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'I am starting to feel Israeli'

Making aliyah does not end once olim get off the plane.

They must now find work, schools, housing, and adapt to new customs. This can be daunting, and has led many to return to their former homes.

Before the creation of Nefesh B’Nefesh in 2002, almost 53 percent of North American new olim returned within three years of making aliyah, according to the organization’s cofounder and executive director, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass. In seven years Nefesh B’Nefesh has facilitated more than 22,000 olim and claims a retention rate of 98 percent.

“It changed the whole dynamic of how individuals look at aliyah,” Fass said.

Shashi and Yacov Ishai of Teaneck made aliyah in June with their 7-year-old daughter Zehava and 2-year-old son Zaki. Though they made their own travel arrangements, they relied on Nefesh B’Nefesh for advice and help cutting through red tape. In early August, they were still settling into their new apartment in Netanya after a delay of the cargo ship carrying their belongings. Yacov, who had been born and raised in Israel, was preparing for a short trip back to New Jersey to tie up loose ends and bring back such supplies as canned tuna fish in water. In Israel, Shashi Ishai observed, they could find only canned tuna in oil. It would be little things like this that she would have to adjust to, Shashi Ishai said.

“There’s a wonderful sense of adventure,” she said. “You can reinvent yourself. Once you acquire the language you can find anything here if you dig deep enough.”

Yacov Ishai left Israel in 1992, shortly after he finished his army service. He saw greater economic opportunities in America, where he created a soft-drink distribution company and later co-founded a grocery delivery business. He hadn’t planned to stay, but he soon met his future wife and they later adopted two children.

“If there’s any time to start a new adventure you do it in your early 20s, so you have room to start again if it doesn’t work,” he said.

Ishai appreciated the greater number of opportunities in Israel for him and his family to grow religiously. Still, the decision boiled down to one thing: Coming home.

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Yacov and Shashi Ishai with their daughter Zehava and baby Zaki in their new Netanya apartment. Josh Lipowsky

“There is nothing like being in a place that’s your home,” he said. “You host a party or you’re a guest at a party. It’s nice to be a guest – I’ve been a guest in the U.S. for 17 years – but I always feel like a guest. Here, people who come are immigrants. I’m home.”

For Shashi Ishai, who grew up Zionist but never thought she would move to Israel – and even made that a condition of her marriage – the transition has not been as easy. When she received her Israeli identity card, she felt as if her skin were afire and she kept repeating to herself, “Hayom ani Israelit,” today I am Israeli.

“As the initiation progresses and things get a little tougher,” she said, “today I feel a little bit more like a stranger, even though the reality is I’m Israeli now. I’m Israeli, but my mindset, my mentality, is still very much American. And that’s my challenge, to blend the two.”

Language has been a large barrier. Her 8-year-old daughter Zehava had attended Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, where she began learning Hebrew at an early age. Ishai’s husband is a native speaker, and even little Zaki is starting to respond to Hebrew.

“You feel your loneliness, your challenge, when you’re sitting in a room and everybody is talking Hebrew,” Shashi Ishai said. “You question your entire belief system.”

Through the Internet the Ishais found the Macdonald synagogue, just a short walk from their apartment. It is made up of Americans, Britons, and South Africans. The sermon is given in English and a kiddush follows Saturday morning services. That, Shashi Ishai said, is where she hopes to recreate the “chevra,” community, she left behind in Teaneck. Despite the challenges, Shashi Ishai’s faith has kept her strong while making this transition.

“I know I’m supposed to be here,” she said. “Why were my particular children, coming from different parts of the world, taken by us – and then with no sense of moving to Israel? And all of a sudden as a family I feel it loud and clear that we’re supposed to be here.”

In early July, 22-year-old Allison Teitlebaum of Fair Lawn said goodbye to her family and with the help of Nefesh B’Nefesh moved to Beit Canada, an immigrant absorption center in Jerusalem.

“Although it’s not glorious living arrangements,” she said in an e-mail, “it’s a really interesting experience living with people who decided to make aliyah from all over the world.”

