Aliyah brings a Jewish heart home
By Lindsey Cherner
Long after her possessions had been packed, her goodbyes had been said and her plans had been made, Rachel Wolfson turned to her mother at the airport and asked if it was too late to turn back. She was scared, but without hesitation her mother told her it was, and for that, her daughter will be forever grateful.
After her five-month internship ended in Tel Aviv with a non-governmental organization (NGO) for a political party, she felt she now understood the fundamentals of how politics were conducted in Israel, and had a glimpse into the Israeli professional lifestyle.
She discovered it was a constant challenge to keep her mind off the vibrant city of Tel Aviv and the friends that became more like her extended family. Wolfson told herself if she was still thinking about living in Israel once she was home, then she would go back.
“Physically I was living at home in Dallas, but my heart was still in Tel Aviv. That’s when I knew I had to go back,” Wolfson said. “I made aliyah so I could fill that void I felt in America.”
With the help of Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency for Israel, Wolfson was able to decide if she was qualified to make aliyah and was recommended the best-fit ulpan program by the representatives. The Jewish Agency described what life would be like as an olah, which means new citizen in Hebrew, and provided constant reassurance that she would be all right. Additonally, Nefesh B’Nefesh paid for her flight to Israel and provided Wolfson with many other benefits. For instance, she receives a living stipend once a month for the next six months and free health insurance for up to one year to help ease her transition into Israeli life.
“I encourage others because I [made aliyah],” Wolfson’s Jewish Agency representative, Shira Ozeri said. “It’s a lot easier now than it was before with the technology, despite the distance you can live in one world and take part in another.”
Ozeri was impressed by Rachel’s passion and remembers her eyes lighting up when she talked about Israel.
“I haven’t felt too much of a culture shock because I already had a sense of what to expect,” Wolfson said. “People here are very pushy, but you have to be aggressive in Israel in order to get what you want. I actually enjoy it and find it very motivating.”
Before leaving for Israel in April, her Hebrew level was very basic. But with the help of Ulpan Etzion in Haifa, she has been surrounded by a support group of both teachers and other olim that take the time to make sure she learns Hebrew. Wolfson attends her ulpan five days a week for five hours each day; hers is specifically offered to young adults with an undergraduate degree and requires a placement test upon arrival.
She has learned that the best way to learn Hebrew is to live in an area where people do not know English, forcing herself to practice with new people. In Haifa, she has been using what she learned in her ulpan and in everyday settings, and is now confident enough to order food at restaurants and speak with classmates in Hebrew.
Wolfson has also been sending emails to her mother on a daily basis. Each morning or evening she will start her email with a greeting in Hebrew like “Boker Tov” or “Lila Tov,” since she moved to Israel a little less than two months ago these phrases have begun to be used more and more frequently on a daily basis.
“I greet friends now by saying ‘Shalom’ and say ‘Boker Tov’ to greet my teachers in the morning,” Wolfson said. “Although these are simple phrases, my mom really enjoys these greetings because she knows I’m becoming more comfortable with the language and I’m using it regularly.”
Even though she is thousands of miles away from home, Wolfson has been surprised that her daily life has remained relatively unchanged. She still goes to class five days a week, those days have just shifted to Sunday through Thursday to allow her to observe Shabbat. After class she goes to the gym or beach and studies with friends. When she lived in Texas, she was worked to save money for her aliyah and then went to the gym and spending time with friends.
Although her lifestyle patterns are very similar, she believes her life has been much more fulfilling in Israel. Even though she made aliyah without any friends or family, she has never felt alone in the welcoming Jewish community. However, she realized that life is a bit more challenging in Haifa.
“I have to take a 40 minute bus ride just to get to the gym, I cook and clean for myself, I have a much smaller room and I really hate having to flip a switch and having to wait for an hour in order to have hot water for my shower,” Wolfson said. “But all of that is only minor; I’m adjusting just fine.”
Contrary to common belief, Wolfson actually feels very safe living in Israel, one of her family’s primary concerns with her making aliyah.
“Sometimes I actually feel safer here than in the States, because the army here is so advanced and strong,” Wolfson said. “Israel should be viewed as a positive example by the United States in terms of protecting their citizens.”
