Turning childhood pain into a well-lived life

Jill Cohen-Bateman made aliya from New York in 1978.

December 22, 2016 17:22
Jill Cohen Bateman

Jill Cohen Bateman. (photo credit: ELISSA EINHORN)

Full-circle moments seem to be a theme in the life of Jill Cohen- Bateman.

Born into a “committed, Conservative and Zionist family,” in Syracuse, New York, she enjoyed the life that living in a vibrant Jewish community brings – choices of synagogues, kosher butchers and bakeries, and being part of a 100-year-old family legacy.

“My grandfather was an obstetrician and he delivered all of the Jewish babies, including my best friend, who is now my neighbor in Jerusalem,” she says with a proud smile.

It is a smile that quickly fades, however, as she describes her family’s move to Cortland, New York, when she was just nine years old.

“There were no other Jews in my school, my teacher had never met a Jew, and I had antisemitic classmates who wrote things like ‘oven’ or ‘dirty Jew’ in my notebooks,” she recalls of a harrowing past that still shows on her face as she talks about it, more than four decades later.

Jewish summer camps helped ease the pain that the school year inflicted, but joining Young Judaea was what she called “a game changer.” She began attending local and regional events and even reconnected with childhood friends from Syracuse.

“Young Judaea became a lifeline for me,” she says, her open smile returning.

“It created a place for me to be a committed Jew who was building a strong Jewish identity.”

With renewed zest, she participated in Young Judaea’s Year Course – a gapyear program between high school and college. Arriving in 1978, her first stop was Kibbutz Ketura, located 30 minutes north of Eilat. Only five years old at the time, the kibbutz had 28 members and three children.

“We were 31 students, as big a group as the entire kibbutz!” Cohen-Bateman laughs. “Along with our regular jobs, we had additional jobs and became an integral part of the kibbutz. We were needed hands.”

She planned to remain in Israel following the Year Course to join her parents in making aliya. Although the latter plan fell through, the teenager had no intentions of returning to upstate New York.

“I grew up in Young Judaea,” she explains.

“I was with people who shared a common background and values. I already had it in my head that I would stay. My parents were very supportive. They knew this is what I wanted.”

The 19-year-old enrolled in the Mechina preparatory program at Hebrew University, where she continued learning Hebrew and took other courses to prepare her for Israeli university admission exams. Four years later, she earned a bachelor’s degree in social work.

Following a summer trip to Europe, Cohen-Bateman chose to enlist in the IDF. She served as a social worker in Gadna (Youth Corps), now part of the IDF’s education branch.

The first year of her two-year service was spent supervising soldiers who worked with delinquent youth in development towns in the North.

Then came Operation Moses and the first wave of Ethiopian immigrants. She began working in absorption centers, teaching these new olim about Israel; Jewish holidays that were not part of their celebrations, such as Purim and Hanukka; and other aspects of their new country. It was through her army service that she was offered her first professional social work position, working with Ethiopian families.

“They were experiencing culture shock in many ways,” she explains of her early clients from the 1980s. “They were coming from a Third World country but one rich in culture, strong relationships and Zionist values. I will never forget it.”

After taking a year off to study at Pardes, she resumed her work with Ethiopian immigrants, this time through the Jewish Agency. She describes the opportunity as “a full-circle moment,” one that allowed her to continue the work with Ethiopian families she had begun in the army. However, when immigration slowed down, the agency no longer had a need for so many social workers.

She then began working at Alyn Orthopedic Hospital and Rehabilitation Center in Jerusalem, which was a home for children whose families couldn’t care for them. Although she left after four years, the experience she gained would eventually lead her back to working with children with special needs.

Accepting a position as an aliya counselor with the Association for Americans and Canadians in Israel, Cohen- Bateman – by this time, a veteran olah – began counseling new olim.

“I was helping people through the absorption process, the health system, the education systems, finding work, etc.” she says. “The fact that I went through the process made everything I said authentic.”

After seven years with the organization, she returned to working with children at Gan Harmony, a program that integrates typically developing children with children with special needs. Under her leadership as the volunteer coordinator for Gan Harmony’s Big Brother/Big Sister program, the number of volunteers increased from 10 to 70. Remembering the deep connections that formed, she says, “To hear families say ‘You don’t know what this has meant to us’ was so meaningful.”

Missing hands-on therapy, Cohen- Bateman decided to pursue a master’s degree. Soon after, her husband, Danny, a computer programmer who made aliya with his mother when he was 15, found a job opening for her at Young Judaea.

“This was really serious work,” she says of her six years working with Young Judaea teens. “We [Cohen-Bateman and Young Judaea staff] worked with a host of mental-health issues plus normative issues such as the death of a grandparent or parents’ divorce.”

Working with Young Judaea also allowed her to accompany a group of participants on a weeklong visit to Ethiopia as part of a program to visit different Jewish communities.

“It was a truly amazing experience to see, firsthand, the country where people I worked so closely with for many years came from,” she says, adding: “I had the privilege of coming back to Young Judaea, this time in a professional capacity, working in a program I believed in and that changed my life.”

Convinced more than ever that her real calling was supporting children with disabilities and their families, Cohen- Bateman began working in 2013 at the Child Development Center and Juvenile Diabetes Clinic of Clalit Health Services in Jerusalem.

“I fulfilled my dream of doing handson work with children and families,” she says of her current position.

A recent recipient of a cochlear implant, she brings an intimate understanding of the challenges that living with a disability can present and says, “Working in the diabetes clinic is a real eye-opener to the challenges and complications of diabetes.

“This is exactly how I had pictured my life,” Cohen-Bateman says. “I have tremendous gratitude on so many levels. I have made a significant impact on people’s lives because I’ve connected with them at critical points.”

And recalling the high school students who tormented her, she says, “I wish they could see my life now.”

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