The road less traveled

Bucking the trend her entire life, Talia is one of the first non-Israelis to do National Service.

Talia Kobrossi 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Talia Kobrossi 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When people from home hear that Toronto native Talia Kobrossi is in school, they want to know whether she’s at the Hebrew University, Bar-Ilan or IDC Herzliya. “They think those are the only three schools in the whole country,” she says, shrugging.
“They just don’t know, there’s a million places. When I say David Yellin, they ask, ‘What’s that?’ It’s the biggest teachers’ college in the country.”
Taking the road less traveled is Kobrossi’s modus operandi. It started in high school, when she bucked the trend of going to the Jewish coed high school like all her school friends, and chose the more religious girls’ ulpana. And after high school, instead of learning at seminary like most of her friends who spent the year after high school in Israel, she became one of the first non-Israelis to do Sherut Leumi, or National Service.
“I’ve always been different from everyone else,” she says. “My elementary school was mixed boys and girls, mixed but religious. Everyone goes to the coed high school, but I chose to go to the [all-girls] ulpana. Not many people do that.”
The switch, because so few people moved between the Jewish schools, was difficult. “No one wanted to be friends with me,” she says. “They didn’t think I was religious enough, and I wore pants. I still wear pants. But I wanted to go; I wanted to change. My brothers made fun of me. They called me ‘skirts’ for the first year.”
The baby of four, she wasn’t any more religious than the rest of her family, just looking to try something different. “I come from a very open family,” she explains. “My older brother is religious, my next one isn’t. My parents, of course, they want us to be, but they’re very open. Anything goes. Our Shabbat tables are crazy, our conversations are wacky. We always have guests, always have people coming in and out of our house.”
“It was a big issue getting accepted to Sherut Leumi,” she says, explaining the hours of phone calls and arguments she had to be accepted three years ago. “I think I was one of the first North Americans to do it. They had no idea what to do with me. Now, they know what to do, but then it was a disaster.”
Luckily, she had a little bit of protektzia. Her ulpana in Toronto hosted two Bnei Akiva emissaries who were Talia’s closest friends at her high school. They were the ones who first opened Kobrossi up to the idea of living here, and they were the ones who suggested Sherut Leumi. When she struggled with the bureaucracy, they made the necessary connections so she was talking to the right people.
She volunteered for the year at an early childhood center in Jerusalem that integrates autistic children into mainstream classes with non-autistic children. Kobrossi’s role was helping the youngest group, two-and-a-half to four.
“I told them I wanted to work with kids, and they gave me three options,” she says. “Then they just sort of put me somewhere. With God’s help I ended up in an amazing place.”
After her aliya, she briefly toyed with the idea of studying to be a special education teacher at David Yellin College of Education, but decided to study to be an English teacher instead.
“My bubbe always said to me [during my year of National Service], ‘Talia, you have to come back to Toronto, you can’t stay in Israel,’” Kobrossi says. “My bubbe was my best friend, best best best friend.”
Three quarters of the way through her Sherut Leumi, her grandmother had a serious stroke. “After my grandma’s stroke [in May], I stayed in Israel until August. It was hell,” she says, still emotional more than two years later. “I had to finish, and I wanted to finish out the year.
“I had wanted to make aliya then, [after Sherut Leumi], but I said, she’s so sick I can’t not be with her. So I went back to Toronto to be with her.”
That fall, she enrolled in a few classes at York University in Toronto, but dropped out after one semester. She worked a little and took care of her grandmother, who died the following May. Four months later, on September 9, 2008, Kobrossi landed here on a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight.
Toronto is home to many sets of cousins and is the nucleus of the Kobrossi family. Her father came from Lebanon, and he escaped the country with his family during the Six Day War. His immediate family went straight to Canada, while other cousins went to France, Switzerland and Israel. “It’s a big part of the family, being Lebanese,” she explains. Her father’s mother is originally Syrian, from Aleppo.
Her mom is Ashkenazi, and today Kobrossi prays Ashkenazi-style but loves all the Sephardi traditions and food. “I heard at the beginning of my parents’ marriage it was a bit, you know... Sephardi mothers don’t want their sons marrying Ashkenazim,” she says, laughing.
To stay in touch with her incredibly close family, Kobrossi says she talks on the phone with her parents five or six times a day, plus Skype and e-mails. “It’s really hard, I really miss my family. I miss living at home,” she says. “But every time I’m sad or whatever, I remember why I moved here. I go back to Toronto to visit and I say, ‘Thank God I moved; I know why I moved. Every time I go to Toronto it gives me more strength to come back here because I know this is where I should be.”
Once you’ve lived in Israel, “I feel, there everything is fake,” she explains. “I get along better with Israelis because of their mentality. They say it as it is.”
In an article she wrote about her experiences with aliya and absorption, she listed some of her favorite things about Israel: “Only in Israel could an elderly person stop you on the road and ask you to carry her groceries home. Only in Israel could you hitchhike with someone on a Friday and end up spending Shabbat at their home.”
One of her absolute favorite things, Talia confides, is the big yellow raisins at the shouk. “I don’t know why they’re so good,” she says. “I have a special raisin guy in the shouk. When I go home I bring a big suitcase of those raisins, and nuts and cheese.”
Without a doubt, the biggest challenge, she says, is the distance from her family. “It’s like there I have family but no friends, and here I have friends but no family.”
“If you know, if you feel it deep in your heart that you really want to move to Israel, you have to follow your dreams, don’t let anyone stop it,” she says. “Don’t give up, because the beginning is always hard, but it’ll get easier eventually. Learn to laugh at things, that’s what I do. Bureaucracy, I just laugh. The Interior Ministry, health insurance, it’s a disaster. There’s no point in stressing out anymore. At the beginning, I got stressed, but now I know that’s just the way it is.
“Every time you’re stressed, really remember why you’re here, and it will get you through. I always say it has to start with one person in the family, and slowly I believe that everyone will come.”