Wolfson strongly believes that nothing in life should be too easy and that people must try to achieve what they want. She has a bachelor’s degree in English and Government from UT Austin, but she felt she wasn’t being enriched culturally the way she was living life in America.
“Yes, life is much harder here and it is easy to become frustrated, but at the end of each day I feel like I have accomplished something new,” Wolfson said. “Even if it’s something small, like asking to buy a bus pass in Hebrew, or reading a Hebrew sign correctly at the supermarket, these are all things that I never did in America.”
Glossary of terms:
Olah(eh) — In Hebrew, means new citizen. Everyone making aliyah is considered an Olah (female), Oleh (male) or Olim (plural).
Aliyah — In Hebrew, means ascent. This can be seen by the immigration of the Jewish people to the land of Israel.
Ulpan — Is a course or school for teaching Hebrew by an intensive method, especially a school in Israel for immigrants. Rachel is currently attending ulpan etzion.
Birthright — A first time educational trip to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18-26, created to strengthen the solidarity amongst Jews throughout the world.
Jewish Agency for Israel — Serves as a link between the Jewish people and Israel, helping to create and build the state, and has already brought over 3 million Jews to Israel. Their mission is to help forge strong connections to Israel with Israeli experiences, facilitating aliyah, encouraging social activism, serving as the first responder to crises in Israel and rescuing Jews from countries of distress.
Nefesh B’Nefesh — Provides Olim with employment resources, assistance with government absorption, community-based guidance and need-based financial aid in order to make each individual’s aliyah successful. This organization also helps with pre-aliyah guidance and support and is known for their group and charter aliyah flights.
Technology helps family stay connected with three children away from home
By Lindsey Cherner
Rachel Wolfson’s family was thrilled when she came home from Israel in August of 2010, only to find her in tears. She was physically in Dallas, but she insisted that her heart remained in Tel Aviv, where she had been interning with a non-governmental organization for the last five months.
“She was in tears all the time and wouldn’t stop thinking and talking about Israel,” her mother, Kerri Wolfson, said. “I think at that moment she made her decision to live there.”
With the advent of new technologies like Skype, Facebook and the constant use of e-mail, the Wolfson family has been able to stay in touch with Rachel, who is currently living in Haifa, more than 6,900 miles away from home.
Technology has kept the Wolfson family close, despite the three children living in three different cities. Brother Avi Wolfson graduated from MIT and is lives in Cambridge, Mass. where he works for a biomedical devices company while sister Deborah Wolfson is taking classes and working in Austin.
“We live in a world where we are accustomed to talk to whomever whenever we want,” Deborah said. “I just schedule a time to Skype her; I don’t even have her cell phone number.”
When Rachel decided to make aliyah, her family wasn’t surprised; they had been anticipating this decision since the moment she returned from her internship. Her father, Steven Wolfson, credits her decision in part to her independent soul and they way that she is always up to meet a new challenge. Deborah saw Rachel’s desire for knowledge lead her to the promised land for a second time.
“She’s very passionate about different cultures,” Deborah said. “I knew she wanted to immerse herself in that and make an impact.”
Deborah grew up particularly close with Rachel and as someone that went on birthright and is going back to Israel in two weeks as part of the David Project, she understands the connection young Americans have with Israel.
Rachel attended Akiba Academy of Dallas when she was younger, where many lessons revolved around taking care of Israel. As a whole, her mother believes her upbringing has been very Judaic, but she is still surprised by how much she wanted to go.
Although Rachel’s family has never really thought of her as a risk-taker, they have truly admired the way she was able to make aliyah without a single friend.
“It’s described as a hard life; you have to be a useful type of person,” Kerri said. “I can’t perceive myself [making aliyah], especially at my age.”
However, they have found a surprisingly large number of parents whose children are also abroad, with the majority living in Israel. The Wolfsons acknowledged the importance of a supportive family and the child being in the right frame of mind. They believe it’s important for families to realize that the young adult knows all of their reasons for wanting to leave, and the best way to try to understand their mindset is to look from their point of view.
