Friday, March 9, 2012

Better Late Than Never…

Rabbi Barry Stern a"h
But for the intervention of parental authority and the increasing obligations of life, I would have made aliyah thirty two years ago.   It was not until I met and married my late husband, Rabbi Barry Stern (a”h) a decade ago that my dream of aliyah was given free reign and allowed to flourish.  Our longing to live in Israel was palpable, and while many of our conversations were peppered with discussions of how, when and where, our fears and familial obligations kept that dream at bay.

I made aliyah six months ago.  It has been an entirely wonderful and positive experience.  However, in reading of other’s aliyah experiences it was all too easy to come away with a bad impression of life in Israel and to be frightened away from the prospect of making aliyah.  And so, In the face of the many negative experiences that others have experienced and written about, and disseminated to the public - particularly via the internet - I feel compelled to step in and offer my experiences as an antidote.

For many years before coming home, I trolled email lists, blogs, online forums and the like for any tidbits of information that could aid our planned aliyah.  In reflection, I lived vicariously through other people’s aliyah experiences.

I read about the food in Israel, how we would not be able to find our favorite brands and how we should be ready to learn to appreciate the local fare, or expect to spend a fortune of money at the checkout for the American cuisine we would crave.  I learned about cars – owning vs. leasing vs. renting vs. using public transportation and tremping (hitchhiking). I was mostly told was that we would not want a car because it would be very expensive and we would, eventually, wind up doing what everyone else does: getting around by tremping, buses, trains, and taxis.  I learned about banking in Israel – and was drilled expect to be robbed at the counter because “all the banks in Israel are about taking one’s money, not helping one to save it!”

I also read tales of olim who underwent nightmarish experiences with shippers and customs.  Either the shipper would tack on humongous unexpected fees at the destination and hold their belongings for ransom, or customs would charge exorbitant customs fees and taxes.   Whole shipments would disappear or show up completely damaged and the insurance which ostensibly was to cover replacement value would be something one could wind up fighting for months to receive. There was the story of the refrigerator that was damaged—just the door was damaged but without the door the refrigerator could not be used - and the insurance company was insisting it was only “25% damaged”. 

Additionally, I heard and read many horror stories of the unwieldy bureaucracy of Israel – of corrupt clerks, or of being shuttled back and forth between desks or offices with no one actually helping the individual accomplish the task they had set out to do.   I read stories of olim reduced to tears by uncaring and rude agency officials, having to pay more than their fare share of fees, and so on. 

Did these tales of woe frighten me?  Yes, at least a little bit.  I also have the additional “burden” of being severely hard of hearing and I require hearing aids.  Even though I had learned to speak Hebrew in an Ulpan in Israel some thirty years prior to my aliyah, my ability and fluency declined in the intervening years; as they say, “Use it or lose it” and  I feared I had lost it.  Being that much older did not help – learning a new language (or rather RE-learning it) is harder for us “older folk”. 
Then, several years into my aliyah research, tragedy struck when my beloved husband died suddenly and tragically. He had slipped and fallen on icy pavement, struck his head on the ground, and suffered a major subdural hematoma. He was brain dead upon arrival at the emergency room. We buried him six days later.

After a week of shiva, in which possibly a thousand people traipsed through my house making condolence calls, I was alone – incredibly, irrevocably alone.  It was only then, in going through my late husband’s affairs, that I came to realize that my life had been terribly altered, and the change of circumstances would be more than just a loss of my husband. Also involved was a huge change in my financial status – one that would pit me against his family and ex-wife in a litigious affair that lasted most of the two and a half years prior to my aliyah.  In the end, my losses included not only my husband, but his family, my house and home, my community (I had to move to a more affordable community), my car, and my job.   

None of this stopped me, however, from pursuing my dream of making aliyah. I even continued to read the horror stories (while living one of my own).  In retrospect, I realize now that I was trying to internally “prepare for the worst”.  So, in a bid to avert disaster, I then went to work:  I researched everything: cars, banks, finance issues in Israel, places to live, cost of living, health care, housing, employment, services for the hearing impaired; you name it, I researched it.   I accumulated all the pertinent documents and articles and information and compiled all the information into a binder, organized by topic.  I discovered organizations that offer personal grants to Jews making aliyah.  I sold some of my possessions to help finance my aliyah, in addition to the grants which I received.   I reached out to my friends who were already living in Israel and told them of my plans and asked for their help.  

So here I am, living in Israel.

I made aliyah and shipped all my worldly possessions to Israel.  My interactions with the shipper in the States, the shipper in Israel and with customs was very smooth.  A few boxes initially went missing, and a few items sustained minor damage.  Ultimately four out of the five missing boxes were returned to me, and the damages were repaired or minor enough to leave alone.  I was insured for the missing fifth box.  My possessions were not held ransom and there were no surprises like additional fees in store for me. The workers who came and packed me up and loaded the truck and those who unloaded and unpacked my belongings were extremely respectful to me and of my possessions.  I would describe this as a positive experience. 

I eat the food that I can afford to buy and I am not starving nor missing “American” delicacies.  Much of what I ate while in the US is readily available here, and it is not all exorbitantly priced.  I drive a car, and yes, it is quite expensive to drive in Israel.  But I had made the decision before I came to Israel that I would have a car and would be willing to give up other “creature comforts” for that mobility.  It was a decision based in the reality of whom and what I am:  a fifty-two year old woman with arthritis in her knees and ankles and a congenital hip deformity.  Walking to the trempiada, or bus stop, or train station, dealing with a multitude of weather changes, schlepping bags of groceries or whatever I had need of schlepping – well, it just was not going to be do-able for me anymore.   A car was (and is), to my mind, a necessity.

I have a US bank account which does not charge me foreign transaction fees, a credit card with no foreign transaction fees, an Israeli bank account that does NOT charge fees for every standard transaction, health insurance with Maccabi Zahav that is quite amazing (I can make appointments with my doctors online!) and have had no problems dealing with any of the bureaucrats I have had to do my business with.  It is true that many of the bureaucrats working within Israel’s extremely hierarchical infrastructure lack a true sense of customer service and are oftentimes rather abrupt in their interactions with the public, and sometimes even downright rude.  However, I learned a valuable lesson from my mother:  honey catches more flies than vinegar.  Translated, this means to always smile and be nice to those you are dealing with, even if they are not – trust me, it never fails, to at the very least, to soften them up.  I have found it usually changes their demeanor to downright sunny!

I have retained enough Hebrew to manage my life (although holding a deep, profound philosophical discussion in Hebrew remains beyond my abilities), and I am living in a lovely community in a beautiful house.  I have a blossoming social life and am close to my family here which includes my married daughter, two grandsons, my sister and her family, several nieces and nephews, and my mechutenet.  I am close to many of my friends who made aliyah from Monsey, Teaneck and Baltimore – all the communities in which I lived at one time or another. I have made many new friends as well. 

It never occurred to me that I could not do this.  It still does not.  I am here.  In the face of many trials and tribulations I made aliyah in August 2011.  I did so with the help of Nefesh B’Nefesh, The Cyrus Foundation, Ebenezer, and the Jewish Agency and with the help of my wonderful family and amazing friends.   I did so by being resourceful and never taking no for an answer, but mostly, I did it with the help of Hashem – to whom I spoke and prayed on a daily basis – asking for the zechut to make aliyah and to live in the Holy Land, Eretz HaKodesh.  Apparently He said “yes”.  I have so much to be thankful for and I bless and thank Hashem every day for the miracles He has allowed me to witness. 

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