‘This is where I belong’: North Jerseyans make aliyah
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‘This is where I belong’: North Jerseyans make aliyah

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Rabbi Eugene and Edna Kwalwasser of Fair Lawn receiving their new citizenship papers upon arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport. Nefesh b’Nefesh, an organization that has facilitated the aliyah of more than 15,000 people from the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, streamlines paperwork for those arriving on its flights. Sasson Tiram

My Hebrew stinks,” Leon Isaacson freely admits. But his lack of fluency did not stop the retired camera salesman from getting on an El Al jet with his wife, Alicia, and moving lock, stock, and barrel from Teaneck to Israel.

The Isaacsons’ Dec. 31 Nefesh B’Nefesh flight also included two other North Jersey families: Bruno and Rachel Belaciano from Teaneck and Rabbi Eugene and Edna Kwalwasser from Fair Lawn.

Isaacson says that after 37 years in Teaneck, “I was going to go to Florida, but my wife insisted on Israel.” Here, in the heavily English-speaking suburb of Ramat Beit Shemesh, they have a son, daughter-in-law, and seven grandchildren. They have a son in Teaneck and a daughter in Woodmere as well.

Isaacson is looking forward to his retirement here.

“I plan to be doing absolutely nothing aside from attending shiurim [Torah classes] and going to the senior center,” said Isaacson, who gets about in a wheelchair. “My wife is a seamstress and she is starting a sewing business at home.”

The Kwalwassers, too, came to Beit Shemesh, where two of their three grown children and their families have lived for the past decade. Another married son lives in Stamford, Conn.

“We came to Israel on our honeymoon in 1968 and wanted to move here, but our parents told us we couldn’t do it because they would never know their grandchildren,” says Rabbi Kwalwasser, who served as principal of Yavneh Academy in Paramus for 31 years, the last four as dean emeritus.

Coming full circle, it was the pull of his own grandchildren that finally drew him here permanently after much back-and-forth travel.

“On erev Yom Kippur in 2002, I was talking on the phone to our oldest grandchild,” Kwalwasser recalls. “He said, ‘Zayde, when are you coming for Sukkot?’ I said, ‘Yehuda, the children of Yavneh need me.’ And he replied, ‘Don’t the children of Yavneh know I need my Zayde too?’

“You can well imagine the emotional impact of that. After Yom Kippur I called the president of Yavneh and said I needed to seriously begin to plan aliyah.”

His wife did not need persuading. “I had passed the turning point years earlier,” she says. “I remember one trip we took in the mid-’80s where I really felt we just belonged here.”

The couple carefully planned their departure for retirement age, so that finding work would not be an issue. They sold the house they’d lived in for 23 years and moved to an apartment for a year and a half, bought a fixer-upper in Beit Shemesh, and began the difficult long-distance process of getting it renovated.

“We had discussed [the probability] that things would frustrate us and we’d need to keep each other in line and not let it get to us,” says Edna Kwalwasser, who will continue running the American office for her son’s post-high-school yeshiva, Lev HaTorah. “We promised each other we’d hold hands and make this work.”

Landing on the eve of the Gaza war underlined the challenges ahead, the rabbi says. The first major hurdle they faced was discovering, just days before it was due to arrive, that the shipment of all their household goods had never left the New York port. They suspect the war had something to do with the snafu.

In spite of such experiences, “I know why I am here and that this is where I belong,” says the rabbi. “Couple that with the loving support of children and grandchildren, and it doesn’t get better than that.”

The Belacianos do not have the same sort of support framework. As a young couple with an 11-month-old daughter, they must find work in a tight market and figure out where they want to settle.

For now, they are living in a borrowed apartment in Haifa with a beautiful view of the North but with few other religious families in the neighborhood. Though hi-tech jobs in the port city are plentiful, Bruno Belaciano – an electrical engineer originally from Brazil – has not yet landed a position. He and his Swiss-born wife, who met when they were students at Yeshiva University, are making do on their monthly allowance from the Ministry of Absorption.

But Belaciano is nevertheless upbeat.

“I like the Israeli way of life; it’s not as geared to spending as in the U.S.,” he says. “You buy what you need and nobody cares what the other guy has.”

He expects fewer big expenses here, particularly for health care and education. His wife plans to take advantage of the government’s offer of free tuition for a master’s degree for new immigrants, and their child’s education will be tuition-free. “I think I’d have to be a millionaire to send my daughter to school in the U.S.,” he said.

As a Brazilian citizen, he adds, “There are a lot more open doors for me and there are many more opportunities here than I had in New York in hi-tech. I’m Israeli like everyone else here.”

Leon Isaacson has already found that he’s just like other Israelis in one specific way: “I’m worried about the elections coming up,” he says. “I don’t know who to vote for.”

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