A meeting of like minds

Despite a brief separation, the two kept in touch, got engaged in the spring and married in summer 2016.

(photo credit: Courtesy)
Benjie Frieling arrived in Israel on the cusp of a rocket barrage from Gaza, just in time to live through the difficult summer of Operation Protective Edge in 2014. He recalls vividly his first night in Israel, which “alternated between making pancakes in a Givat Shmuel apartment and, on hearing the siren, shutting off the stove top and running to the safe room.” After five months of Ulpan Gordon in Tel Aviv, Benjie began a year’s army service as a civil engineer based at Tel HaShomer. Dena Katz, an occupational therapist and native of Newton, Massachusetts, arrived at Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem the following summer and met Benjie three months later.
The fall of their meeting, Benjie was due to spend a month’s leave back home in Lawrence, New York. Despite this brief separation, the two kept in touch, got engaged in the spring and married in summer 2016. Actually, the mutual friend who set them up had invited both to her wedding some years back, but although they both attended, they never met. Nor did they appear together in any photos. Now, however, friendship and romance have blossomed.
The Frielings’ backgrounds were strikingly similar. Both were firstborns with two younger siblings and were educated in Jewish schools. Dena had attended Maimonides School in nearby Brookline. Benjie attended the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach and its associated high school.
Both took part in family trips to Israel, in addition to summer programs during high school. After high school, each spent a gap year studying in Jerusalem’s Old City before college – Dena at Midreshet HaRova and Benjie at Yeshivat HaKotel. Both their families had warm feelings for Israel.
“I grew up with a love for Israel, but not inclined to move there,” Dena says. “After my gap year in Israel is when I decided that aliyah was an important goal of mine.”
Benjie’s family “imbued him with a mind-set of looking out for the Jewish people,” while his mother’s activism in Soviet Jewry protests and a summer hiking program in Israel helped give him “the aliyah bug.” All his grandparents were Holocaust survivors, so his American roots are relatively shallow. Dena’s paternal grandparents fled Germany just in time.
Both also had strong academic backgrounds. Benjie attended Columbia University for his bachelor’s degree and was actively involved in Jewish causes on campus. After IDF service, he began a master’s degree in transportation engineering at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology that took almost three years. He is committed to the idea of sustainability. “While building the infrastructure to keep everyone moving smoothly is critical, it is also important to ensure it is accomplished with minimal environmental damage and resource waste – especially in our homeland,” he remarks.
Dena graduated from Stern College, the women’s division of Yeshiva University in New York. After three years completing a graduate degree in occupational therapy at New Jersey’s Kean University, including fieldwork and licensing exams, she worked for a year in America. Although she preferred working with children, her first job here was in a Jerusalem geriatric hospital.
“Once we moved up to Haifa, it was a huge relief to be able to switch back to pediatrics,” she says. “Two days a week, I was employed by a haredi [ultra-Orthodox] educational organization running a multi-discipline treatment center incorporating occupational, speech and art therapy. Another two days each week were spent at local public schools, focusing on one-on-one treatment of children with learning disabilities.”
Although the Frielings made aliyah from a position of relative strength, with suitable careers and a good knowledge of Hebrew, the rub is that they have no close family in Israel to help out with their baby boy. “It is definitely hard to be in Israel without my parents and siblings,” Dena admits. Benjie concurs that “being thousands of miles away from family and childhood friends is a sacrifice, but thankfully they do visit here often and we try to fly back annually to America.”
Such factors helped prompt their next move in May 2018 to Migdal Ha’emek in the lower Galilee. “The very warm, friendly atmosphere of the Garin Torani community made up of young families was the clincher for me,” Dena says.
“We felt that we could make a difference specifically by choosing this place and helping its religious community flourish,” Benjie counters. There were also logistical reasons. “A small city was the best option for a young couple like us,” Benjie feels. “The balance of affordability, plus walking proximity of basic services like pharmacies and supermarkets was critical to us,” explains Dena.
Currently, Benjie commutes by train to work at a transportation engineering company in downtown Haifa, with projects in traffic intersection design, accident analysis and transportation plans for new neighborhoods. Dena is employed closer to home at various local schools. She finds great satisfaction in working with children and hopes to continue to build upon these skills in the years to come. She likes hands-on activities.
“I took drawing lessons and jewelry-making classes when I was younger. Now that I have a baby and am busy with work, I lack time for these hobbies. But recently, there was a jewelry-making event in Migdal Ha’emek where I really enjoyed making a necklace. Baking halla with Benjie, making cookies and granola, are also fun.” Benjie runs several times a week and has joined the Garin’s Torah learning initiative by leading a study group focusing on a different mitzvah each week. Together, the family enjoys strolling through the many nearby forests.
Despite sharing many traits, the Frielings do have differences. Dena likes to turn in early, while Benjie is more of a night owl. He enjoys playing board games such as Pandemic and Ticket to Ride, while she favors jigsaw puzzles. And most significant of all, “Dena likes vanilla, while Benjie is a chocolate aficionado.”