help Israel.”

Garin Tzabar has provided Bachner with a “support system,” which he said is already making the transition easier for him and the other lone soldiers on the plane.

“It gives us a place to live. It gives us an adopted family on our kibbutz. It gives us a group of friends,” he said. “It’s a second family while we’re away.”

Though he has his Israeli surrogate family, he does not yet feel like an Israeli. That will take time, he said, and something more than just relationships.

“I’m not going to consider myself Israeli until I’m in the army,” he said. “I’m not going to feel any sense of fulfillment or achievement until I accomplish what I set out to do. I have nothing to be proud of yet.”

Simon and Amy Solnica of Bergenfield had thought about aliyah before but family issues had prevented them from making the trip. As their four children kept themselves entertained on the plane, Simon Solnica explained the family’s dedication to their new lives.

“We’ve always wanted to make aliyah,” he said. “[But] I was in school, my wife was in school, family members were sick…. We weren’t able to do it.”

Adam Bachner of Teaneck and 54 others on the flight will spend the next four months with Garin Tzabar, a division of Israel Scouts, preparing for service in the Israel Defense Forces.

When the family returned from their pilot trip, they were in tears, he said. The kids asked if they were actually going to go through with the trip and the Solnicas made their decision.

“It’s the biggest gift we can give to our children,” said Amy Solnica, “but yet there’s such a big commitment and big decision we doubted whether it was the right time or whether we could do it successfully.”

Trained as an educational psychologist, Simon Solnica hopes to find work in his field in Bet Shemesh, where the family is moving.

“I’m excited,” said 11-year-old Batya Solnica. “It’s also a little bit scary. I’m not going to know people. I don’t know so much Hebrew.”

Others on the plane expressed similar doubts but placed their faith in God leading them through the challenges.

“We think it’s going to be the best way for us to serve HaShem,” said Shmuel Rothenberg of Passaic. “We realized that really nothing that we do in this world is in our control anyway, it’s all coming from above. It’s best to be in a place where we can feel that more tangibly and be able to serve HaShem in the best possible way.

With five children, Shmuel and Menucha Rothenberg are worried about the challenges of adapting to their new home in Bet Shemesh, especially when finding work — Shmuel Rothenberg manages technology projects and his wife is a school administrator — but said their faith reassures them.

“These are all gifts every day,” Shmuel Rothenberg said. “It’s all a question of living with that and understanding where everything is coming from. It’s no different whether we live here or somewhere else, it’s the same reality.”

‘Bruchim habaim habayita’

After more than 10 hours, the plane set down in Tel Aviv and the new citizens deplaned near Ben-Gurion Airport’s old Terminal 1, where they were greeted by friends, family, soldiers, and politicians, all cheering, waving banners, and dancing.

Paul Serkin of Teaneck will stay with his daughter and son-in-law in Herzliya upon his arrival.

Greeting the newcomers inside was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who echoed Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Fass.

“We’re very close to a tipping point,” he said. “I think all of you are going to be part of it and witness it. For the first time in 2,000 years there are going to be more Jews inside of Israel than Jews outside of Israel. This has been a long time coming.”

Netanyahu continued to praise the contributions of Western olim and the impact they can have on Israel.

“You bring in a professionalism, a dedication to work and to excellence, an antipathy — this I like — an antipathy to bureaucracy. We want to change this country,” he said. “We want it to make it at once not only the realization of the dreams of the past but a beacon to the future. This will be the most advanced country in the world. It already is in some areas but we can make it excellent in all areas and you’re part of that, an important part of that.”

“Bruchim habaim,” he said, using the Hebrew phrase for welcome. “Bruchim habaim habayita.” Welcome home.


Aliyah diary: Take a number

Abigail Klein LeichmanWorld
Published: 28 January 2010

Israel’s governmental bureaucracy has a reputation for wrapping every transaction in vast amounts of red tape and attitude.

Admittedly, the reputation is well-earned. I’ve heard plenty of horror stories and experienced a few myself (like the one-armed postal clerk who took a leisurely pita break as swarms of us waited in a hot, cramped vestibule). But I see more than a glimmer of hope that things are changing for the better.

Most of our bureaucratic experiences since making aliyah two and a half years ago have been unexpectedly pleasant, even easy. The concept of customer service is taking hold in Israel, along with take-a-number ticket dispensers (Israelis are incapable of orderly turn-taking) and more sophisticated methods to boost efficiency. Though some departments still enforce a maddening siesta break from 1 to 4 p.m., that’s changing too.

