Birthplace: Tel Aviv, Chicago
Occupation: Water engineer/ land developer, teacher
Arrival: August 5/6, 2006
When Ofer and Hollee Meged and their three children walk into their rented North Tel Aviv apartment, Ofer, who grew up nearby, talks about coming home, the familiar smells, their decision to leave a comfortable US lifestyle and come live here. "Life is a journey, an experience," he says of his return to his old neighborhood in the summer of 2006, as the Second Lebanon War was raging around them.
Ofer's grandfather was the pharmacist to the king of Bulgaria before coming here. Although his family lost everything during the war, their lives were spared. His mother Aliza was a championship bridge player, and sent worldwide to represent Israel.
Hollee's a third-generation Chicagoan, though her family came from Russia and England.
Ofer, 46, moved to Chicago in 1985, after serving in Operation Peace for Galilee, and met Hollee, 43, at a hotdog stand. She'd come to Israel many times since 1983. She was working as an English teacher in Chicago, while he was a land developer. Not long before they left for Israel, they bought a large house in Highland Park, a well-to-do suburb. "Nothing was missing there, but I knew that I wanted to be here from the first time I came when I was 16," says Hollee.
The children attended Solomon Schechter School, and the family made regular visits here to see family and friends. But Hollee had an itch to get back. "After we went home one summer, I said to my husband: 'You know what? Next time we go, I'm not coming back.' And he said: 'What do you mean?' And I said: 'I think it's time, I'm ready,'" says Hollee.
They agreed to come in the summer of 2006. Then the Second Lebanon War interrupted. Ofer went ahead to help his mother, while Hollee and the three kids finished up packing the two suitcases they were taking for what they thought would be an initial six-month trial. When her husband reported things appeared safe in Tel Aviv, she and the kids took off. "I said I can't wait anymore," she says. She has applied for olah status, and plans to "complete it next summer" when they visit the US.
Upon arriving, teenaged Ilan, the oldest, was set to go to camp at Michmoret, despite the missiles still falling. "We stopped at Ikea to get him some sheets. And I said: 'Ofer, I hear that these missiles can reach Caesarea, what are we going to do?' And he said: 'They'll call us if he has to come home.'"
They had rented their place on the Internet. When her husband had to go back to Chicago for work, Hollee was forced to help the kids acclimate alone. "I couldn't deal with the schools, understood nothing, plus my mother-in-law needed help." But she got through it somehow. "I'm very good at asking, at finding my way," she says, sounding like a true Israeli.
The kids were accepted graciously by Israeli friends, and gradually things fell into place. "Here I have neighbors, there I had people who lived next door," Hollee says. The family also goes on frequent trips with Ofer and his army buddies, whom Hollee says are just like family.
Ofer started a water exploration and development company called Nesher, which he believes has great potential for finding new water supplies for Israel, and still has his business in Chicago. Hollee teaches English at the Democratic School in Tel Aviv and has started teaching mah-jongg to friends as well. She also volunteers with the Table to Table organization.
Ilan, who plays drums with his rock group The Comrades, attends a special music school at Kfar Hayarok. "When I'm up there, I feel like a different guy, a rock star," he says. He also took second with the national youth baseball team in Italy in 2008, and played in the Czech Republic the year before. "I got excited knowing I'd done something representing Israel," he says.
Oren, 10, plays guitar and has appeared in commercials and in a Habimah production of an Ibsen play, despite his American accent. "The most fun is to be there on stage, with everyone watching you," he says. "I'm happy here and I'm glad my family came."
Brielle, seven, enjoys play dates with anyone who likes Bratz. The kids' favorite part about the country: "The freedom." Moving to Israel "was the right thing to do - this is the place for Jews to be," says Ilan.
One of the kitchen doors indicates the family's settled in, with all kinds of magnets for various local services. The four-bedroom apartment has a great view of Tel Aviv, although not the finished basement and other amenities they were used to in the US, but Hollee says she doesn't miss it. When things get her down, she goes out on her porch, sees and smells Tel Aviv and yells: "I'm in Israel, yahoo!"
While it was "very hard" for the kids at first, with Hollee trying to help despite very limited Hebrew, they eventually got the hang of it, using slang expressions with the natives, who've taken them in. Today most of their friends are Israeli, and they run into each other's homes in the building complex freely, without having to make "play dates" like in the Old Country.
While they were not big synagogue-goers in America, here they joined the Tiferet Shalom Masorti congregation in Ramat Aviv. "We go every Friday night - it's part of our routine," says Hollee. While Ofer first balked, "now he's the first one out the door." "I want my kids to feel more Judaism," he says.
"There's been a natural adaptation," says Hollee. "When I walked in here I felt: I have a place, this is mine. I have an apartment in Tel Aviv. I have roots. I drive around and I feel like I belong."
During Operation Cast Lead, she and the family also felt they'd become a real part of Israel. When kids from Beersheba were brought up to stay, Oren says, "I felt like we were helping to make them feel better - there was a connection." Hollee went out and bought 30 pairs of socks for soldiers and was overwhelmed by the overall effort to help that she feels is unique to Israel.
"I always feel these kinds of things here, and not just during a war," she says. "My kids weren't unhappy in the US and there was no problem being there. It was my own heart pulling me all the time here."
Ofer is certain his water project is "fulfilling a vision... making the desert green," and believes his children "will be much happier growing up in Israel." Hollee is convinced she brought him "back to the life he wanted to live here."
"When I look around, I'm very happy that I'm here and I'm glad my kids are experiencing this," says Hollee, who's challenged by nothing, but hopes to stop mangling the local language. "I want my kids to learn Hebrew and live here... I want to try to discover what this itching [to be here] is. I needed to go and now that we're here it's wonderful."