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(photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
'Everything happens for a reason," says Andrew Lerner, 49, personal trainer and owner of Gym and Tonic, Eilat's newest physical fitness center and gymnasium.
Before their departure, the Lerners were plagued with any number of traumas, and after they arrived, faced still more. But according to Lerner, "If all those things hadn't happened, we wouldn't be where we are now. Today, three and a half years after making aliya, we own our home and I've opened my own business - which is running pretty well. Everything worked out for the best. But it was very hard. Especially the financials."
The Lerner family - Andrew, his wife Fiona and three children, daughter Ellie, 13; son Joe, 10; and Sophie, six - "the closest we come to a sabra" - arrived in July 2003 from Brighton, England, where for 20 years, Andrew had owned and operated his own gym, also called Gym and Tonic. The family had deep roots in England.
"I was born in London and my wife was born in Brighton. My great-great-grandparents came from Russia and Poland, but both my grandparents and parents were born in England. My wife was married before, so we have a 16-year-old daughter still in England. Leaving her wasn't easy, either. On the other hand, my wife's mother made aliya just six months after we did, so at least part of our extended family is here."
Andrew also has a brother and sister in England. "From time to time, my father wanted to make aliya, but something always happened to prevent it. But for me, since I was a kid, my life's ambition was to live in Israel. In 1974, I came for the first time. I was just 16, but from the moment I stepped off the plane, I felt Israel was home."
"We tried to make aliya in 1994. We went to the Jewish Agency in London. 'Do you have money?' they asked. We didn't, so they said, 'Then don't do it.' It maybe wasn't the best time. We'd just gotten married, we had a huge mortgage and they told us we needed 25,000 - which was completely impossible. But we'd visit Israel, and every time, on the plane back to England, we'd ask, 'Why are we doing this?' So finally, we just decided to come. I wanted my family to have a better quality of life, and Israel was where we needed to be.
"They say the three most stressful things in life are death, divorce and selling your house. We made a pilot tour, came back and put our house on the market, when real-estate values were high. By the time we started to make actual plans, the market had dropped and so had the value of the house, so we had to adjust. I'd had a buyer for the business, but he started backing off. A month before, he pulled out altogether. By that time, we'd already sold the house, and had to start all over again with the business. I dropped the price, and found another buyer. Again, we had to adjust.
"We shipped anything and everything - and I'd never do it again. The best advice for people making aliya is to come with your clothes and sell everything else. You can buy anything you want here cheaper than shipping - same quality, plus you don't have to mess with customs.
"Two weeks before we left, I had a hernia operation. 'Don't lift anything,' the doctor said. Right. We were making aliya. Don't lift anything? That was funny.
"We spent the last week with my parents. They had a nice good-bye party for us, and that was it. But we did the right thing about selling everything. The way I see it is, if you hold on to something in the old country, it makes adjustment here harder. When you have nothing to go back to, you have to make it work."
"We were met by someone from the Jewish Agency, spent a horrible night in a dump in Tel Aviv, then took a taxi to Ashdod to deal with customs.
"Then the real crisis hit. We'd planned to live in the center of the country, but when they took us to the absorption center where they'd booked us, my wife was so horrified by the conditions that she said, 'That's it! I'm going back to England!' I saw all my dreams going up in smoke. The only thing I could think to do was to take a break, go to Eilat and see if we could work it out.
"We took a plane down, checked into a hotel and then had just a terrible row. Just to get away, I walked out of the hotel and walked toward the center of town - and this was fate: I ran into two real-estate people. I explained what had happened, and one said, 'How about looking at some places here with me? No obligation.' So I phoned my wife. 'Why not?' We went, and he showed us some absolutely fabulous places - we started thinking we should stay in Eilat. We rented a really wonderful place for the first year, then bought our own home.
"See? If we hadn't had that bad experience with the absorption center; if we hadn't had that terrible row; if I hadn't started walking - I wouldn't have run into those people. As it happens, Eilat is great for my gym. There's a good client base here."
One more crisis was yet to come: "During that first year, I had my gym in my house, in the carport, and the neighbors sued us. Can you believe? I never thought I'd get hauled into court. But even that worked out fine. I went looking for a better place for my gym, and found a great downtown location. But getting sued was another trauma - and then I had to dismantle and move everything."
The Lerners bought a lovely cottage on two levels with four big bedrooms and bright rooms throughout. Each of the children's rooms has a big bedroom mural - one features spacecraft, another Spider Man and for Sophie, a Barbie mural.
"For me, it's a three-minute bike ride down to the gym," Andrew says. "Riding home, uphill, takes 10 minutes. When the temperature goes above 40 degrees, I sometimes take the car."
"We did ulpan, but from the time we first arrived, I was working in hotel spas, and many of my clients were Hebrew speakers. So one day, I sat down and wrote down all the words I'd need to know - everything relating to muscles, movements, exercise, blood pressure. I memorized the list, then forced myself to train in Hebrew.
"It helps to have kids, too. They learned right away, and then we learned from them."
"Let's just say that in some months we break even.
"We were fortunate - we sold a house and business in England, so we have a cushion. But we're more careful here. Sometimes I feel guilty because I can't buy my family everything I'd like, but that was the trade-off. We wanted a better quality of life, and here we have it."
"We keep kosher here as we did in England. We light candles, try not to work on Shabbat, but we don't go to shul. We're Jews."
"None. I was too old. But during last summer's war, I tried to get in, to do anything at all - drive trucks, anything to help. But they said no."
"Most of our friends are English - it's hard to have deep conversations with Israelis because of the language problem. But the English-speaking population here in Eilat is small, and we know most of them."
"I'm not being unpatriotic to England when I say this - but for 45 years of my life I lived in England, and something was always missing. When I got my ID card, when I was finally an Israeli, everything seemed right. Israel is my home. My family and I have British passports too, but we're Israelis."
"The best thing I've ever done in my life - after getting married and having my children - is to make aliya. Now, owning my own gym, life is great. My plans? Just to be happy."
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