Abigail Klein Leichman’s neighbor, Elisheva Reichman, takes a number at the Ma’aleh Adumim post office.

When my husband and daughter went to the Licensing Bureau to apply for Israeli driver’s licenses, the clerk checked our family ID numbers on her computer and offered to take care of my paperwork as well, even though I was not there. What a nice surprise!

The Ministry of the Interior’s Jerusalem office is infamous for its long wait times. But at the branch in Ma’aleh Adumim, we have never waited longer than 10 minutes before successfully completing a passport application or address change.

For my annual routine medical screenings, I simply called our health plan and was guided through making appointments at its central Jerusalem clinic. A swipe of my member card took care of paying the nominal fees, to be added to the modest amount automatically deducted monthly from our bank account. Each appointment took place reasonably on time, and as I left I received a CD with a backup of all results for my primary care physician.

Not bad for a young Middle Eastern country that spends most of its meager budget on the necessities of bare survival.

Nevertheless, I was prepared for the worst as I went looking for the tax authority branch nearest the offices of one of my part-time jobs.

Anyone earning two Israeli salaries — and that encompasses many of us — must go to a tax bureau and apply for a waiver from income tax on all but one job.

Naturally, the day I chose to accomplish this dreaded errand was the only inclement one that week. Rain was coming down in sheets and wind was whipping my face. Inside the tax bureau, I took a number and waited less than three minutes before a young Arab clerk called me over.

Speaking excellent English, Salim joked amiably as he assisted me in filling out the application. “How much do you estimate you’ll earn this year?” he asked. “Not much,” I replied, and we both laughed.

Two minutes later I was out of there, precious waiver in hand.

I could have faxed it from home. Instead I chose to walk the six minutes to my employer’s office. I arrived wind-blown but triumphant — until the bookkeeper informed me that Salim had entered one detail incorrectly and I would have to go back for a new form.

The security guard at the tax bureau recognized me from before, took pity on my drenched state, and ushered me right past the metal detector.

As it was now 5:30 p.m., I didn’t know if the office would still be open. But it was. Salim’s jaw dropped as he read the note from the bookkeeper. “Ooooh, I am so sorry,” he exclaimed, and quickly printed out a corrected waiver. “I will fax it to her myself,” he said. “I must make up to you for my mistake.”

My toes were squishing around in my water-logged boots by then, but I couldn’t help leaving Salim’s office with a smile and a sincere “thank you.”

For those who will retort, “You just got lucky! My Uncle Sam waited five hours at the Licensing Bureau just last week!” it must be noted that Israelis do not have a lock on bureaucratic tomfoolery.

What American has not waged battle with licensing agencies, insurance companies, or the IRS? Who has not spent hours pressing menu options in a vain attempt to talk with a human? Who hasn’t been sent home from the local motor vehicles commission for failing to bring the correct documents?

A cousin of mine pointed out that many Americans moving to Israel think bureaucratic hurdles are higher here, but that is only because they never experienced being immigrants in the United States. Or in Canada, where the same government bureaucrat who explained to my cousin how to process his immigration paperwork informed him the very next day, when he showed up prepared, that the rules had changed that morning.

No matter where one relocates, paperwork and bureaucracy are unavoidable. But I give Israel credit for trying to improve an imperfect system.


New Jersey, Israel lose a hero

Steve Averbach was surrounded by his extended family on a 2006 visit to the area to raise funds for child victims of terror. Jeanette Friedman

Steve Averbach was Israel’s fearless man of steel.

While his brave act in 2003 saved dozens of lives — leaving him paralyzed from the neck down, a prisoner in his own body — the then 37-year-old father of four did not become embittered and never allowed his condition to prevent him from living a meaningful life.

The New Jersey native died in his sleep two weeks ago at age 44, a result of complications from his paralysis, but not before inspiring hundreds around the world.

Averbach was riding the Egged No. 6 in Jerusalem on May 18, 2003, when a Palestinian terrorist disguised as an ultra-Orthodox Jew boarded the bus near French Hill. As a gun instructor, police officer, and former Golani soldier, Averbach was trained to scan crowds for suspicious people.

He noted the man’s clean-shaven face and tell-tale bulge of explosives, and instantly reached for his weapon. His act scared the terrorist into detonating himself prematurely, saving untold lives. He blew up a near-empty bus instead of waiting for the downtown crowds. Hamas took responsibility for the attack.

