Why I (still) haven’t made aliya

The thing that stops me in my tracks, the one thing I’m really not sure I could handle, is the idea of sending my kids to Israeli schools.

August 14, 2013 21:05
Olim arrive in Israel with Nefesh B'Nefesh, August 13, 2013.

Nefesh B'Nefesh aliya Aug 2013 370. (photo credit: Sasson Tiram)

I spend a good portion of every summer in Jerusalem with my family.

My husband and I are fluent in Hebrew, and my children are catching up to us every day. They have only ever attended camp in Israel, know much more Israeli popular music than American, and sometimes have a hard time coming up with the English word for melafefon (cucumber). In the states we watch Israeli TV, listen to Galgalatz on the radio, and eat shakshuka way more often than burgers and fries.

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As a result, every summer I am asked the same question, often numerous times: “When are you guys making aliya?” Good question.

Its not as though I haven’t thought about it thousands of times. It would be complicated to make a go of it financially. And as any American who has seriously considered aliya knows, it involves the possibility of having to forgo many of the comforts of home – from Trader Joe’s to Ziploc bags(!) to crisp, snow-covered winter mornings. Despite our facility with Hebrew, we will never be as comfortable or eloquent as we are in our native language. As committed egalitarian Jews, our religious life would be an exercise in ongoing cognitive dissonance. Our children would have to go into the army. With four children, that would mean many years spent with our hearts stuck perpetually in our throats.

And I have become accustomed to being looked upon as a spoiled Diaspora Jew when I encounter situations that I still contend deserve attention. As when I was derided for demanding a different hotel room in Eilat when the one I was given, carpet still squishy and soaked with backed-up raw sewage, was just too unhygenic for me to bear. Or the time I was given a car seat for my nine-month-old which was so old it no longer had any buckles. Or straps. When I complained I was called an “American princess” for demanding, you know, fasteners.

Even so, I feel confident that we would manage all of those challenges as they arose. The thing that stops me in my tracks, the one thing I’m really not sure I could handle, is the idea of sending my kids to Israeli schools. During the cooler months, at their excellent pluralistic day school, all four are leaders. They are independent thinkers and are not afraid to stand up for themselves. My eldest just completed her term as president of the student body. I rarely have to speak with teachers about problems, in or out of the classroom. And then they come to Israel for camp.

After a few days, the complaints begin. They love camp, but there is this one kid who continually pushes/ punches/kicks them.

They show me actual bruises.

I email the camp, something I almost never do the rest of the year, to ask what can be done about this.

Inevitably I get some version of the same response.

“They’re kids. That kid kicks everyone. Your kids aren’t being singled out. Just tell them to stay away from him/her.”

This week, we had to bring my daughter to the doctor for a sprained wrist, the result of arm twisting by a boy who had already kicked and punched her, while counselors rolled their eyes.

My children, who speak Hebrew and are confident and assertive in their other lives, enjoy camp but are a little bit afraid, all the time.

It hinders their ability to make real friends and to truly feel a part of things.

I know that coming to another country and another culture requires our bending to the minhag hamakom, the customs of the place. But physical violence and intimidation should not be the norm with our children.

Imagine that this was happening among adults at the office. Imagine every day when you came to work, one of your office mates suckerpunched you. Imagine your boss’ response was, “ This is Israel. That’s how we do things here. He punches everyone. You’re just going to have to learn to deal with him.”

That doesn’t happen in Israel because adults would never tolerate it. But it does contribute to a culture in which aggression and intimidation are more common than should be acceptable.

Too often, the response to this kind of behavior is for adults to shrug their shoulders and say, “Kids today are so different. We never would have behaved that way in my day.”

But children only continue with that kind of behavior because they know that their actions have few consequences.

Complacent teachers, counselors and administrators and even lazy parents who don’t want to do the hard work of teaching our kids how to behave like decent human beings are largely responsible for this culture of “acceptable” violence.

Yes, I’m talking about you, mother who sits on a park bench and smiles as her 10- year-old pushes my five-yearold off the swing and onto the ground. And these children will grow up with few tools to respond to conflict other than intimidation or a fist. There is no question that children who grow up with this kind of stressful learning environment learn less in school than their safer peers.

American Jewish kids are not naturally less violent than their Israeli counterparts.

And while there certainly are, and will continue to be cultural differences, the part that is the most frustrating is how adults in charge seem so quick to throw up their hands, to give up on children who so need their guidance. Some people will say that I can’t complain about any of this if I don’t live in Israel and work to change things. And if I could figure out a way of doing just that while shielding my own kids... but I can’t.

So here is my own inadequate contribution. When I’m in Israel, I will continue to fight for a more civil society, especially when it comes to children. We shouldn’t allow cultural “bullies” to have the final say as to how we treat each other. Even as Israel is our home, (my summer one, for now) we should not be embarrassed to assert that some of the values we brought from elsewhere remain important to us.

I have no question that eventually my family will find its way to Jerusalem. Libi bamizrach – my heart is in the East. There are so many reasons why I would like to pick up and move today. But, for now, I’m maintaining the buffer zone of an ocean until my most precious possessions are big enough to defend themselves.

The author has an MA in Talmud and Rabbinics and lives and teaches in Faifield County, Connecticut.

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