“It’s not something you can wake up and do,” Kerri said. “Our rabbi had to write a letter just to prove he knew the family, they looked at our tax returns, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there were background checks; it’s a pretty invasive process.”
Rachel’s mom is the only one in the family that has not yet been to Israel, but she hopes that will change soon. She plans to have an extended stay in Israel this year to visit Rachel and see the country.
The Wolfson family has witnessed what some argue to be a trend over the years of students doing year courses in Israel, and especially taking part in birthright. Rachel’s internship was just another example of young adults traveling to Israel and not wanting to leave.
“I went there in 1967 immediately after the Six Day War, and promised myself that I would return,” Steven said. “Time went by, and I still haven’t returned. I regret that. So, when [Rachel] had the courage to do what I lacked the courage to do, I rejoiced in her decision and her resolve to do it.”
Rachel went through the Jewish Agency for Israel and with the help of representative Shira Ozeri, was ensured of her eligibility to make aliyah and was advised on the best-fit ulpan program for her. Ozeri acknowledged that although making aliyah is seen as a lifelong dream for some, there are many other reasons for going. These include, but are not limited to, wanting adventure and seeing it as a moral obligation.
“You have to be prepared to be flexible, to bring along some of the old with the new,” Ozeri said. “We talk about it as a mosaic of colors and cultures that blend together in Israel making it unique and special.”
Rachel’s sister is at times concerned for her safety. She recalled one instance when they received an email that Rachel could hear bombs from where she was on the beach only to send a follow-up email that all was okay. It’s moments like these that make the Wolfson’s afraid.
“When you hear about the political turmoil and terrorism, it’s worrisome, but it’s funny, we know all about it over here but many times she doesn’t,” Kerri said. “So I just tell her she needs to stay away from it and surround herself with people with good intentions.”
Despite a scary email or two, they’ve been pleased with the safety and the overall happiness Rachel has managed to achieve in a short length of time. Her sister describes Israel as a homeland that “makes her feel safe in the midst of the chaos.”
The Wolfsons have come to accept the reality that Rachel will be living in Israel for at least three years and maybe even her entire life. Although at times they feel lonely, they’re reminded of Rachel’s first few days in Israel, when she actually didn’t know anyone. While Kerri continues to worry about the “motherly things,” she’s happy that Rachel is happy.
“You want your kids to experience life and leave the nest, so it’s been gratifying to me,” Kerri said. “I want my kids to stand on their own two feet.”
A Nefesh B’Nefesh guide to making aliyah:
6-12 months before aliyah
• Set your target aliyah date
• Fill out the online aliyah application at dag.nbn.org.il
• Attend a pre-aliyah workshop, event or online webinar
• Study Hebrew
• Plan a pilot trip
• Discuss your aliyah plans with family and friends
6 months before aliyah
• Educate yourself about Israeli universities and ulpan options
• Arrange for your pet’s documentation and vaccinations
• Network for job opportunities
• Apply for a new passport/renew your existing passport
• Join the NBN Yahoo email group (groups.yahoo.com/group/nefeshbnefesh/)
• Follow Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter
3 months before aliyah
• If you are an Israeli citizen, make sure you’ve applied for an Israeli passport
• Start exploring living arrangements
8-10 weeks before aliyah
• Receive notification from the Jewish Agency of Israel Eligibility Department
• Apply for an aliyah visa at the Israeli consulate (takes one week longer during the summer months)
• Receive notification letter from Nefesh B’Nefesh
• Receive flight confirmation from Nefesh B’Nefesh
• Submit any special flight requests
2 weeks before aliyah
• Collect original documents to put in carry-on luggage, including university transcripts or diplomas
• Confirm transportation to airport
• Purchase enough prescription and over-the-counter medication for at least one month
• Confirm that your Israeli address and contact information are on file with Nefesh B’Nefesh
• Submit any special flight requests
Day of aliyah
• If you are joining a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight, your ticket will be waiting for you at the airport
• Arrive at the airport three hours before your flight time
Upon arrival in Israel
• Schedule an appointment with your local branch of Misrad Haklita (ministry of Immigrant Absorption)
• Contact your family
— Lindsey Cherner