Teitlebaum has a degree in biology secondary education from New York University. Once she finishes ulpan she intends to teach in Israel, but English instead of biology.

“I still love biology, and I hope to eventually teach it here or work in the field,” she said. “Maybe doing research, or maybe doing environmental education.”

She decided on aliyah four years ago, but she wasn’t ready to leave her family. She finished her degree and thought about teaching in America, but Israel still called to her.

“I could have stayed a few years and tried teaching in the U.S., but starting a job and getting an apartment is a commitment to putting down roots for a new life,” she said. “And I wanted to try and start that new life here.”

Teitlebaum said she has yet to truly immerse herself in her new society. She is getting there, though.

“I still feel a little like a tourist, especially when I’m speaking English with friends,” she said. “But when I’m with other Israelis – which is not too often – I am starting to feel Israeli. I think I’ll feel it much more once I have a job, and if I move into a more Israeli neighborhood.”

Avi Stiefel, 23, arrived in June. “I was thinking about aliyah even in high school,” said the 2004 Torah Academy of Bergen County graduate.

The Teaneck native spent a post-high-school academic year at Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut before going on to Columbia School of Engineering. With the help of a fellowship, he will be pursuing a master’s degree at Haifa’s prestigious Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in computer science.

“I have a lot of friends here and I feel very comfortable here,” Stiefel said. “Religiously, it’s somewhat of an ideal, and my family is very pro-Israel. They were supportive of my decision, although they’re upset that I’m so far away.”

Stiefel started planning his immigration during his first year of college by cultivating contacts in Israel. Though he reported that most aspects of his acclimation have gone surprisingly smoothly thus far, he arrived to find that the temporary Jerusalem accommodations he’d arranged did not work out and he had to scramble to find another apartment.

“You have to have a little faith and go with it,” he said. “Things tend to work out if you don’t worry too much about the details.”

Robbie and Howard Taylor, who recently arrived from Teaneck with their three young children and Robbie’s mother, had honeymooned in Jerusalem during the second intifada in 2000.

“We came to Israel the night of our wedding and sat in the Sheraton Plaza Hotel listening to gunfire echoing in the valley,” Robbie Taylor recalled. The couple returned to visit with their children several times over the ensuing years.

Nothing, not even the gunfire, discouraged them from planning aliyah. “I grew up in a religious home in Brooklyn,” said Taylor, “and I never understood why we weren’t here [in Israel]. There were different opportunities in history and very few numbers went. I had a real problem with that.”

Their children love their new life in Ma’aleh Adumim, a suburb of Jerusalem. “I find it breathtaking in the hills here, and so do they,” said Taylor, a stay-at-home mother. Howard, who handled computer security for JP Morgan Chase, stopped working several months before the family left and will shortly begin job-hunting.

“The people here have been remarkable to us from the day we got here,” said Taylor. “Neighbors have been bringing food, offering rides, taking my kids to camp, finding friends for our kids and for us and my mother.”

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Arye Weigensberg and Julia Deutsch

Arye Weigensberg and Julia Deutsch have lived in Teaneck since their marriage in 2006, but Israel was always in their hearts.

“We knew wanted to stay a few years in Teaneck because we wanted to save money,” said Deutsch, who has been working as program manager for Jewish life at New York University’s Hillel. “In December 2007, we went to visit and found an apartment [under construction] in Modi’in and bought it.”

The couple moved into it the day after their Aug. 18 arrival – which also happened to be Deutsch’s 26th birthday.

Weigensberg, a Montreal native whose parents made aliyah 10 years ago, is not overly concerned about finding a job. He hopes to continue consulting as an account supervisor for a marketing agency. For the first few months, the couple will concentrate on settling in and improving their Hebrew.

Ideology was their main motive for the transatlantic move. “We have a unique opportunity to support a Jewish homeland in Israel that hasn’t been available for the last 2,000 years,” said Weigensberg.

“My grandparents are all [Holocaust] survivors, so it’s my emotional responsibility to be there [in Israel],” added his wife. “Also, we have always strived to be part of a Jewish community, and if we’re able to do it and both want to, why not go to a place that’s one big Jewish community?”

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