How a US medical student is adjusting to life in Israel's Negev

There are not many young Jewish people who make aliyah from what is known as the Pine Tree State, and it’s safe to surmise that Leeman is probably the only Maine resident to do so in the year 2022.

 THE LEEMANS (from L): Arielle, Sam & Hannah in Israel, with the writer’s daughter. (photo credit: ANAV SILVERMAN PERETZ)
THE LEEMANS (from L): Arielle, Sam & Hannah in Israel, with the writer’s daughter.
(photo credit: ANAV SILVERMAN PERETZ)

Sam Leeman, 26, from the small coastal city of Bath, Maine, made aliyah with Nefesh B’Nefesh this past summer to Beersheba.

There are not many young Jewish people who make aliyah from what is known as the Pine Tree State, and it’s safe to surmise that Leeman is probably the only Maine resident to do so in the year 2022.

Leeman made aliyah with 225 other new immigrants on Nefesh B’Nefesh’s 63rd chartered flight to Israel since the organization began bringing olim to Israel 20 years ago. He was counted as Nefesh B’Nefesh’s 75,000th new oleh.

“A Nefesh B’Nefesh flight was unlike any flight I’ve ever experienced.”

Sam Leeman

“A Nefesh B’Nefesh flight was unlike any flight I’ve ever experienced,” recounted Leeman. “There was a lot of excitement and anticipation among the passengers.

“What I love about being in Israel is how everything is centered around the Jewish values and traditions that I grew up with. For the first time in my life, I’m now part of the majority, here in Israel,” Leeman said during a recent interview.

 A MAINE lighthouse. (credit: ANAV SILVERMAN PERETZ) A MAINE lighthouse. (credit: ANAV SILVERMAN PERETZ)

He said that he finds Israelis very warm and helpful. “I have found that Israelis will go to great lengths to help out. They also seem to be very intent on finding me a wife,” he laughed.

The biggest challenge for Leeman thus far has been mastering the Hebrew language.

“My medical program has a built-in ulpan, which has been very helpful, and my Hebrew medical language is much stronger, thanks to the time we’ve spent practicing interviewing patients in Hebrew as part of our language immersion,” he explained.

“But it’s a work in progress. I chose to live with Israeli roommates to improve my language skills, but they speak to me in English a lot more than I anticipated. I’m also watching shows on Netflix in Hebrew as much as I can.”

As the only Jewish student in the local Bath public school system (besides his two sisters), Leeman frequently explained his Jewish background to his classmates and peers.

“I always received a lot of questions about being Jewish. They weren’t questions that were asked out of bigotry or hatred,” he noted. “People were genuinely curious.

But it’s nice that I don’t have to miss classes on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur anymore,” commented Leeman, who graduated with a degree in economics and computer science at the University of Rochester in New York before deciding to pursue a medical career.

LOCATED ON Maine’s Kennebec River near its mouth on the Atlantic coast and with a shipbuilding heritage that dates back to 1762, Bath is home to around 8,000 residents.

Leeman’s father, Daniel, originally from the Bronx, New York, served for 12 years as the cantor and leader, as well as a Hebrew school teacher at Bath’s Beth Israel Congregation, which was founded in 1919. His father first discovered Maine when he was 16, when he won a scholarship to study cello at the Downeast Chamber Music Center in Castine, Maine. By chance, after completing the musical scholarship, he stumbled upon the synagogue in Bath and ended up leading the High Holy Day services there as a teenager.

“My father loves Maine, and my mom, who is originally from Connecticut, went along with him. There were around 85 Jewish families that formed our synagogue in Bath. Many of the families were not even from Bath but would travel 40 miles to attend Shabbat and holiday services at our community’s synagogue,” Leeman said.

“Instead of going to football games on Friday nights, we went to shul, where our dad led the prayer services. I think that experience made my family closer.”

SAM’S SISTERS, Hannah, 28, and Arielle, 23, are also living in Beersheba. All three siblings attend the Medical School for International Health at Beersheba’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, with Sam studying ophthalmology. Hannah, the first of the Leemans to move to Israel, is studying public health.

Another factor that contributed to Leeman’s connection to Israel was his Jewish summer camp experiences growing up.

“Since I was a young kid, my sisters and I would attend Camp Ramah in Palmer, Massachusetts, and would meet Israelis there. I also ended up working as a camp counselor later on. Those summer camp experiences definitely strengthened my Jewish identity,” he said, adding that a trip with Taglit-Birthright as a college student further inspired his eventual move to the Jewish state.

Leeman said that his parents always dreamed about coming to live in Israel, having spent a year in Israel many years ago. “It was kind of a pipe dream from my parents. We moved quite a bit because of my dad’s work as a cantor, which brought him to work in the Jewish communities of Delaware and Vancouver, British Columbia, until we settled permanently in Maine.”

Thanks to the Leeman siblings’ move to Israel, making aliyah will no longer be just a dream for their parents.

Our parents are making aliyah in October to be closer to us,” said Sam. “We are very excited.”

But the family will still maintain its Maine roots, keeping its summer camp in Belfast, Maine. And Sam is still in touch with his childhood friends in Maine, as well as former teammates from his high school tennis team.

“I do miss the nature and greenery of the state,” he said. “And when I visit, I always make it a point to meet up with my friends from the area.

“I feel that growing up in Maine and going to a small-town high school made me down to earth and appreciative of other ways of life,” he explained.

“But if you’re someone with a strong sense of Jewish identity, it’s difficult to find that sense of belonging in America,” he said. “And that’s what makes Israel so special for me and my family.”■

The writer made aliyah from Calais, Maine, in 2004. She works as an English teacher in Midreshet Ben-Gurion, where she lives with her family.

Sam Leeman, 26 From Bath, Maine to Beersheba, 2022