New Olim: Where Are They Now?

In December 2005, 228 new olim boarded a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight. Nineteen knew they were going to join the IDF as lone soldiers, 64 were single, 30 were couples, and 115 were families with children. Seven years later, here are some of their stories.

Shoshana Levin, 26, spent almost three years in the army and now is studying comparative literature and theater at Hebrew University. Her tuition is subsidized by the government for three years — a benefit of aliyah. She also works part-time at an insurance agency in the center of Jerusalem, close to the home in Nachalaot she shares with six other women, all olim from the United States.

Levin had been living with her grandparents, Douglas and Elaine Levine, in Teaneck. She recalls leaving their home with only two suitcases. Motivated by a strong Zionist background and two years of study in Israel (Young Judaea Year Course and Rothberg International School of Hebrew University), she had begun to feel ideologically connected to the state and the land. Two weeks after she arrived, her father, Harry, a rabbi, came to help her settle in. “I had no experience in being a grownup,” she said. “I learned through trial and error who to trust. I thought everyone was Jewish so they would help me. That was often, but not always, the case.”

After working at a Canadian television studio in Jerusalem for about eight months, Levin decided to join the army. “The IDF is not just for the State of Israel but for the entire Jewish people,” she said. “I happened to be born in America but I’m just as obligated as any Israeli.” She trained as a welfare officer, acting as an advocate for soldiers experiencing any of a host of problems — poverty, sick parents, loneliness. “Chayal tov zeh chayal shetov lo. A good soldier is one who feels good,” she said. “It was incredibly rewarding.” She went on to become an officer and enjoyed a high level of job satisfaction and respect. “My army service solidified my feeling of entitlement to live here and strengthened my connection to Jews as Israelis and Israelis as Jews,” she said.

Like most other olim, Levin stays in touch with her family in the United States through technology. She shares rent, expenses, some meals, S’machot, and Shabbat and holiday celebrations with her housemates. “It’s like a family vibe, since most of us don’t have immediate family in Israel,” she noted. The spiritual aspect of living in Jerusalem is exciting, she added. “I remind myself that I’m here for a reason. It’s not just about waking up, going to work, paying the bills. It’s contributing to this community that’s trying to piece itself together after 2000 years.”

Teaneck transplant Jodi Mugrabi, 40, her Israeli-born husband, Yaakov, and their four children (Gabriella, 10, and 8-year-old triplets Zecharia, Yehonatan, and Eitan) settled in Modi’in. “I love where my children are growing up. It’s a different type of Israeli scene,” Mugrabi said. “You can sometimes forget you are in Israel. It’s suburban and modern, with parks, schools and large houses.” But it’s not just the amenities she loves. “In Modi’in, Bet Shemesh, Efrat — where American olim have settled — there is a sense of family, not just community,” she added. “My close girlfriends here are like my sisters. I count on them.” Mugrabi was a speech therapist in the United States; she now is an afterschool teacher and runs a summer camp. Yaakov, an engineer, is working on the construction of the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem high-speed railway line.

At the airport before the NBN flight, she said, “I was nervous. I was the one who had pushed aliyah.” She was leaving her parents and sisters behind but she was joining her brother and other friends whose aliyah had turned them into “brand new people, happy and content with what they have.” Despite her worries, the Mugrabis didn’t have many “aliyah bumps.” The children were young enough to acquire Hebrew easily; they now attend religious public schools. Her husband’s Israeli background and NBN’s guidance also smoothed the way.

“You can give up if you come to ‘try,’” she said. “But if you want to do it you can make it. And once you make it work it’s such a good feeling — going to the bank on Friday and saying Shabbat Shalom; hearing Chanukah music in stores in December; seeing my children growing up with Hebrew, and with more freedom than in the States.” There’s even excitement when teens talk about going into the army, she added. “There is a sense that this is where you are supposed to be. There’s a peaceful sense here — even with the stress of everyday life.”

Rivki Leibtag Tsaidi, 32, originally from Far Rockaway, expressed more ambivalence. “Some days it’s amazing and I’m so happy to be here and I don’t think twice about it, and some days it’s hard to be away from my parents and two sisters. There are things I’ll never get used to about Israelis, but on flip side I don’t think I can imagine myself anywhere else,” she said.

Tsaidi lives in Mekor Chaim, a mostly French neighborhood near the German Colony in Jerusalem. The modern Orthodox synagogue she belongs to serves as her community. Though she has a car, she can walk to supermarkets, restaurants, coffee shops, and movie theaters. A new bike path is changing the dynamic of the neighborhood and has increased the value of the brand-new three-bedroom home she and her husband, Yaniv, moved into two years ago. They now have a 17-month son, Leeam, who is starting pre-school and Skypes with his grandparents.

“I always believed I’d end up here,” Tsaidi said. “I only dated guys who wanted to move to Israel.” At 25, unattached and not happy in her job in New York, she decided to act on her thoughts of aliyah. The departure from New York was so emotional that she said she almost didn’t get on the plane. “Saying goodbye to my family — seeing my father cry — was gut-wrenching. My father doesn’t cry. Mascara was running down my face. But when we got off the plane everyone was cheering.”

The transition wasn’t easy, she said. She was intensely homesick and felt alone, even though she made friends quickly and had many cousins and other relatives in Israel. (Her brother also is there now.) Her Hebrew wasn’t fluent; she worked at a dead-end job at a call center in Jerusalem and she had trouble acclimating into a society with a more lax work ethic than hers. In 2008, she went back to New York for a year to get her masters in graphic design at Parsons. “Graduation was Friday, and I was on plane back Sunday. Leaving New York, the land of opportunity for graphic designers, was not a good move career-wise,” she said, “but I met my husband [in Israel] three months later.” She freelances now and said that she is happier in Israel than in New York. “It’s not so easy to pinpoint. While Israelis can be pushy, people look out for one another. The feeling is this is your home and everyone is happy to have you.”

Tsaidi has bought tickets to the welcoming ceremony at Ben-Gurion for NBN flights and still watches many webcasts. “A thousand people come, even if they don’t know anyone personally. It is so exciting to be part of the welcome, letting new people know they are not alone. We’re all immigrants. I watch these webcasts and I don’t know anyone and I’m so excited and emotional. It’s a reminder of why I am here. I like the reassurance that there are others like me.”

Juliette and Stuart Rothschild, both 68, made aliyah from Teaneck on a different flight, in August 2009. The Rothschilds live in a modern apartment in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem, which has many Anglo residents, and enjoy Jerusalem’s cultural and spiritual life — all within walking distance. They also are close to their 25 grandchildren — their four daughters all made aliyah and live in the settlements.

The Rothschilds had contemplated aliyah for years, but waited until their own parents — refugees from the Nazis — had died. Their retired status also made the move easier. Juliette had been a secretary at the Yeshiva of New Jersey (now the Rosenbaum Yeshiva) and Stuart was in the wholesale meat business. Making a living in Israel can be difficult, they say, citing the experience of their son, who returned to Teaneck after making aliyah, and the travel schedule of one of their sons-in-law, who flies to the United States most weeks, returning just for Shabbat.

“It’s great to have kids and grandkids here but the tremendous spiritual component shouldn’t be minimized,” Stuart said. “There was nothing here 62 years ago. The miracle of it all has to grab you.”

“For so many years people said, ‘Next year in Jerusalem,’” Juliette said. “And now it never ceases to amaze us that we’re really here.”