Itamar Ben Harav 88 298.
(photo credit: )
Although Itamar Ben Harav, 27, was born and educated in the US, it was the formative years he spent as a child on a kibbutz in Israel which left the deepest imprint.
"Those years formed my connection to Israel," affirms this amiable, highly committed Zionist. "I was only a child but when we returned to the US, I identified myself as an Israeli and was always determined to come back."
Ben Harav's connections to Israel go much deeper than early childhood memories. Indeed, his family history is a colorful microcosm of Israeli history, covering pioneering settlement, the War of Independence and the birth of the Jewish state.
Ben Harav's maternal great grandfather left a wealthy living as a textile merchant in Iraq to come and live in Jerusalem, with all its hardships.
"My grandmother Yehudit, who was born in the Old City, tells me that the family was so poor they would boil up pots of water before Shabbat so the neighbors would not suspect they had no food," says Ben Harav. "And she still shudders as she recalls the riots of 1936, when the Arabs streamed out of the mosques brandishing swords and shouting "itbah el yahud, itbah el yahud" (death to the Jews)."
With the outbreak of the War of Independence, Yehudit joined the Palmah as a paramedic and met a Holocaust survivor from Poland. The two married and went off to build the settlement of Kfar Truman. The American connection entered the family jigsaw when their daughter, Ilana, Ben Harav's mother, met and married Arieh, a young American who had made aliya at 18 and joined the IDF. The family lived alternately in the US and on Kibbutz Tel Katzir in the Jordan Valley before settling permanently in Worcester.
In Worcester, Ben Harav grew up with his three siblings in a mainly secular environment.
"My father made Friday night Kiddush, but we were not really associated with any synagogue. I attended regular high school and it was by pure chance that I went on to study at Yeshiva University."
Ben Harav studied economics and political science, and while inspired by the students and staff of Yeshiva University, he still remained secular.
"The process of becoming religious was very slow for me," admits Ben Harav. "It spread over many years and only really crystallized when I came to Israel."
As soon as he graduated from college in 2003, Ben Harav made aliya and volunteered for a special unit in the IDF.
Ben Harav served in the army for two years.
"It was pretty frightening," he recalls. "We had to go into Arab areas in the middle of the night. I was 25, but the soldiers with me were just 18 and 19-year-old kids... they were incredibly brave and cool."
Ben Harav's absorption, he says, was facilitated by his army experience.
"The army gave me a base. I made friends and very quickly felt part of Israeli society. I also understand it better as a result," he says. After completing his service six months ago, Ben Harav decided to settle in Jerusalem and establish himself as a wedding photographer, a trade that runs in the family.
"My grandfather, mother and father are all professional photographers and as kids, we grew up helping out in the photography business." Ben Harav also works on a construction project in Nokdim and is studying graphic design.
Ben Harav gets up at 5:45 a.m. to travel to Nokdim and returns in the evening. He then works from 7:00 p.m. until 1:00 a.m. developing his photographic business. On Shabbat, he rests.
"I wouldn't be able to function without Shabbat," he says.
Ben Harav shares an apartment in Katamonim with two American friends, Arieh, who runs an organization to spread the Torah to non-Jews, and Arieh Dan, who is researching bio-fuel techniques.
Like his flatmates, Ben Harav's friends are mainly American religious immigrants who are in one way or another involved in pioneering enterprises. Ben Harav describes his friends as "amazing visionaries" whom he would not exchange for the likes of Brad Pitt or George Bush. The focus, however, of his circle is his fiance'e, Debbie, whom he met while in the army.
"She's a wonderful girl who comes from a religious family and we hope to marry sometime next year," he says.
Ben Harav is an observant Jew who loves to synagogue hop and discover new traditions.
"I come from a family of rabbis on both sides. I used to be into Hassidut but I feel very connected to the Lithuanian tradition and I also like the Sephardi way of life. I am lucky to be descended from so many parts of Am Yisrael - I can relate to nearly everyone."
"My essential identification is as a Jew. I think Israel is the future of the Jewish people. If you want any chance of having a normal Jewish family life, of your kids being Jewish and loving their identity, you have to live in Israel. People say Chabad is the fastest growing Jewish organization in the world, but I say Israel is the fastest growing Jewish organization in the world, and we must make it work. However, to do so, we need to come to terms with the fact that we are Jews living in the Land of Israel - not just Israelis."
Ben Harav is fluent in Hebrew but speaks mainly English and is unapologetic about it.
"I don't see this as a sign of not being integrated," he says. "My friends are mostly American, but I don't keep an American lifestyle. The only American thing in my lifestyle is the language. I like speaking English but I also lapse into Hebrew when I want to say something important, because Hebrew is, after all, the language of the prophets, the language of truth and the language of the blueprint of the world."
With several jobs in hand, Ben Harav manages to make a living.
"People say it's hard to make it in Israel but I enjoy working here," he says. "In the US, everything is about immediate success, but I think it is also important to build and I am confident I can make it work here."
Ben Harav and his fiance'e plan to settle in Jerusalem.
"I lived in Boston and in Manhattan, but Jerusalem is the most extraordinary city in the world. It's God's city, after all, and there is a palpable electricity here." But Ben Harav also nurtures another dream in his heart - to go out and settle the Land of Israel.
"My dream is to be a redneck and live in a caravan," he laughs, "but we shall have to see what the missus says!"
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