Averbach’s severely wounded body was found in the wreckage. Glass had punctured his lungs, and a steel ball bearing tore into his spine. His hand was still on the trigger of his gun. He was barely conscious, but he mustered enough strength to inform the police about the bullet in his gun. He didn’t want anyone to get hurt.

An investigation confirmed that the bomber had planned an explosion in the center of town. Averbach had prevented dozens of deaths and was given a government award for bravery.

His heroism earned him fans the world over. He received letters and visitors from France, Australia, and North Carolina. Actor Christopher Reeve visited Averbach as he was recovering at Sheba Medical Center to talk to him about stem cell research.

But Averbach’s exhibition of courage wasn’t over.

The soldier and gun instructor, whose prowess with weapons won him the nickname “Guns,” now remained confined to a wheelchair, unable even to scratch his own nose. Nevertheless, the father of four insisted on living without regrets.

“If I had to, I would do it all again,” he told friends and family of his split-second choice to pull his gun on the terrorist rather than flee to safety. “It was required of me…. If I wouldn’t have done anything, I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself.”

He admitted in an interview with this reporter in 2004 that he missed playing Frisbee with his four sons, taking them to the beach, and teaching them to ride a bike. And yet, as his aide held a straw to his mouth so he could sip a drink, he asserted, “I made a choice. My choice was the correct one, so I can live with the outcome.”

Averbach was not content to spend the rest of his life as a quiet spectator in his wheelchair. He spoke to crowds from Bar Ilan University, Young Judea, Birthright Israel, and at Jewish centers and synagogues throughout America. He talked about making a difference in the world through Zionism, and what it meant to sacrifice for the Jewish people.

He made an impact on everyone he met, said his sister, Eileen Sapadin, of Englewood. “He was very much alive. Whatever he had left to give, he gave. He talked to everyone, and they were changed from the experience.”

Averbach saw beyond his personal suffering and wanted to do something to help those Israelis whose lives were shattered by terrorist attacks. Although traveling was difficult for him, he opted to raise funds by speaking to groups throughout the world. In this way, he raised thousands of dollars for Tikvot, an Israeli non-profit organization that helps rehabilitate terror victims and their families through sports activities. Averbach was appointed the organization’s vice president.

Sapadin’s husband, Allen Sapadin, a Hackensack dermatologist, said he was not shocked by Averbach’s bravery on the bus in 2003. But, he said, he was amazed and awed by Averbach’s courage every day since he became a quadriplegic.

“Even with his suffering, he said he would do it all again and meant it,” he said. “He never expressed anger or bitterness about his situation. He felt his job was to protect Israel. That’s something he would never have relinquished. That’s how dedicated he was to Israel.”

His wife added, “He suffered quietly. He didn’t complain.” After the attack, he didn’t describe himself as a victim of terror but as a survivor of terror.

Even before Averbach boarded Bus No. 6, he was leading an exemplary life, Eileen said. “He made aliyah by himself when he was just a teenager. He joined the army, and not just any unit but the most elite unit. He trained experts to fight terrorism. He had such a love for Israel. He wanted people to understand how important it was to support Israel. He wanted people to be educated about their duty to defend themselves.”

Averbach grew up in West Long Branch, N.J., the son of a surgeon and a nurse. He was a restless teenager who was popular among his classmates at Hillel Yeshiva in Ocean Township. He visited Israel in 1982 at age 16 and instantly fell in love with the country. “He felt at home there,” said his mother, Maida Averbach, a nurse in Long Branch. “Once he went to Israel, he felt he had to live there. He told me, ‘These are my people.’”

Although he didn’t know any Hebrew at the time, the moment he got off the plane he realized Israel was different from anyplace else and wanted to stay. “The love for the country fell right over me,” he told a newspaper reporter years later.

He made aliyah at age 18 and joined the elite Golani unit of the IDF, fighting in Lebanon and Gaza. He later worked in the Jerusalem Police Department’s anti-terrorist unit and as an instructor at a school that trains police officers and security firms.

“He was brave,” Maida Averbach said. “He didn’t like his situation, but he was brave. He dealt with it the best he could. And he helped other terror victims, too. He rose to the occasion. He inspired people. We heard from people who said he saved their lives because he taught them how to defend themselves. We heard from people who said they made aliyah because of how he felt about Israel. To me, he was a patriot.”

