‘When we went on our first date,” says Jennifer Stern, recalling her initial meeting with her husband, Michael, 27 years ago, “he said, ‘I want to learn in Israel after I get married.’ I said to myself – this guy is never going to marry me. So, I said to him, ‘That sounds great.’” Six months later, newly married, Jennifer and Michael were on their way to Israel.
Jennifer, who had not spent a year studying in Israel after high school, was thrilled with living in Jerusalem. “I had never really experienced Israel at all, until we came after getting married. We did a lot of touring, we went up north to Haifa, but it was the day-to-day stuff, going on buses and walking around – that’s when I really fell in love with the country.” Her husband spent the year learning, and they might have stayed permanently, had Jennifer’s father, a doctor, not convinced them to return to the United States to give birth to her first child.
“My father made us come back to America,” she says, “because he said, ‘You don’t have babies in third-world countries.’” Stern pauses, and continues, “But I showed him, because I had my last baby in Israel.” Jennifer Epstein grew up in Hollywood, Florida, the oldest of three girls, attended high school in Baltimore, and graduated from Stern College in 1990. She studied social work at New York University, married Michael Stern in January of 1993, and received her master of social work degree in May 1993, before the couple flew to Israel. Toward the end of her pregnancy, in March 1994, Jennifer and Michael acceded to her father’s wishes and returned to Florida, where she gave birth to her first son. Her husband became an accountant, and the Sterns lived in North Miami Beach for seven years.
The idea of aliyah, she says, was now in the very back of her mind. Michael was then offered a job in New York, and the family moved to Woodmere.
Michael, who grew up in Far Rockaway and Lawrence, had no trouble adjusting. Jennifer, however, found life in the Five Towns difficult. “I was a small-town girl from a small-town place, where I was related to the entire world in Florida, from both sides of my family, who had lived in Florida. We came to the Five Towns, and I was not fancy enough, fashionable enough, or skinny enough. It was a miserable five years. I was from out of town and I didn’t understand the codes.” Stern ruefully recalls some of the Five Towns codes that she encountered:
• When I asked my neighbor for Hatzalah’s number on Shavuot, I was hurt that she didn’t come by or ask her husband to check if everything was okay.
• Don’t start a conversation with the woman ahead of you in the grocery store line, even if you have two kids in the same class.
• Begin wearing summer clothes from Passover, even if it’s freezing outside.
• Don’t sit down in an empty seat at a kid’s school performance. It’s saved for both sets of grandparents and various aunts and uncles and sisters-in-law of the woman at the other end of the row.
Jennifer became a successful social worker, ran a successful catering business, and was active in the PTA of her children’s school, but was unhappy. “My husband took me out for dinner, and he said, ‘We can either move back to Florida or move to Israel. I said ‘OK, let’s move to Israel.’” AFTER TAKING separate pilot trips to Israel, Jennifer and Michael, together with their four children, made aliyah in September 2006 to Hashmonaim. The Sterns had friends there, and the community met her criteria – the houses were spacious, and the neighborhood was mostly English-speaking. Her husband was able to keep his accounting job, spending two weeks of every month in the United States.
After devoting a few years getting the children settled and arranging their home, Jennifer decided to look for a job.
“I knew nothing. Before my job interview,” she recalls, “I called an Israeli friend and asked, ‘How do you say “abuse” and “neglect” in Hebrew?’”
Despite her lack of Hebrew-language proficiency, she was hired as a family social worker in Kiryat Sefer for the welfare system and, after taking a year off after the birth of her youngest child, was promoted to working as a social worker on behalf of children’s rights, representing the state in situations of neglect or abuse, or parental inability to provide proper care for children.
In her work, Jennifer frequently appeared in court, and wrote summaries of cases, besides meeting with police, psychologists and doctors. In the process, she became fluent in both written and spoken Hebrew. While she has never mastered a true Israeli accent, she speaks with pride of her overall command and fluency in the language.
Eventually, Stern, citing the numerous cases of sexual abuse that she had encountered in her work, felt burned-out, and decided to change direction. In 2018, she became a social worker in the pediatric department and maternity ward at Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv.
She traces her interest in this field to what she experienced when she gave birth to her youngest child in 2010. At the time, her newborn son was in a Jerusalem hospital’s intensive care unit for several days, and Stern says that no one from the hospital approached her to talk or ask whether she needed help. “I always said that someday I might want to work in a hospital, as a social worker.” Despite her professional successes, Jennifer says that she did not really feel like an Israeli until the abduction and murder of the three Israeli teens – Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Shaer, and Naftali Fraenkel – in the summer of 2014. “When the three boys were kidnapped, they were my son’s age. One of the mothers was my teacher in Matan. In November of that same year, my son went into the army. That was my turning point, when I became a Zionist – when I finally felt like an Israeli living in Israel, and not an American living in Israel. I finally felt that this was my country and I was part of it.” When comparing the Israel of 1993, which she experienced as a newlywed, to the Israel of 2020, Jennifer says, “It’s a whole different world – the fact that you can get American products, [that] you can buy things in bulk. Osher Ad is my happy place. The roads are so much better, and people are wearing deodorant now. It’s become like a Western culture.” Husband Michael now works from home and no longer flies to the US. The Sterns’ five children are well integrated into Israeli society, and Jennifer, amused, notes that their youngest son speaks English with an Israeli accent.
She dislikes Israeli pushiness, longs for an American Sunday and jokes that “not having Target is a tremendous handicap,” but for Jennifer Stern, whose impetus for aliyah came from her feelings of alienation in Long Island, Israel is home.