No longer on the sidelines

No longer on the sidelines

Eight years later, a family celebrates its life-changing decision

It was rough-going at first for the Mendes family. From left, Sam, 17, Jon 23, Ben, 21, David and Shari, and Naomi, 14.

The March 24, 1995, front page of The Jewish Standard displayed a photograph of a young Ben Mendes enjoying a Purim carnival with his father, David, in Teaneck. In the photograph, he is dressed as a ninja. Today he wears the uniform of the Combat Engineering Corps of the Israel Defense Forces-and not just on Purim.

Recently, Shari and David Mendes celebrated the eighth anniversary of their family’s aliyah (immigration). It was a time for reflection on how life has changed for them and their four children. Military service is one integral part of the picture.

Jonathan, 23, finished serving in an elite army intelligence unit in February. Ben, 21, is about to be promoted to staff sergeant. David, chief of plastic surgery at Meir Medical Center in Kfar Saba, was called to active duty as a surgeon during the 2009 Operation Cast Lead. Sam, just 9 when the family made aliyah, will put on the IDF olive drabs in another year. Naomi, now starting high school, will decide between army and national service when her turn comes.

“We made aliyah when Jon and Ben were teenagers-not an easy time-and the first year was a rough adjustment,” says Shari Mendes, an architect. “But they’ve done well in the army, all on their own. If they could do it, really anyone can.”

“I was 13 when we came, and I was a little excited-maybe naïve,” says Ben, speaking from his military base. “I saw it as an adventure. But I was in for a major culture shock when I got here.”

Although their Ra’anana suburban neighborhood is heavily English-speaking and there are several other families from Bergen County in the neighborhood, Ben and Jon were the only “Anglos” in their rough-and-tumble all-boys school. “They were throwing chairs and lighting firecrackers in the classroom,” says Ben. “Going to that from Yavneh Academy in Paramus was a whole different world. And the language was a huge problem for me at first. It took two or three years till I overcame the shock.”

These days, explosives are not just the stuff of schoolyard pranks. The terrorist attack on a bus near Eilat on Aug. 18-a bus Ben normally takes-claimed the life of one of his friends and injured two others. Even before that incident, the fire and noise of demolition had become familiar to him. “I’ve been in and out of live minefields,” says Ben, who was a training commander and now works in logistics.

Yet he expects to look back on his three years of military service as an enriching experience.

“The army changes you. You learn a lot about yourself. Combat training has a way of pushing you to your breaking point. After an all-night hike through the desert without sleeping or eating, you say, ‘Wow, I did that.'”

His mother admits to having had her “moments” during Cast Lead, when Jon was near Ofakim with missiles raining down nearby, and David was in Gaza. “But to tell you the truth, I’m much more nervous when they drive,” she says. “I used to work in the World Trade Center, so I know things can happen anywhere.”

Shari’s parents, Martin and Vera Greenwald, live in Teaneck. David’s parents arrived separately in Israel before World War II from Europe, and his father’s position with Israel Aircraft Industries brought the family to New York for six years when David was a toddler, and permanently when he was 12.

As time went on, the couple felt increasingly drawn to the land of David’s birth. “I said to myself, ‘I can’t be on the sidelines of history anymore. I want to be part of it,'” David recalls.

Shari’s resolve strengthened as she stayed up late listening to the news during the Arab uprising that began in 2000. “Our kids were not getting younger, and we wanted to do it [make aliyah] while the oldest was young enough to make it,” she says. “My husband and I were very united. We really believed in this.”

The close-knit community in Ra’anana was pivotal to their adjustment, says Shari, who built a successful business and now employs two additional architects. “My work Hebrew is excellent, and my everyday Hebrew is passable,” she says. “I don’t think language ought to be a barrier [to aliyah]. The vocabulary you need in your profession is actually very limited and can be learned quickly.”

The family’s visits to New Jersey always include a shopping spree at Wal-Mart and Costco, where goods are cheaper than in Israel, although Shari says “we bring less and less back with us each year.”

The visits highlight the effects of dual citizenship, said Ben. “All of us in the family have an identity issue, because here we’re Americans and when we visit America we’re Israelis. The more we visit America, the more we feel there really isn’t anything there for us anymore.”

“We like the life here,” adds his mother. “The pace is so much saner here for us and for our kids. We live with a little bit less-one car instead of two. It’s a more meaningful and authentically Jewish life. I like the fact that the Jewish holidays are the rhythm of the year. You can be unaffiliated and still feel it’s Shavuot, for example, while many Jews in America don’t even know what that holiday is.”

Ben agrees. Despite the difficulties he encountered, he says, “Israel is where I want to live, from a Jewish and Zionist point of view.”

“Clearly it’s better to come when your kids are younger,” Shari says, “but it’s better to come then than not at all.”

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