Over 300 mourners accompanied Averbach to his final resting place in Jerusalem’s Har Menuchot. Among them were members of the Israel Police, IDF, people whose lives he saved, and friends and admirers from all walks of life.

He is survived by his wife, Julie; his four sons; his sister Eileen and brother-in-law Allen of Englewood; Michael Averbach of Eatontown; and his parents Maida and Dr. David Averbach of West Long Branch.


Aliyah Diary: The price of citizenship

If you can recall the opening sequence of the TV series “Get Smart,” where Agent 86 passes through a long series of security doors, you can picture my passport renewal experience at the American Consulate in East Jerusalem.

When I arrived at the consulate, on Nablus Road on the Arab side of Jerusalem’s Highway 1, I lined up outside to get my online appointment receipt verified and attached to a number ticket. Then I lined up again to start the many-doored journey into the building.

At the first guard station/metal detector, a handsome young Israeli security guard rummaged through my personal belongings and instructed me to surrender my “cell phone, headset, disk-on-key, MP3, MP4, MP5, MP-whatever.” (If I had been sporting a “Get Smart” shoe phone, he would surely have confiscated that, too.) He instructed me to take a sip from my water bottle before allowing me to keep it.

He buzzed me through another locked door into a room where my considerably emptier handbag was scrutinized by an X-ray scanner. Finally, I was buzzed into the waiting room for passports, visas, birth certificates, and other official American documents.

The staff there was unusually friendly. One clerk handed out crayons and drawing paper to the children present while another found humorous ways to announce turns: “Will the fabulous Finkel family please step over to Window 3?”

A pleasant woman went through my documents with a check list, and another swiped my American Visa card to pay the $75 fee.

But that’s not all, folks. I was then sent upstairs to yet another waiting area to buy a courier envelope (about $10) to have the new passport delivered to an office in central Jerusalem for me to pick up. Back downstairs, I handed the envelope and receipts to the clerk and retrieved my electronic devices after exiting the building.

The process cost me about an hour and $100.

I had considered letting my American passport expire and using my Israeli one exclusively. But this made no practical sense. Without an American passport, I would have to pay a fee to apply for a visa to visit the United States — meaning another trip to the consulate — and would have to get fingerprinted and photographed at U.S. Customs. With both passports in hand, I get citizenship privileges on both ends. For those of us with family in the States, such convenience counts.

The larger issue here, however, is the awkward concept of dual citizenship. I found no clear estimate of how many Israelis are American citizens, but altogether about 5.2 million Americans live abroad and most retain two citizenships.

A recent article on this topic in Israel’s popular daily Haaretz explained that renouncing American citizenship is mandatory only for those taking foreign government posts. Voluntary renunciations are rare — although some American émigrés considered this step when it looked as though “Obamacare” would include a hefty “non-user” fee.

Israeli sociologist Chaim Waxman (formerly of New Jersey) told Haaretz that Americans feel politically connected to “the old country” and don’t want to give up their right to vote.

While I believe Waxman’s observation is on target, my husband and I decided not to vote in the last American elections. We had faithfully exercised our precious right to vote since we turned 18. But once we chose to live elsewhere, it didn’t seem right to elect the leaders of the country, state, and town we no longer reside in. Israelis living abroad may not vote in Israeli elections unless they come here on Election Day (although this may change) and that seemed to us a better model.

So why retain American citizenship if not to have a say in the electoral process? Several pundits quoted in Haaretz cited the “security blanket” dynamic: Immigrant Israelis feel safer knowing they can flee if things get dicey in the Promised Land.

That particular motivation really doesn’t speak to me. However, the Haaretz article also quoted Eli Lederhendler of Hebrew University’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry, who posited: “American Jews living in Israel just don’t see themselves as ex-Americans. Why, therefore, would [American-Israelis] pay the price of giving up a passport over a [negligible] matter, a few forms to fill out? It doesn’t make sense.”

Though I am a proud holder of an Israeli ID, it has been no small matter — emotionally speaking — to discard other U.S. documents as they have expired or become irrelevant: my New Jersey driver’s license, my Blue Cross card, my Teaneck library card, even my CVS and ShopRite key ring tags. Perhaps, subconsciously, this factored into my willingness to take a morning off from work and run a gauntlet of security doors to buy an official extension of my American identity.


11 Orthodox converts barred from aliyah

Local rabbi signs letter to interior ministry

This time it’s an Orthodox problem.

The latest round in the never-ending battle over “who is a Jew” pits diaspora Orthodox rabbis, including one from Teaneck, against the Israeli Interior Ministry and the office of the chief rabbi.

