If you ask Lois Liebowitz and Irving Wiesen to describe the past year or so, they would probably use adjectives like “frantic,” “busy,” “frenzied” and “demanding.” For anyone else, getting engaged, marrying, changing job situations, making aliya and buying and renovating an apartment might have been overwhelming, but sitting in their new home in Jerusalem, the couple makes it seem like it was easy.
“We did have a discussion about whether it was all too much, but we both felt the time was right to make aliya,” says Liebowitz. “The stars were aligned.”
There was nothing in Liebowitz’s life to make her think she would end up in Israel. Living what she describes as a typical Upper West Side existence, Liebowitz, who has an MBA, worked for corporate America (her last job was marketing for a software company). Entering her 40s and still single, she decided she wanted to become a mother.
Accompanied by her father, she went to China, where she adopted Melissa (now nine) when she was eight months old. Melissa, who was found on September 11, 2001, and is believed to have been born the day before, was left on the side of a road in a poor village in southern China, close to the Vietnamese border.
“It’s so impactful that she was found on the 11th,” says Liebowitz. “I happened to be in downtown New York that day and was caught up in the events in a personal way. I think about what I was going through on that day, and what Melissa was going through, and how we ended up together.”
She had not planned on adopting again, but then Melissa, like many youngsters, started bugging her mother for a younger sister, “which she probably regrets now,” Liebowitz jokes. About four years ago, she adopted 14- month-old Cara.
For Wiesen, making aliya seemed inevitable. The son of Polish Holocaust survivors who were exiled to Siberia (“At the time they viewed it as the biggest disaster that could have befallen them,” he says), Wiesen grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn. His father sent him and his brother to the Yeshiva of Flatbush, “at great personal expense,” because he had heard it was the best school and he wanted the best for his boys. “That’s where I learned the Hebrew that Israelis even today say is very good.”
Afterward, he attended Yeshiva University, during which he spent a year at the Hebrew University. “That’s when I fell in love with Israel and wanted to live here.
Life, however, intervened, and though I didn’t make it, it had always been on the agenda,” he says.
From time to time, Wiesen and his family made tentative overtures to move from New Rochelle, New York.
When his four kids – Tamara, 28, Shlomo, 26, Michael, 24 (married to Tamar), and Hadar, 18 – grew older, they finally made a firm commitment. They bought an apartment, enrolled the younger kids in school, and were in the middle of the move when divorce ended these plans.
Wiesen’s ex-wife stayed in Israel with the two younger children, while he remained in the US with the two oldest, who were in college at the time.
“I used to come here a lot to see the younger kids,” he says. “After a time, I met Lois, and the issue of where to live was one of the most important subjects we talked about. I really felt that the family, the kids in particular, needed to be together. But I wouldn’t move and leave the two older kids in the US. Then, my son Shlomo decided to serve in the IDF. The final catalyst was when Tamara remarked to a friend that her siblings were in Israel, and what was she doing in the US? When I heard that, I said, okay, that’s it, we’re going.”
Despite the off-the-cuff remark, Liebowitz insists it was not such a fast decision.
“There were incredible ramifications,” she says. “At the time, we weren’t even engaged. I had two little girls who had already been displaced. They had never even been here and I had not visited Israel for about 10 years. I didn’t speak Hebrew and I had no family here.”
The two came to visit schools, to meet with people and find out if Liebowitz could make aliya, and even if she wanted to. “It took quite a while,” she says.
“It was a process,” agrees Wiesen. “I realize it was not easy for Lois to accommodate the idea. I had family here, and I had much more of a history of day-to-day life, which she didn’t have. It has not been that easy for me, either, but I came into it much more aware.”
Liebowitz says making aliya has been both harder and easier than she anticipated.
“We have a lovely life here,” she says. “Many people downsize when they move here, but we lived in Manhattan.
Here our kitchen is three times larger than it was in New York!” From a family perspective, the move has been incredibly beneficial. “The girls see me a lot more here,” she says. “There, I barely saw them during the week; here I am a full-time mom. In addition, they have been able to build loving relationships with their new siblings.”
On the downside, she says she feels like she has gone from being a confident person who knows how to live life, to being almost like a child. “The frustration can really wear you down, and sometimes I feel like I just really need to go home.”
The children have had an easier transition.
“In general, they are adaptable, but there were challenges for both of them,” says Liebowitz, who was especially concerned about Melissa. “Nine, I felt, was the higher end of what I would have wanted in terms of her integration.” Despite hurdles with learning Hebrew, she has made a lot of friends and is settling in well.
Being younger, Cara has had less of a problem with the language (“I have been told by the ganenet [preschool teacher] that her Hebrew is now as good as many of the children who were born here,” says Liebowitz proudly), but originally she came home and said the other children at the preschool would not talk to her, even in English.
Wiesen’s children have also acclimated well: The three youngest have served in the army. Shlomo jokes that he still doesn’t speak Hebrew, Michael graduated as an officer and is looking toward university, Hadar was drafted recently and Tamara, a Web and app designer, lives in Tel Aviv.
Professionally the move has been more challenging for Liebowitz, who has done some marketing projects for companies in the US. “That’s been good, but I would like to work here, feel more integrated and make more of a contribution, but that is going to take time,” she admits.
Wiesen, a food and drug lawyer by profession, is continuing elements of his old practice and is looking for more work based in Israel, which was an important factor in taking the aliya plunge.
“I promised Lois I wouldn’t bring her here and then be back in the States, and I have held to that,” he says.
In order to keep his promise, he works US hours, typically not getting to sleep before 2 a.m., often closer to 3 or 4. He then gets up in time to see the girls in the morning. Despite the lack of sleep, he says he has never been happier.
HOPING OTHERS FOLLOW
Even after less than a year in the country, the two are firm advocates of the benefits of making aliya. They are active members of the Yedidia synagogue in the capital’s Baka neighborhood, and have made a point of opening their house to visitors to show the merits of Israel and of making aliya.
“It is important for people who don’t live here to really get the message about what Israel is really like,” says Wiesen. “If you can be here with your family, and you have your job taken care of, there is no better place on earth for a Jew to live. It is incredibly soul-filling.”