Aliya before it was ‘practical’

Though both had grown up in strongly Zionist homes – Alan in Queens, New York; Joanne in Durban, South Africa – their desire to make aliya had been pushed to the back burner.

Aliya before it was 'practical' (photo credit: Courtesy)
Aliya before it was 'practical'
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When Alan and Joanne Simanowitz returned from a 2005 pilot trip to Israel, they hung an Israeli flag from the window of their house in Teaneck, New Jersey, as a sign of their decision to make the move.
“We have five children, and the oldest was going into high school, so it was now or never,” says Joanne.
“We felt that we were doing it for our children, and they were very excited.”
The family arrived on a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight in July 2006. Based on the communities they’d toured during their pilot trip, the Simanowitzes chose Elazar, a town in the Gush Etzion bloc south of Jerusalem.
Elazar was a good fit because it has an open and accepting modern Orthodox feel, says Alan. “It’s a very diverse community and we connect with the people on a values level.”
Furthermore, they rejected the idea of living in any Israeli community where the language on the street is English, and where many breadwinners commute to the US for work in order to maintain their American standard of living.
“We wanted to give a clear message to our kids that we are here full-time,” says Joanne, whose widowed mother made aliya in 2008. “We didn’t want to live like Americans in Israel. We made what I call a ‘shekel aliya,’ although it has not been easy to recreate ourselves and base our parnassa [income] on shekalim.”
Though both had grown up in strongly Zionist homes – Alan in Queens, New York; Joanne in Durban, South Africa – their desire to make aliya had been pushed to the back burner as they finished their education, married and began raising their family.
In 2004, friends of theirs made aliya and the topic again surfaced for discussion. But it was the disengagement from Gush Katif in the summer of 2005 that fully reignited their Zionist fire.
“I had arguments with friends who were in favor of the hitnatkut [disengagement],” says Alan. “I felt we needed more Jews settling the land so that what happened in Gush Katif could never happen again.”
Using their federal tax refund to pay for the pilot trip, they were amazed to find a strong spirit of unity among Israelis despite a feeling of low morale. “It was very inspiring,” Alan recalls. “We felt this was our place. Moving to Israel with five children, we felt we could make a difference just being there.”
Finding employment The decision made and a hometown chosen, the major missing piece was livelihood. Joanne was a dance therapist who taught creative movement in Jewish day schools and ran dance classes at home. Alan had a private practice as a learning specialist and was director of special services for public schools.
During his pilot trip, several people had mentioned the name of clinical psychologist Stuart (Simcha) Chesner, founder and director of Bnei Chayil Academy of Jerusalem, the first school in Israel dedicated to general and Jewish education for at-risk adolescents with ADHD, learning disabilities, Asperger’s syndrome, addictions and emotional disorders. However, the two men weren’t able to coordinate a meeting then or in early 2006, when Alan came back on his own.
They finally met a week or two after the Simanowitzes made aliya, and that’s all it took to launch Alan’s new career.
In addition to teaching English at Bnei Chayil – as does Joanne – Alan and Chesner began a new program, Matara Therapeutic Boarding School, for teens from overseas. Alan is educational director of Matara, which has 10 students in this school year. In addition, Alan started his own educational consultancy, UCanAchieve.
“I’m not where I was financially or professionally in America, but I’m living where I want to live and I’m making a difference, changing kids’ lives and helping families who want to make it work here,” he says.
“I also meet with a lot of parents thinking about aliya and wondering if their kids can learn in Israel, and I explain that there are so many more options here for different learning styles – places that really build potential and character. In America, the standard yeshiva high school was a training ground for SATs and college acceptance and professions. But God’s creations are not just doctors and lawyers. People need to build houses and fix electricity, and here Jewish people are doing these jobs, and that’s a beautiful thing.”
Acclimating to Israel The couple was most worried about the transition of their two older sons, yet ironically those two had the easiest time. Their eldest finished the army just before Operation Protective Edge and their second son recently completed the officers’ course. Their third child, and only daughter, graduated high school in Kiryat Arba and is starting a pre-army mechina (preparatory program) in Beersheba.
The two youngest Simanowitz boys initially had a difficult adjustment.
“It took a while for them to read the social cues and get the language. Now it’s gotten a little easier,” says Joanne.
If anyone questions their decision to make aliya with kids aged 14 to seven, the Simanowitzes have a ready answer. “There’s nothing practical about aliya, and the list of reasons not to come is longer than the list of reasons to come. But if you wait till it’s practical, it will never happen.”
Joanne explains that she fell in love with Israel in 1983, when she came for a year with a Bnei Akiva program.
“Mum wanted me to go because there was not much in Durban socially. My father said I could go but had to come back, so I got my BA in Johannesburg and moved to America in 1987 to get my master’s degree at [New York City’s] Hunter College in dance therapy. I had two brothers living in Teaneck, so I moved there even though it wasn’t known for its singles scene.”
Fourteen months later, she met Alan at a Shabbat meal hosted by mutual friends. They married in January 1989 and settled into suburban life in Teaneck, but became increasingly uncomfortable with the materialistic values they saw around them.
“We made aliya for our children’s spiritual well-being,” states Joanne, who has also run dance classes in her new home. “Here, their values are so much better.”
She feels that the most inspiring part of their story is her husband’s ability to find work in his field despite arriving at age 42.
“People who are educators in other countries do not generally stay in the field of education once they get here,” she points out. “Alan has an amazing knowledge of and experience in his field as well as, most importantly, an ardent love for Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel].
“He is making a tremendous impact on Israeli society and on his students, three of whom have made aliya themselves.”