Mordechai Weiss goes from Chabad rabbi to Israel tour guide

Mordechai Weiss goes from Chabad rabbi to Israel tour guide

This photo was taken the day the Weiss family arrived at their new home in Mitzpeh Yericho. Courtesy Weiss Family

In July 2003, Rabbi Mordechai Weiss arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv with his pregnant wife, Ellie, nine of their 10 children (another was already married and living in Israel), and 40 pieces of luggage. Two vans transported them to their new house in Mitzpeh Yericho in the Judean Desert.

“As we alighted from the vans in front of our still-under-construction new home, all we could see was sand, sun, and sky,” he writes in his recently released book, “You Come for One Reason but Stay for Another” (Devora Publishing, $18.95). “It was like entering the Twilight Zone. Goodbye civilization (Teaneck, New Jersey), hello Mitzpeh.”

For more than two decades, Weiss was part of the Jewish landscape of North Jersey, as rabbi of Teaneck’s Chabad House, director of the Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County, and chaplain of the Teaneck Volunteer Ambulance Corps. His wife taught at the Yeshiva of North Jersey and welcomed untold numbers of visitors to the Weiss home. Yet the pull of their ancestral homeland brought the large family to a unanimous decision to leave all that and resettle in a 300-family desert community.

In the book, which presents five years’ worth of e-mail updates to friends and family, Weiss provides a frank look at why the family moved; the challenges, triumphs, and tragedies of the first years in Israel; and above all, the reasons most of the family chose to stay.

Now working as a licensed tour guide, Weiss told The Jewish Standard that the notion for the book came from several people on his distribution list. He envisioned his readers as falling into two distinct groups: those familiar with the concept of aliyah, and those “who might be interested in a true and honest family experience, a personal story to be enjoyed.”

In describing his children’s adjustment, Weiss often writes about the role of sports in their lives, particularly for Mendel, who was a third-grader when they arrived.

“Because baseball was an important part of Mendel’s upbringing, it was extremely important for him to be connected to baseball here in Israel,” said Weiss, “despite the difficulties of schlepping him to Jerusalem, Petach Tikvah, and Kibbutz Gezer on a weekly basis. Baseball was important for his self-image, particularly as school was difficult, with the new language having him at a disadvantage. Baseball gave him a way to excel; he was good at it in Teaneck and he was really good at it here!”

Though Mendel made the Israeli Little League national team and played successfully in a championship game in Prague, he gradually gravitated to basketball, which is popular in Israel. “He hasn’t touched a baseball in years.” The adjustments for the five teenagers were not quite as simple. “None came here under duress,” Weiss emphasized. “But like so many other olim [immigrants] from North America with children that age, we found out that until you actually go through the experience, as prepared as you may be, it can be difficult.”

Three of the teens ended up back in the United States, while the others took some time to find their place in Israeli society.

“The good news is in terms of how well my five younger children have integrated into Israeli society,” said Weiss. “It’s added so much quality to their lives and our lives. Despite whatever challenges we have to deal with, we couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. The quality of our life on so many levels is so much fuller than it was before, and we came from a good place.”

A sports-related testament to the above statement: Shimon, two years Mendel’s junior, joined the Jerusalem baseball league this year but soon lost interest. “He has become too Israeli to get the fundamentals of the game.”

The former congregational rabbi clearly relishes exploring Israel as a tour guide for Jews, Christians, and Birthright groups, showing off everything from archeological ruins and modern historical sites to boutique wineries and chocolatiers.

“This is where we belong,” he said. “Although it’s not perfect, we’re part of something for which we’ve been waiting a long, long time. It’s something our great-great-grandparents couldn’t have dreamed of.”

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