Passage to Israel

May 9, 2009

12 min read


Despite the hardships of adjusting to a new country amid the threat of terrorism, these Florida families wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

This article originally appeared in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

From his neighborhood on a rocky hilltop just south of Jerusalem, Lawrence Welch can look down on the valley where David slew Goliath.

On another hilltop, Elazar speared a Greek general's armored elephant and turned the tide of battle for Maccabees in the second century B.C. Nearby is Betar, the village where Bar-Kochba made his last stand against the Romans in 132 A.D.

For a Jew, there is no slope, valley or cave in these Judean hills that doesn't tell some tale in the turbulent history of his people.

"Right behind here is the Path of the Patriarchs…it's part of this neighborhood's property," said Welch, who emigrated last July from Boca Raton to Israel with his family of six. They were among 500 immigrants from the United States and Canada sponsored by Nefesh B'Nefesh, a group that promotes immigration to the Jewish state.

"Looking out on this -- knowing it's our land, it's our home now -- I can't tell you how amazing this is."

For his family and the others that made this journey to the Jewish homeland, that amazement is not tempered by the violence that can explode at any time around them. History is still being written, and the turbulence of life here has not lessened.

Floodlights and barbed wire ring the rocky slopes around the Welch family's neighborhood in the West Bank settlement of Neve Daniel. A few miles from this close-knit Orthodox community of 650 residents are the Palestinian villages of Bethlehem and Beit Jala, the reputed source of snipers who have ambushed Jews repeatedly along the Judean roads.

A suicide bomber has been intercepted on his way to Beit Shemesh, where Jonathan Mensh and his family, also from Boca Raton, have moved. And not far from Hadera, the new home of former North Miami resident Shirley Leib, a wrong turn can send you into a hostile Arab village.

Returning to Israel is known as making aliyah, a spiritual ascent. It is a pillar of the Jewish faith captured in the Passover promise of "next year in Jerusalem."

But that hasn't stopped the new olim, or immigrants, from embracing Israeli life. They are getting to know their neighbors, learning Hebrew and slowly finding their way through Israel's vast, intimidating bureaucracy.

In Judaism, returning to Israel is known as making aliyah, a spiritual ascent. It is a pillar of the Jewish faith captured in the Passover promise of "next year in Jerusalem."

"In the past whenever I came here on a trip, from day one my praying was stronger," said Welch, 36. "But moving here, the first couple of days I didn't feel it. I wondered, what was wrong? But I think it was just the whole process of moving …my mind was on that so much I couldn't appreciate being here.

"Now I'm starting to get that feeling again -- that emotion I felt whenever I came to Israel. It's incredible being here."

That feeling, an impulse driven by faith, heritage and history, has sustained these Florida families through their time of transition.

The exhaustion of moving to another country has largely been offset by the euphoria of being in the land of the Jewish Patriarchs. They are not simply in Israel, but Eretz Yisrael, the land granted by God to the Jewish people.

And the struggle for that land, the war right outside their door, continues. The Greeks and Romans are long gone, but Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad have taken their place.

Some making aliyah, like Leib, have become overnight celebrities for their love of Israel.

"You know, when Moses sent the spies into the Promised Land they came back saying there were giants living there," said Leib, 51. "Well, that's what I think of obstacles like the language, the bureaucracy, learning how to use the bus. They're just giants -- obstacles that I have to get around to live here."

Others have used the opportunity of obtaining citizenship in the Jewish homeland to take on traditional Hebrew names. Thus Lawrence and Laura Welch have become Chaim and Ariela Ben-David.

"Number one, Welch is not a Jewish name. I always wanted to have a Jewish name," explained Lawrence Welch. "And Welch is difficult to write in Hebrew. And Ben-David just came naturally. My father's name is David, so we just chose Ben-David: son of David… I wanted to honor my father by carrying forward his name."

New names. New language. New country. What Americans discover is a small, youthful nation -- Israel is only about a six-hour drive from top to bottom -- that is a curious blend of high tech and Old World. Settled by successive waves of Eastern European, North African and Russian Jews, Israel's culture tends to be more Middle Eastern and European in its notions of family, community and law than the United States.

Government tends to be more bureaucratic, families closer and more extended, and neighborhoods less insular than the United States. There is a strong, old-fashioned sense of community. Getting things done can often depend on who you know.

"In many ways, it can be the opposite of American lifestyles -- in language, personal interaction, ways of behavior. Here your business is everybody's business," said Akiva Werber, a native New Yorker who is chief of North American immigration for the Jewish Agency. "That takes some getting used to."


If it wasn't in the Shomron, its gate guarded by security, the Welches' neighborhood of spacious two-story homes with well-manicured yards and stone walls wouldn't look out of place in Boca Raton or the western suburbs of Fort Lauderdale.

Neve Daniel and the other communities that make up Gush Etzion are seen by many Israelis as an essential part of greater Jerusalem. In the 1948 war that resulted in Israel's creation, 240 people were killed here defending Jerusalem's southern flank.

The road to Neve Daniel has been the site of frequent sniper attacks and drive-by shootings -- at least 17 Jews have been murdered in the area over the past two years -- yet the route is a strange mix of mundane suburban scenes and military preparedness.

The highway that winds along the spine of the Judean Hills passes army emplacements as well as hiking schoolchildren. Public buses must be armored, but small, dusty civilian cars carrying families to work and school in Jerusalem are a common sight.

The threat is real, but the danger of living in the Gush tends to be exaggerated, say many who live here. Laura Welch points out that even with the current troubles, more Israelis are killed in road accidents each year than have died at the hands of terrorists. Moreover, she says, the media paints a distorted picture of settlers and their communities.

