Juliana Tal Or on making Aliyah: God will lead the way

"Israel is the most special place in the universe! I wanted to be there."

Juliana Tal Or: From Massachusetts to Efrat.  (photo credit: MIRIAM LOTTNER)
Juliana Tal Or: From Massachusetts to Efrat.
(photo credit: MIRIAM LOTTNER)
Juliana Tal Or did not come to Israel with a well-thought-out plan. She made aliyah alone at 15, looking for a new start.
Born with a partial hearing loss, she struggled both academically and socially. With hearing aids, she was able to stay afloat academically in a regular classroom, but it was a challenge.
Socially, although she did fine in one-on-one conversations, she was, “not able to pick up group conversations and had no way to learn social grounding skills. I had to be taught how to behave socially.”
Before she came to Israel, Tal Or had already been held back a grade and had cycled through a handful of Jewish schools.
Israel was a chance to begin fresh.
To the outsider, it may seem like coming to Israel was a huge leap into the unknown, but to Tal Or, it made sense. “Growing up with a frum (Orthodox) background, we learned that the goal is to live in Israel. Israel is the home of the Jewish people. We’re in America because of money, because of family, because it’s where we started, but we just needed to get to Israel.”
She called aliyah, “a subtle message in childhood.” Looking back, Tal Or acknowledged that her desire to live in Israel was impacted by the fact that one of her grandmothers was a Holocaust survivor.
“When people made aliyah, it always piqued my interest. Israel is the most special place in the universe! I wanted to be there,” she recollected.
Given that her home environment was so Israel-oriented, the suggestion that Tal Or make aliyah wasn’t surprising, though it seemed to have come from nowhere. “My parents saw that I was struggling. My mom suggested starting over in Israel. She thought maybe they have programs and other alternatives.”
Tal Or immediately agreed. That started her whole family on a fast-track to aliyah. “The plans started rolling. I was the reason they shifted to Israel.” That first year was characterized by “lots of emunah (faith) and a vague plan. I was so little, I didn’t have a dream. I just felt that God will lead the way, so I said, ‘Let’s do this!’
“I came first with a family friend on the flight and stayed with former neighbors from Sharon. I also stayed in the Old City with a relative in the Jewish Quarter.”
Initially, Tal Or attended a special ulpan for teens. “The goal was to improve [my] Hebrew so I could go to school,” she related. The rest of her family followed five weeks later. They came for a trial year and they are all still here.
Unfortunately, educationally, she didn’t get the support she needed and the pattern repeated itself. Tal Or kept switching schools and eventually completed an American high school equivalency GED certificate. Later, she learned that in addition to her hearing loss, she also had a learning disability, ADHD, but it was never diagnosed or treated.
While studying for her GED, she met her future husband, but they postponed getting engaged until she finished school. After a three-month engagement, Juliana and Dani got married. She was just 18.
TAL OR had a new opportunity to apply her faith in God as she contemplated her next step in life. “I knew I wasn’t going to college. I wasn’t going to try. [I told myself that] I’ll figure it out.”
She started cleaning houses, working as a babysitter, running a home organizing service and then a daycare business. Her calling wasn’t clear right away.
Knowing of Tal Or’s artistic inclination, Alissa Fried Harbater, director of Efrat’s department of aliyah and absorption put her in touch with Reena Shindman, a Wilton cake-decorating company representative in Israel, who taught a basic cake decorating class.
“At first, it was hard,” Tal Or recalled. “I can use my hands, but this was a different form of art. It was more like sculpting, working in 3D, rather than with paper and markers.”
After finishing the class, she started playing around with her new skills. “For fun, I made a 25th-anniversary cake for my parents. My grandmother is a big baker. She would host Kiddush for 150 people for Sukkot and do all the baking. She was so excited that I was going to end up baking,” Tal Or shared, “but it was not a passion.”
After posting a picture of the anniversary cake on Facebook, Tal Or got overwhelmingly positive feedback. Both her mother and her grandmother hinted, “there could be something here.”
She was further encouraged when people saw her decorated cakes and suggested that she could charge for her work. It was the consistently positive responses from others that kept her going, creating decorated cakes with different themes.
She was decorating cakes primarily for her family and “a client here or there” when a chance encounter led her to a job in a bakery. “God is guiding the whole way here. I was in the shuk (outdoor market) and ran into a friend I had gone to an artsy design camp with. She told me her father was opening a bakery in Jerusalem and wanted her to sit in the back and decorate cupcakes. My friend said, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ and Tal Or said, ‘I do!’ I got the job and learned new skills there.”
In 2013, right after her first child was born, she was diagnosed with retinisis pigmentosa, an eye disease that results in a loss of peripheral vision. “It didn’t really affect me until I was in the working world and a new mom,” she shared. “I wasn’t allowed to get a license. Please God, they’ll develop some sort of cure before it [advances to] complete blindness.”
By the time her second child was born in 2016, Tal Or had “a few orders here and there” but focused most of her attention on running a day care business which she started because the community had grown so fast, all the municipal day care centers were full.
She was raising two young children, running a day care program with her sister and managing a part-time cake business. Just before corona hit, she closed the daycare business.
Suddenly, “My cake business [now called Juliana Cakes] spread out even faster. People can’t have parties now. Their events are smaller, but they still want to make it feel festive. Cake brings that much more light to the whole event.”
She’s made decorated cakes for a well-known designer, for cookbook author Susie Fishbein and her cakes have been featured on wedding blogs. Tal Or’s library-themed cake is her most well-known design, modeled after a cake originally designed by a family friend.
“Cake is such a beautiful trend right now. It shows you care about someone – the flavors, colors, themes. It’s a very personalized gift. It’s sharing an experience with your friends as well. It’s not just a dessert.”
Despite her challenges, Tal Or enthused that Israel, “Exceeded my expectations. You can come here and anything can happen. There’s a place for everyone here. God really does love us and really wants us here.”
Her advice? “When things are tough, ask for help. Learn something from everyone. Have emunah. Have patience. Have rachamim (mercy). All the traits that you’re taught, execute them here,” she concluded.