Duty, friendship and Katyushas

A Jerusalem family hosts refugees from the north that "couldn't be more different" from themselves.

jerusalem north love 298 (photo credit: )
jerusalem north love 298
(photo credit: )
For the Neville-Leon family, having an extra four houseguests in their Givat Masua apartment "is just like having family," Alexa Neville says with a smile. When Alexa and her husband Michael called the Jerusalem municipality offering to take in a displaced family from the north, they could never have envisioned the journey they were about to embark on, taking along their four children - Eli, 13; Merav, 11; Asaf, 7; and Matan, 5 - for the ride. As reported in In Jerusalem last week, ("Secure hosts"), when municipal officials asked Alexa what "type" of family she would be willing to host, she hesitated for a moment. A religious woman, she debated whether to request a religious family. But after a brief discussion, she and her husband Michael decided that, "Now is not a time to question what anyone does. It is important to be accepting of anyone who needs a place." They ended up hosting the Polsman family from Acre, who in Neville's opinion, "could not be more different than my own family. They are irreligious in every sense of the word." "Despite the apparent culture clash, we had a good feeling as soon as we met them," says Alexa of their guests Peter and Rimma Polsman and their 2 1⁄2 year - old twins, Eden and Daniel, who have been living in the basement of her home. The Polsmans, who left their home in Acre as the violence in the North escalated, say that they are overwhelmed by the hospitality and warmth they have received from their hosts. "It is obviously hard to leave your home, but they [the Neville-Leon family] have been very welcoming and we feel comfortable," said Rimma. Rimma hopes that her twins will not remember the sounds of the katushyas they heard falling outside of their home in Acre. "When they asked what the sounds were, Peter told them that it was a fox outside, we did not want to scare them because they don't really understand," Rimma adds. Alexa and Michael admit that they had not discussed the idea of hosting a family from the north with their children beforehand. "It's not so strange to have people living in our house, we are used to hosting people," says Eli. When asked about her feelings of having to give up her basement bedroom for the house guests, Merav says, "It's nice to be giving up my room for a good thing. I am really happy to be able to do it." Five year-old Matan is even happy to share his toys with the twins, Eden and Daniel - as long as they don't take them away from him for good. "The other night we slept 13 people in our house, as Eli and Merav each had friends sleep over," Alexa says. "We didn't want to stop our kids from having a sleepover just because we are tight for space. We are trying to keep their lives as normal as possible." Asked if he knew why this family of strangers had come to live in his house, Asaf responds that, "they are here because there are bombs where they live." His older brother, Eli, corrects him quickly. "Not bombs, Katyushas," he says knowingly and the two boys proceed to argue about the differences between the types of explosive devices. Eli laughingly mentions that he is always amused each time he goes downstairs to use the computer and sees the twins watching his family's English version of the Lion King. While he knows that the twins speak both Hebrew and Russian, he is starting to think that after watching the movie so many times they have begun to understand English as well. Parents Michael and Alexa are quick to mention that their own parents, back in England, are both proud and supportive of their initiative. "Our parents were evacuated to the countryside during WWII. It's a similar story, to flee enemy bombs and find a safe place," says Michael. But the logistics of hosting a family that does not keep kosher in a religious home for a long period of time are not simple. Alexa has set aside a shelf in their refrigerator where the Polsmans can keep their food. And she has requested that they only cook dairy foods, in order to ensure that there are no mix-ups between milk and meat in the kitchen. "The other day they asked if they could bring in some pastrami and I had to say no," Alexa says. "I felt horrible doing so but at the same time we don't want to be their police, keeping track of what they do." Michael adds, "In a way, it's easier than having a religious family live with us because here, no one challenges what we do." "Michael and I always prided ourselves on being liberal, Orthodox Jews, but at the same time always wondered if there was a contradiction between the two affiliations. What we are doing has sort of proved that these two notions can coexist," Alexa says thoughtfully. On the whole, the Polsmans have been very understanding of the request and are even careful to ask Alexa if the food is "kosher enough" before they put it on the shelf. Growing up in Russia, Rimma says that she was raised as an atheist. "For us, the fact that they are religious kind of puts them in a different world. We have no connection to Shabbat or kashrut and we mix milk and meat without even thinking twice about it," Rimma says. Then she quips, making light of the situation, "Hopefully I will lose weight, because I don't really like to just eat dairy, so I eat less. I always say that everything works out for the best." For the Neville-Leon family, treating their guests to their first religious Sabbath experience was, they say, "an honor." Yet the Neville-Leon's are also respectful of the Polsman family's life-choices and do not even think of missionizing or imposing their own ways - which may be why the Polsman's find it so easy to participate in the Neville-Leon's religious ceremonies. Rimma joined Alexa in lighting the Shabbat candles for the first time in her life. It was an emotional experience for both of them. Rimma also accompanied Alexa to a prayer service on Friday night. Having been scarred by her only synagogue experience when she first arrived in Israel at the age of 18 and was asked to leave because of her "inappropriate dress," Rimma says she was "shocked" by the welcoming atmosphere. "I always remember watching movies about church services where everyone looked like they were so bored. But on Friday night, the enthusiasm was apparent and everyone was enjoying themselves," Rimma observes. "When you don't have it from childhood, it is a much different experience." There is no doubt that these very different couples have found a very unique friendship and after the children have gone to sleep, they stay up late, talking together. "We speak about day-to-day things like cooking, shopping and especially about our kids. We don't really speak about politics though because we are on opposite sides of the political spectrum," Michael says. They all agree that they will continue their friendship even after Rimma and Peter return to Acre - whenever that will be, depending on the war situation. "I can't imagine not picking up the phone to speak with them," said Alexa. "Perhaps when we take a trip up to the north we will pop in to their Acre home to say hi," Michael offers. "I would love to keep in touch with them, as they have taught me so much just by living with them in the past few weeks," Rimma says. She adds that she is particularly grateful for the parenting advice she has received from Alexa. "Even though my twins are young now," she says, "I want them to be well-mannered when they are older, just like Alexa's kids." The learning has progressed in both directions, and living with secular house guests has, they say, broadened Michael and Alexa's perspectives on Israeli society. Summing up her experiences as a host, Alexa sayas, "We did it out of a sense of duty. But it has become a real pleasure."