At immediate issue is the immigration status of 11 North American Jews who underwent Orthodox conversion and whose petition to make aliyah has been denied in recent weeks by Interior Ministry immigration authorities.

Rabbi Seth Farber Larry Yudelson

“It’s just not right that people who live in our communities, who are observant Jews, who have come to share their fate with the Jewish people and the State of Israel by making aliyah, are being denied the right to become citizens under the Law of Return, as other Jews can do,” said Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot of Cong. Netivot Shalom in Teaneck.

Helfgot was one of more than 100 rabbis who signed a letter to the interior ministry expressing concern that “conversions performed under some of our auspices and those of our colleagues are being questioned vis-à-vis aliyah eligibility.” The letter protests a new policy by which Orthodox converts are no longer automatically approved for immigration. Instead, the ministry has begun consulting with the chief rabbinate, which has announced a policy of accepting only conversions performed by certain rabbinical courts.

Had these converts been converted by Reform or Conservative rabbis, they would have been eligible to immigrate under a 1988 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that non-Orthodox converts are to be considered Jewish for the purpose of aliyah.

The letter was organized by Rabbi Seth Farber, head of Itim: The Jewish Life Information Center.

“One of the sad things for me is that one of the 11 converts converted more than 25 years ago and has been living an Orthodox life, and for the first time this person got a slap in the face. He’s basically being told he’s not Jewish as far as the State of Israel is concerned,” Farber told The Jewish Standard last week.

Farber, a Yeshiva University-trained rabbi, formed Itim in 2002 to ease the access to Jewish lifecycle services — such as weddings and funerals — that are under the purview of the Israeli government rabbinate.

Since then, Farber has found himself advocating for people whose Jewishness has been called into question by that body.

“We challenge the rabbinate when we see them either not following the policy as they define it, or see the policy they define as going against normative democratic behavor,” he said.

“I once thought that working quietly with the rabbinate wold solve every problem, that we could be the nice guy,” he added. “I’ve learned that the rabbinate is put into political positions and we’ve become a political counter-pressure against forces from the right,” Farber said.

A lawsuit filed by Itim has been shaking Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Itim had demanded that the rabbinate and local marriage registrars register as Jewish people converted by the Israeli army rabbinate. Without such registration, the converts will be unable to legally marry Jews in the State of Israel. The army rabbinate has converted more than 4,000 people, mostly immigrants or children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

The army rabbinate is considered by many to be more lenient than the national rabbinical authorities, who demand that converts observe a strict Orthodox lifestyle. This makes it a useful avenue for aliyah advocates, including many religious Zionists, who want large-scale conversion to help integrate the many non-Jewish relatives of Jews who immigrated from the former Soviet Union, but that leniency has led the national rabbinate to refuse to register the converts as Jewish.

This has resulted in political battles between the Yisrael Beiteinu party, which represents immigrants from the FSU, and the haredi Shas party, with the former offering legislation that would require the rabbinate to register military converts.

For the 11 Orthodox converts seeking to make aliyah, the question is less a struggle over who is a valid convert and more a question of who decides who is a kosher Orthodox rabbi: the Israeli chief rabbi or the local community?

This has been a gray area in Israeli law for several years, but the practice until the beginning of this year had been that the interior ministry deferred to the local community.

The Jewish Agency for Israel, which serves as the official bridge between Israel and the diaspora, particularly when it comes to aliyah, is getting involved in the matter at Farber’s behest, and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky is raising the matter with interior ministry officials.

“Let the Jewish Agency emissaries decide who is eligible for aliyah, just as they decide concerning people who are born Jewish,” said Farber. “Halacha says we don’t treat the convert different than anyone who is born Jewish.”

Ultimately, said Farber, this all speaks to a broader issue.

“Certain forces in Israel are trying to export their version of Orthodoxy over the whole world. There are two opposite approaches, one that sees Israel as relevant to the entire Jewish people, and another ideological position that klal Yisrael — Jewish peoplehood — is only for the type of Orthodoxy that the chief rabbinate identifies with,” said Farber.

To reach Larry Yudelson, write to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


No longer on the sidelines

Eight years later, a family celebrates its life-changing decision

It was rough-going at first for the Mendes family. From left, Sam, 17, Jon 23, Ben, 21, David and Shari, and Naomi, 14.

