Arrivals: The art of saving her son

Nina Brenner-Buckstein, 32, from Hollywood, Florida, to Ramat Beit Shemesh, 2009.

Nina Brenner-Bukstein with her group and inset.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nina Brenner-Bukstein with her group and inset.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When she speaks about her life in Israel and her small business, Nina Brenner-Bukstein is effervescent.
Based on how her story began, that’s really saying something.
Brenner-Bukstein cannot remember learning a single thing about Israel growing up. She didn’t even know the difference between Israel and Iraq. Although born Jewish, she had no Jewish education as a child and describes herself as “completely assimilated into a non-Jewish society. I celebrated Christmas with friends. I learned nothing about Israel. That’s why it’s a miracle I’m here.”
Given her detachment from all things Jewish, it’s no surprise that her first serious relationship was with a non-Jewish man. When she was pregnant with her first child, something shifted.
“When I was pregnant, I had a wakeup call.”
Her son was born in October and, “that year, for the first time, something bothered me big time about doing Christmas. I wanted to do some Jewish holidays.”
The relationship with her son’s father ended bitterly. Brenner-Bukstein was completely alone, raising her son without any child support. Although it was very difficult to be a single parent, she was free to pursue her interest in Judaism.
When her Jewish mentors encouraged her to come to Israel on Birthright, she left her one-year-old son in her parents’ care and took the 10-day trip that would change her life.
“When I went to the Kotel [Western Wall], it was the most powerful and painful experience of my life. When I was at the Kotel, I felt something. I don’t know if I knew what it was. I saw Jewish children in the Old City. I pictured my son living in Israel. Having faith. Having a spiritual life. Osnat Cohen, the tour guide on my trip, made a huge impact on me. She and her husband were very modern and I felt like I could connect with them. I spoke with her about important life issues and she was amazing.
“On Birthright, I fell in love with Israel. I didn’t know the language. I didn’t know anyone here. But I was afraid that if I stayed in America, my son’s father would eventually baptize him and he would eat cheeseburgers and marry a non-Jewish woman.”
A plan began to form in her brain.
After finishing her bachelor’s degree, Brenner-Bukstein went to court to ask for full custody, to change her son’s name to a Jewish name and to get permission to bring him to Israel. Since her son’s father wasn’t working or paying child support, the court awarded Brenner- Bukstein everything she asked for.
“The judge didn’t give my son’s father the time of day.” Her lawyer was astounded that the judge decided completely in her favor.
By the time Brenner-Bukstein was on her aliya flight, things had turned dark again.
“I had a terrible experience. The day I made aliya, it was snowing in New York. I was completely on my own. I had four huge duffel bags. It was freezing. No one helped me. I pushed them all through the airport by myself with my son sitting on top of the duffels.
“I was angry with myself at the time. I knew I was doing the right thing. I chose this to save my son, but all I really knew about Israel was Birthright. I really was not prepared. I jumped into something my gut told me to do. I had no money. I was still in school. It was crazy!” Upon arriving in Israel, her first stop was the home of a family she knew from Florida. She moved three times in rapid succession.
Three months after landing in Israel, she rented her first apartment. Hakshiva, an Israeli non-profit that helps kids at risk, sent a team to help her build her furniture.
“They were so kind and they really helped me. It was very hard for me back then. I wasn’t that religious yet and I was a single mom living in a religious community. I stood out like a sore thumb.”
At the same time, she was a scholarship student, studying for a master’s degree online, living off grants.
She needed a job.
A friend noticed a painting Brenner- Bukstein had done and suggested she teach art. At first, Brenner-Bukstein recoiled from the suggestion.
“I was really scared and I said, ‘I can’t do that!’” Out of desperation, she advertised on local community lists and, over the next three years, she taught art to more than 100 students.
Meanwhile, her parents, who had also been taking adult Jewish education classes, agreed to make aliya.
“My parents are amazing. They adore their grandson. They were willing to leave everything to be near me and my son.” Her parents’ aliya was delayed for three years while her father was being treated for colon cancer; today, the whole family is in Israel.
Brenner-Bukstein moved to Ra’anana a few months before her parents’ aliya so she could help them get settled. She left her thriving art business behind, but began to rebuild it in Ra’anana, where she met her husband. She married Stephen Bukstein in 2013 and moved to Rehovot.
Starting her art business a third time, Brenner-Bukstein had an epiphany.
“I remember teaching a class and I tried something new. I created a special method to teach any painting. I cannot tell you the confidence it gave my students!” The method she originated in class became the inspiration for her new business, running painting parties all over Israel.
Under the business name, Brenner-Bukstein does painting parties for groups and celebrations of all kinds. With her guidance, people who have never painted in their lives can create a work of art. The experience is guided, but allows for personal creativity.
“I’m tapping onto the idea that anyone can paint,” she says about her business.
“I feel so blessed that I can do it every single day. My business is growing very fast right now. I’m so excited!” Brenner-Bukstein hasn’t forgotten the hard parts.
“I know it’s hard. I could have gone back a million times. My friends thought I went crazy. I’ve worked my butt off for everything here. In America, things come easier. Everything I have here I worked so hard for. Everything.”
Hers hasn’t been a straight path, but life for Brenner-Bukstein is deeply gratifying now.
“I’m really happy with where I am. I go to Torah classes. I go to Rosh Hodesh groups to learn. My husband and I are both newly religious, so we learn together. I think being religious, living in Israel, you have this connection, but you have to keep working on it. So I take on a little at a time.
“I don’t think I would have come if not for my son. He brought me here. Now I have a baby boy and a husband and a stepson who lives with us half the time. I love my life here. If you make the effort to be here, I think Hashem helps you.
“I don’t think people should be afraid of Israel. I have friends who want to come so badly but they’re afraid. You have to love the Land and not be afraid of it. If I could come here not knowing the language, not knowing anyone, with a small child, everyone can do it! Anyone can do it if they want to!”