The message Yishai (Jesse) Friedman took from 12 years of day-school education in northern New Jersey was that the ideal graduate would go to Israel for a gap-year program and then attend Yeshiva University in New York City in preparation for becoming a contributing member of a Zionist-leaning Jewish community like the one in which he was raised.
As Yishai departed Teaneck, New Jersey, for his gap year in August 2010, he hoped someday to embrace Zionism on more than a conceptual level.
“I came to Israel with the intention of staying one year at Yeshivat Hakotel and then going to college in the States.
But at Yeshivat Hakotel, I got to know Israelis for the first time as normal people.
I started talking to them and I realized that I had an opportunity to make aliya now,” he says.
On this practical thinker’s list of pros and cons, one heavily weighted “pro” was joining the IDF with his peers instead of waiting until sometime in the future when his life circumstances might not be as conducive to military service.
“At first my parents were a bit surprised, but when I showed them it was something that could work out, that Nefesh B’Nefesh and the government help you with college tuition and it was a practical plan, they became much more supportive.”
Yishai was drafted in the middle of his second year at Yeshivat Hakotel, in March 2012. He served in the tank corps for 16 months, mostly as a volunteer in the Mahal program (a Hebrew acronym for Mitnadvei Hutz La’aretz, meaning “volunteers from abroad”), and as a citizen for the last two months, after he officially made aliya in June 2013.
During his service he benefited from meeting Israelis from all walks of life, he says. And although the army experience was challenging both culturally and linguistically, it certainly helped his Hebrew fluency.
He recalls boarding a bus during his early days in Israel and attempting to ask the driver to open the compartment underneath so he could store his suitcase.
But what he actually said was, “Do you want to raise your bottom,” which was met with laughter – and long afterward he overheard the same driver repeating the amusing story to another passenger.
“An American student turning into an Israeli is about the right context and the right phraseology,” he says philosophically.
Once he made his decision to live in Israel, he began encouraging his twin sister, Talia, to join him. Their older sister and her husband and baby live in New Jersey.
Talia had also come to Israel for her gap year, but returned to the States to attend Rutgers University in New Jersey.
“For years, my brother sent me every Israeli job listing he thought I might be interested in,” Talia recalls. “He was really pushing me to make aliya. But I loved Rutgers, even though I felt guilty that I was having fun in college while he was in the army.”
After graduating, Talia taught middle school at a Jewish Montessori school and found out toward the end of the year that her position was being cut.
At that point, in May 2016, Yishai – then completing his second year studying communications, criminology and education at Bar-Ilan University – sent her an ad for a madricha (counselor) job at a non-profit youth hostel in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.
She applied and got the job. “I thought it would be enough to have a place to live in the center of the world, and my brother could help me with contacts in the Old City,” she says.
Talia arrived in September. “Going into the unknown was scary,” she admits.
“I knew I would miss my family and friends, and especially my nephew, who might not remember me. Having my brother here and having friends here who made aliya was good, but I was scared of failing. So I decided that if I failed, I could go back.”
Far from failing, Talia had the most successful year of her life. She took on a second job as media services coordinator at MediaCentral. And she has enjoyed living in the Old City, gazing at the Mount of Olives from the window in her room and hearing the myriad languages spoken at the Western Wall.
But the best thing that has happened to Talia since moving to Israel was meeting Teaneck-born Zecharia Haber from Modi’in, through a dating group for Anglo modern-Orthodox Israelis on WhatsApp. Their first date was on November 24 of last year (American Thanksgiving), and on the second day of Passover they got engaged.
Talia and Zecharia plan to marry in August and settle in Rehovot, where he is in school.
Yishai, who lives in Givat Shmuel near Bar-Ilan and works as a counselor at the local Bnei Akiva high school, clearly is pleased to have his twin nearby.
“On a daily basis we’re both studying and working, but it’s nice having Shabbat together with our cousins in Ra’anana, Ramat Gan and Neveh Daniel,” says Yishai.
The siblings find time to indulge their shared passion for hiking and swimming as well. “My brother and I swam the Kinneret side to side a couple of weeks ago, just because,” says Talia. “He always has crazy ideas of where to go.”
His idea for a career is also out of the ordinary. He is starting a master’s degree in city planning next year at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, planning to combine that with his interest in criminology.
“I hope to help design and renovate cities in a way that crime is less apt to happen,” he explains. “There are a few obvious things that can be done, like not having any dark alleyways and places people don’t go on a regular basis at night, to make sure traffic flows well, to develop parks with good lighting and continuous family action for all ages so kids will feel comfortable there day and night.”
Though living so far from their parents and older sister can be tough at times, the Friedman twins are determined to stay in Israel and be part of its future. They hope their story inspires other young people for whom “making aliya is a value,” as Yishai says, to realize they can do more than simply hang an Israeli flag from their window in the Diaspora, and by doing so, serve as an example to others.
“Israel,” says Yishai, “is a place of belonging.”