The March 24, 1995, front page of The Jewish Standard displayed a photograph of a young Ben Mendes enjoying a Purim carnival with his father, David, in Teaneck. In the photograph, he is dressed as a ninja. Today he wears the uniform of the Combat Engineering Corps of the Israel Defense Forces—and not just on Purim.

Recently, Shari and David Mendes celebrated the eighth anniversary of their family’s aliyah (immigration). It was a time for reflection on how life has changed for them and their four children. Military service is one integral part of the picture.

Jonathan, 23, finished serving in an elite army intelligence unit in February. Ben, 21, is about to be promoted to staff sergeant. David, chief of plastic surgery at Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, was called to active duty as a surgeon during the 2009 Operation Cast Lead. Sam, just 9 when the family made aliyah, will put on the IDF olive drabs in another year. Naomi, now starting high school, will decide between army and national service when her turn comes.

“We made aliyah when Jon and Ben were teenagers—not an easy time—and the first year was a rough adjustment,” says Shari Mendes, an architect. “But they’ve done well in the army, all on their own. If they could do it, really anyone can.”

“I was 13 when we came, and I was a little excited—maybe naïve,” says Ben, speaking from his military base. “I saw it as an adventure. But I was in for a major culture shock when I got here.”

Although their Ra’anana suburban neighborhood is heavily English-speaking and there are several other families from Bergen County in the neighborhood, Ben and Jon were the only “Anglos” in their rough-and-tumble all-boys school. “They were throwing chairs and lighting firecrackers in the classroom,” says Ben. “Going to that from Yavneh Academy in Paramus was a whole different world. And the language was a huge problem for me at first. It took two or three years till I overcame the shock.”

These days, explosives are not just the stuff of schoolyard pranks. The terrorist attack on a bus near Eilat on Aug. 18—a bus Ben normally takes—claimed the life of one of his friends and injured two others. Even before that incident, the fire and noise of demolition had become familiar to him. “I’ve been in and out of live minefields,” says Ben, who was a training commander and now works in logistics.

Yet he expects to look back on his three years of military service as an enriching experience.

“The army changes you. You learn a lot about yourself. Combat training has a way of pushing you to your breaking point. After an all-night hike through the desert without sleeping or eating, you say, ‘Wow, I did that.’”

His mother admits to having had her “moments” during Cast Lead, when Jon was near Ofakim with missiles raining down nearby, and David was in Gaza. “But to tell you the truth, I’m much more nervous when they drive,” she says. “I used to work in the World Trade Center, so I know things can happen anywhere.”

Shari’s parents, Martin and Vera Greenwald, live in Teaneck. David’s parents arrived separately in Israel before World War II from Europe, and his father’s position with Israel Aircraft Industries brought the family to New York for six years when David was a toddler, and permanently when he was 12.

As time went on, the couple felt increasingly drawn to the land of David’s birth. “I said to myself, ‘I can’t be on the sidelines of history anymore. I want to be part of it,’” David recalls.

Shari’s resolve strengthened as she stayed up late listening to the news during the Arab uprising that began in 2000. “Our kids were not getting younger, and we wanted to do it [make aliyah] while the oldest was young enough to make it,” she says. “My husband and I were very united. We really believed in this.”

The close-knit community in Ra’anana was pivotal to their adjustment, says Shari, who built a successful business and now employs two additional architects. “My work Hebrew is excellent, and my everyday Hebrew is passable,” she says. “I don’t think language ought to be a barrier [to aliyah]. The vocabulary you need in your profession is actually very limited and can be learned quickly.”

The family’s visits to New Jersey always include a shopping spree at Wal-Mart and Costco, where goods are cheaper than in Israel, although Shari says “we bring less and less back with us each year.”

The visits highlight the effects of dual citizenship, said Ben. “All of us in the family have an identity issue, because here we’re Americans and when we visit America we’re Israelis. The more we visit America, the more we feel there really isn’t anything there for us anymore.”

“We like the life here,” adds his mother. “The pace is so much saner here for us and for our kids. We live with a little bit less—one car instead of two. It’s a more meaningful and authentically Jewish life. I like the fact that the Jewish holidays are the rhythm of the year. You can be unaffiliated and still feel it’s Shavuot, for example, while many Jews in America don’t even know what that holiday is.”

Ben agrees. Despite the difficulties he encountered, he says, “Israel is where I want to live, from a Jewish and Zionist point of view.”

“Clearly it’s better to come when your kids are younger,” Shari says, “but it’s better to come then than not at all.”

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