Transitioning from the Diaspora to Israel is not unlike transitioning from dry land to a swimming pool. Some people dive in, while others get acclimated gradually before plunging into the water.
The Miller family of Chicago chose the latter approach.
“We started coming for summers – we jokingly called it our ‘summer aliya program’ – and we tried out different communities each time. We wanted to see how comfortable our kids would be,” says Jonathan Miller.
In July 2011 the family of six was ready to try Israeli life for a full year. They rented out their house in Chicago and took a rental in Efrat. At the time, their eldest child was 15.
“After a year we took a vote. We put a box in a room and everyone had STAY or GO ballots. We got four STAYs and two GOs. So even though my wife questioned whether this was the right time for our family to make aliya, she said, ‘Okay, let’s try it for a second year.’ And slowly things fell into place.”
This year, Jonathan and Tamar Miller purchased their own home in Efrat.
Jonathan Miller was raised in the Chicago suburb of Skokie. He and his four brothers were educated in the Zionist modern Orthodox Jewish day school system. Eventually about a quarter of Miller’s Ida Crown Jewish Academy classmates moved to Israel.
Miller himself wasn’t in a hurry to do so. “I had one experience in my 20s that was sort of an epiphany. I was in Israel for Purim because I had flown in for the wedding of two friends. I was blown away that the whole country was celebrating what I considered a fairly minor holiday, and I realized this is what the Christians must feel like on Christmas in America. But that wasn’t the impetus for my aliya.”
He earned a degree in business marketing from the University of Illinois- Champaign in 1986 and met his future wife, Tamar Skidelsky, through their volunteer work running singles events in cooperation with the Chicago Rabbinical Council. He was 28 and she was 26. She had lived in Israel from age 8 to 20.
“Aliya was not a topic of conversation between us, but I made a mental note about her experience living in Israel and her ability to speak Hebrew. I thought that if the opportunity presented itself, that would come in handy,” Miller says.
The newlyweds moved to nearby Chicago and had four daughters: Shoshana, now 21; Tali, 20; Aviva, 17; and Ateret, 15.
About 25 years ago, Miller designed a specialty walker called a U-Step for his mother, who had a neurological condition.
The success of the project led him to established In-Step Mobility, which designs and manufactures highly stable walkers for people with conditions such as Parkinson’s and MS.
The idea of aliya started percolating when Miller was in his 40s. It was a direct result of paying close attention to the Torah readings and the rabbi’s sermons at the Young Israel of West Rogers Park.
The pro-aliya stance of the shul’s rabbi, Elisha Prero, reinforced Miller’s growing realization that living in Israel “is God’s plan for us. I started to wonder why we were sitting in America when we’re supposed to be in Israel. It really ate at my heart.”
Slowly and carefully, the family dipped its collective toe into the waters of Israel.
The concerns were many. First there was the question of how the children would fare. “You always worry most about your older kids, but Shoshana is a go-with-the-flow type of person and very good with languages, and she handled the transition exceptionally well. All the kids did well, though everyone had their ups and downs. Aviva now absolutely loves Israel, but for the longest time she told her teachers we were going back.”
Tamar found work as a registered nurse and is studying to become a nurse practitioner.
Jonathan Miller continued running his business from afar.
“Everyone says it’s so bad for a business to move away from it, but there have been unexpected benefits,” says Miller. “Removing myself from the distractions of the main office allowed me to spend more time on design and manage production better. I’ve got a good staff there and it’s probably better organized now that I’m gone.”
Another benefit was rediscovering outside talent.
“Many years ago there was an industrial designer (Mario Braun) who worked with me for a year and then made aliya. For about 15 years we had no contact. When we moved here I was having a hard time working with our industrial designer in Chicago, so on a whim I contacted Mario.”
Mario, now known as Moshe, accepted Miller’s job offer. “It has worked out amazingly well. And it wouldn’t have happened unless I had moved to Israel,” says Miller, who travels back periodically to put in real time in the In- Step office in Skokie, as well as to China for production.
There was another factor pushing the Millers to make aliya: They had noticed that the children of Chicago’s Orthodox families typically depart for the East Coast after high school and don’t come back.
“That really bothered me. The concept of seeing them once or twice a year was not something that sat well with me,” relates Miller. “I thought that if we’re here in Israel together, the worstcase scenario is if my daughter moves to Tel Aviv or the Golan and it’s only a drive away. I’m hopeful that will be the case. That’s an important piece to me; a nice benefit to being in Israel.”
Miller tries to help make Israel the best it can be. “It is a huge privilege to live in Israel, so we need to look for opportunities to help out so we merit staying here.”
One such opportunity arose out of the National Service performed by his two older daughters at Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. (Next year, his third daughter will start National Service, also at Shaare Zedek.) “I am so proud of my daughters for giving two years of their life to serve the State of Israel. They would not have had this commitment a few short years ago in America and they have taken on this task with tremendous grace. So about a year ago, I asked my eldest, Shoshana, if there was anything I could do to participate.”
Shoshana told her father that the hospital is always in need of more wheelchairs to transport patients to their various appointments. Miller met with the hospital administration and worked with Shoshana to launch a fund-raising campaign that raised more than $10,000, enough for 34 hospital-grade wheelchairs.
“I want it to be an inspiration to other people who made aliya, so that they will also look for opportunities to help,” says Miller.