Arrivals: Michal Ventimiglia: From New York to Jerusalem

Converting from Catholicism to Judaism was a major life decision for Michal.

Michal Ventimiglia 88 248 (photo credit: Mark Schulman )
Michal Ventimiglia 88 248
(photo credit: Mark Schulman )
Birthplace: Rochester, New York Aliya date: September 2007 Occupation: Publishing/Book Editing Family status: Single Converting from Catholicism to Judaism was a major life decision for Michelle, now Michal, Ventimiglia. It certainly wasn't a decision taken lightly. "Judaism isn't just a religion, it's a way of life," she says. "I started to admire this way of life, and the more I admired it the more I wanted to become part of it." For the 35-year-old from upstate New York, becoming part of "it" also meant taking one step further after converting - moving to Israel to fulfill a dream to practice Judaism "at its source" and to get involved in an archeological excavation. So far, both of these dreams have come true. FAMILY HISTORY Ventimiglia grew up in an Italian-Irish-American home in Rochester. She was raised a Catholic but started questioning her faith as a teenager. After much soul-searching, she decided not to seek confirmation - the rite of initiation into the church - much to the dismay and puzzlement of some of her family. Her mother is a practicing Catholic; her uncle is a priest. Her father, also a Catholic, grew up in a mixed Italian-Jewish neighborhood and had Jewish friends and was exposed to Jewish holidays. "My dad had a certain multiculturalism that many people growing up in the 1950s in a place like Rochester didn't have." Even with that cultural understanding for other ethnic groups and religions, it was hard, at least at first, for Ventimiglia's family to accept her decision to convert. "My parents couldn't understand my decision; they thought it was a phase," she explains. "But after going through the conversion process, they saw how serious I was. I think once they saw I was an adult making my own decisions, they started to be more supportive. What was even harder for my family, however, was when I decided to move so far from home." BEFORE ARRIVAL Ventimiglia started exploring Judaism in college at SUNY Albany. As a history major, she spent a lot of time reading Jewish theological books and wrote a term paper on persecution of Jews in the Middle Ages. Toward the end of her last semester, a professor got her interested in working on an archeological excavation in Israel. It was a combination of all these factors, plus a Russian-Jewish boyfriend, that encouraged her to study more about Judaism and Israel. After graduating in 1996, she moved back to Rochester to work as an editor of legal books and computer manuals. At the same time, she started attending classes, first at the local Chabad House and then for several years at the Beth Shalom synagogue. Following a rigorous 15-month process under the guidance of Orthodox Rabbi Shaya Kilimnick, Ventimiglia converted to Judaism in December 2005. The next year she visited Israel for the first time, only a few weeks after the end of the war in Lebanon, to study Hebrew on Kibbutz Sde Eliahu in the Beit She'an Valley. After four months in ulpan, she worked for several weeks on an IDF base as part of the Sar-El volunteer program. "After two weeks in Israel, I decided I wanted to make aliya," she recalls. "I remember the exact moment. I was with a friend at Café Rimon on Ben-Yehuda in downtown Jerusalem when the waitress serving me and my friend told us how glad she was that we were here after the war and that as Jews we should live here to help support the state. That's when I knew." After getting approval from the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem, Ventimiglia had to first go back to the States to start the aliya process. After packing up and leaving her job, she left on a Nefesh B'Nefesh flight on September 3, 2007, a day after her 34th birthday. "Making aliya was my birthday present." UPON ARRIVAL When Ventimiglia got off the plane, she didn't know anyone, except for an elderly couple from her synagogue. But she quickly made friends at the Beit Canada absorption center in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem where she lived for six months. After six weeks of ulpan, she met more people on an archeological dig in the City of David. She is not ashamed to admit that she was overweight and out of shape when she got off the plane. She also had never done any archeology work, which includes long hours in the sun and hard physical labor. "I had several job offers in my field, some of them well paying, but gave them up to do the dig. I always wanted to do a dig," she says. "It was so hard in the beginning that I almost quit, but one of the dig managers encouraged me to not give up. I kept with it, got stronger, lost weight and grew more confident. That's how you have to approach the aliya process." THOUGHTS ON ALIYA A lot of people, including some from her synagogue in New York, thought Ventimiglia was crazy to make aliya. Her advice: Don't listen to negativity and be around positive people who have made aliya or who want to make it. "My only regret is that I didn't make aliya 10 years earlier," she adds. "I think it's easier to integrate into Israeli society and learn Hebrew faster when you're younger. But it's never too late." In addition to missing her family, friends and cat (who was too old to make the trip), the other big thing she misses is having a car - too expensive for the moment, she makes her way around by bus. "Because Rochester is a city for cars, I wasn't used to taking buses," she says. "Taking a bus in Israel is like a roller-coaster, an exercise in endurance, not just a bus ride. But it's all part of the experience." LIVING ENVIRONMENT Following her six months in an absorption center, Ventimiglia now lives in a cozy studio in Kiryat Hayovel on the edge of the Jerusalem Forest. "Nothing beats the smell of the forest every day," she says. "Thanks to my landlord's great gardening skills, I feel like I am truly living in a Garden of Eden." Although she has no immediate plans to leave Jerusalem, she ponders living elsewhere in the country, where English isn't as widely spoken and she can use her Hebrew more. HOBBIES Even though Ventimiglia is no longer working in publishing, she is still an avid reader, going through one or two books a week, everything from history to science fiction to spy novels. When not on site at a dig, she can be found in a bookstore browsing the shelves. In her free time, she also tries to get out of Jerusalem to travel around the country. "There are still so many places I want to see here in Israel. Then I want to explore some other countries nearby, like Turkey, Greece and Italy, all with amazing archeological sites." LANGUAGE In addition to English, Ventimiglia knows a little Spanish and Russian from college. "On the dig I speak Spanish with some of the volunteers. I just wish I could remember more of my Russian, I hear so much of it here." Although she has taken several months of ulpan, she admits that she still mostly uses English. "I have Israeli friends whose English has improved on account of me; now it's their turn to help me and speak only in Hebrew." Once fluent in Hebrew, she wants to learn Arabic. PLANS Ventimiglia plans to look another archeological dig now the weather is warming up again. She is also interested in looking for a job in the environmental sector. "No matter what I do in the end, I will always try to be involved in a dig," she says, "even if it's for a few weeks of the year; it's something I just love to do. It's one of the reasons why I came here." 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