"A settlement is exactly that -- people come and they settle the land. There's growth, natural development and cultivation," she said. "But in this context, it gives people the ideas of gun-toting extremists marching around declaring whatever."

"Maybe when they had the caravans here and they were starting out, it was a settlement," she said. "At this point, it's a town, a village."

But larger political questions take a backseat on most days to the routines of everyday life in Neve Daniel. Lawrence and Laura Welch are worrying more about the things new arrivals worry about: finding jobs, buying a car, making sure their kids are fitting in at school.

Within hours of entering their new home, the Welches were greeted by a host family and others who helped them settle in. Their daughters were sleeping over at the homes of newfound friends the first night, and meals were delivered for lunch and dinner every day for the first week.

Eventually, once Lawrence graduates from language school, he'll receive weapons training. In six or seven months he'll likely be doing patrols and taking his turn at watch over the front gate.

"The people here are just so welcoming -- there's almost a fight to invite us to Shabbat meals," said Lawrence Welch. "I think we're lined up for weeks and weeks. People come up, shake our hands. I have to ask them if they can do English for now though."


In Biblical times, Beit Shemesh was the home of Samson. The Ark of the Covenant, after being abandoned on an ox-cart by Gentiles, was also reclaimed by the ancient Jews and moved here.

In modern times, Beit Shemesh is better known as a place where immigrants like Jonathan Mensh stand in line at banks, schools and post offices to claim their identity cards and new benefits.

"You don't have that identity card, and you don't have a life here -- you can't use the banks, get health insurance, buy a car," said Mensh, an accountant who rented out his house in Boca Raton to move here with his family of six. "It's like you're living in limbo. Nefesh B'Nefesh was instrumental in helping us navigate through the system."

A rapidly growing town nestled in the Judean foothills midway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Beit Shemesh has become popular with young upscale immigrants. The Mensh family is living in a neighborhood of spacious single-family homes on a slope overlooking picturesque mountains.

"Beit Shemesh is the most important city for immigrant absorption in Israel right now," said Efraim Lapid, spokesman for the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental organization that oversees immigration to Israel. "It's become a choice destination for Americans, but it also had Russians, Ethiopians and Jews from countries like France, South Africa."

The Nefesh flight is seen here as especially important because it could stimulate emigration from the United States which, with 5.5 million Jews, has the largest remaining pool of Jewish communities in the world.

"This country, I tell you, it's a dream."

Immigrants to Israel, a country that sees growth through immigration as a key to survival, are given generous subsidies for housing, transportation, education and rent. Within days of arrival, anybody from a recognized Jewish congregation anywhere in the world becomes a citizen of the state, with identity papers and a host of helpful organizations behind them.


Me'ayin ata? Where are you from? Ata oleh chadash? Are you a new immigrant? Ata lomed ivrit ba'ulpan? Are you learning Hebrew in an ulpan?

Shirley Leib sold her condo, car and most of her belongings and left Miami, with its Cubans, its Argentines, Bolivians and other immigrants, to travel halfway around the world to Israel.

Now, in her second week here, she is sitting in a beginning Hebrew language class alongside Cubans, Argentines and Bolivians, not to mention a few Russians and a Turk.

Like many new immigrants, she wants to take advantage of the five months of free, daily Hebrew lessons that the Israeli government offers all new citizens.

"I have a big problem with learning languages -- it's that I'm tone deaf," said Leib, a native of Central Florida with a strong southern accent. "So, I'm sitting here hearing 'g' when she's using 'k.' What I'm really good at right now is saying 'excuse me,' which is slee-hah."

Standing before the class, demonstrating a fairly good grasp of his latest lesson, is Arturo Alfonso Diaz, 56. Diaz arrived in Israel, just ahead of Leib, after his Jewish wife and daughter gained permission to leave Cuba.

"This country, I tell you, it's a dream," said Diaz, smiling and snapping his fingers. "It's like a piece of America in the Middle East. Most of my friends -- well, all of my friends -- are in Miami. But I think I'm going to stay here. Sure the language is a bit hard, but so far I really love it here."

If there's anything in Israel that can dampen that euphoria, learning Hebrew might be it. A difficult language, written right to left, laced with strong, nasal sounds and brimming with slang and poetic proverbs, it can take years to master. Ask ulpan teachers how well new olim take to the language, and many smile and shake their head sadly. If she's lucky, Leib will end her months of training with solid grammar, good pronunciation -- and frequent headaches.

But that won't stop the safta -- the nickname "grandmother" the 51-year-old Leib got after being introduced on Israeli national television wearing jeans, a yellow smiley-face T-shirt and a broad grin. Since her arrival, she's been pulled aside and fervently thanked for moving to Israel at markets, in parking lots and while hiking in national parks.

"This is where I wanted to be, supporting this country. I'll clean toilets if I have to."

A secular but deeply spiritual Jew, she decided to immigrate with her daughter, granddaughter and Israeli son-in-law after years spent booking vacations to Israel as a travel agent. Everything in Israel seems to excite her. Talk to her about the rocks, the trees, the seas and tears well up in her eyes.

"I was out this morning reading the Tehilim, the Psalms, and it was like the birds were singing louder all around me," said Leib. "It was like the birds were joining me in prayer."

"I know at my age I'm not going to get some high-paying job, that it's going to be a struggle for me, but this is where I wanted to be, supporting this country," said Leib. "I'll clean toilets if I have to, but I have to say, these people have been just coming out from everywhere, offering to help us. They're really moved that we're here."

For more information on Nefesh B"Nefesh, visit their website, .

You can see their video by clicking here.


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