Israel, doctor’s orders

“I believe I’m here for a unique purpose, which I’m in the process of discovering.”

Matthew Katz and Ronni Rabin (photo credit: DOVID DAVID)
Matthew Katz and Ronni Rabin
(photo credit: DOVID DAVID)
It wasn’t a Zionist dream that propelled Matthew “Mati” Katz and Ronni “Shoshana” Rabin to leave the familiar comforts of New Haven, Connecticut, for an uncertain future in Israel.
“Neither of us was brought up religious, and Zionism wasn’t part of our lexicon,” Katz explains. “I came here for my health.”
In 2007, Katz’s dermatologist prescribed a course of climatotherapy at the Dead Sea for his psoriasis. And after a month under the care of Dr. Marco Harari at the DMZ Medical Center at the Lot Hotel, Katz saw that the sun and minerals had worked their magic.
“Returning to the US clear of psoriasis in 18 days, I told everyone, ‘Wow, this is a miraculous place!’” Katz and Rabin’s two older daughters, Alexandra and Chana, had gone on a Taglit- Birthright trip earlier that same year, and Alex decided to remain for a semester at the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School. So the Dead Sea was Katz’s second trip to Israel; the first was a short visit with his girls.
“When I got to the Western Wall, at 53 years old, I started to cry,” Katz relates.
“I said to Alex, ‘Why don’t I feel like I’m on vacation?’ Her only response was, ‘Daddy, you’re not on vacation – you just came home!’” Yet he didn’t think about aliya until the results he experienced in August 2007 at the Dead Sea. Katz spent the next six years trying to return “home.” Putting his newfound passion into practice, he began a nonprofit called to spread the word about the Dead Sea’s healing powers, hoping to turn it into a medical tourism business.
Meanwhile, both Alex and Chana made aliya. Rabin, then the marketing director for Yale Alumni Magazine, had also made her first visit to Israel in 2007. She agreed to try life in Israel, but not until her husband became established.
So Katz made a “split aliya” in 2013, renting an apartment in a neighborhood of Ma’aleh Adumim that has a strong English-speaking community and people he already knew from business contacts.
As summer neared, Katz still wasn’t on his feet professionally. “I realized I couldn’t be without Ronni. Then, our youngest daughter, Sophia, announced that she wanted to spend the summer at a film program in Jerusalem.” This became the breakthrough factor for Rabin, who found herself alone in Connecticut for seven months while the rest of her family was in Israel – including during the Gaza war.
“It was harrowing,” she says. “I realized that if there are that many people in the world who hate us, then I don’t want to live alone in such a world. I would rather be with my people in Israel, even if rockets are being shot at us!” With much trepidation, Katz returned to New Haven to help sell the house, and the couple booked a September Nefesh B’Nefesh charter flight. “We had no absolute flow of income allowing me to leave my job, and we realized we couldn’t sell our house quickly. In total faith, we decided to just put it out there, telling everyone we were leaving. The truth was, we didn’t know how it was going to come together,” Rabin recalls.
Indeed, they delayed their flight one month hoping for some kind of miracle – and it started to become evident. That month, Rabin’s boss agreed to her proposal to telecommute temporarily from Israel. Her father generously helped them out financially, and the icing on the cake happened at a Yom Kippur break-fast, where someone expressed interest in renting the Katz-Rabin house.
“Things obviously started to line up, and I felt Hashem [God] was speaking to me,” reveals Rabin. “So we got on the plane.”
Katz is now building, a social media and inbound-marketing consultancy to help nonprofits take advantage of Google Ad Grants.
This company offers a system to promote donations, volunteers and advocates for nonprofits that qualify to receive a Google grant worth $10,000 per month in AdWords. Katz qualified for his Google grants in 2010, and reports that web traffic to grew from a few hundred to 1.6 million visitors in five years.
The consultancy’s name is inspired by American folk hero Johnny Appleseed, who went around planting seeds for others. “That’s how I feel about what we are doing,” says Katz. “You reach a place in life where you want to plant something for other people.”
With the help of business consultant Chaya Bender, provided by MATI – the Jerusalem Business Development Center, was launched first for Israeli nonprofits, and later worldwide.
Katz continues to evolve HealthRight- as a wellness division of Aplseeds.
Rabin recently began working as director of advertising and sales for, a company founded by chef and cookbook author Jamie Geller.
Yet she admits that Israel does not yet feel like home. “It’s a huge paradigm shift to pick yourself up and leave a solid job and community. Then again, we always felt that life in New Haven wasn’t enough,” she recounts. “I believe I’m here for a unique purpose, which I’m in the process of discovering.”
She de-stresses from culture shock with fun and exercise. “When I get out and play a good game of tennis, do yoga or walk the dog, it really changes my mood. Shabbat with friends, a good coffee, a museum and mostly seeing our beautiful daughters for a day of shopping, gets rid of any negativity.”
Eldest daughter Alex, now 27, is married and living in Jerusalem, teaching English and completing her master’s degree at Bar-Ilan University in creative writing and poetry. Chana, 25, is working as a nanny and hair stylist while becoming a certified dance teacher and counselor/ life coach. She also lives in Jerusalem with Sophia, 18, who’s in seminary and applying to the Hebrew University.
Each of their girls decided, on their own, to follow the Lubavitch way of life, which the family first experienced in Ithaca, New York, during the 1990s.
The Katz family had its first traditional Shabbat there with the directors of the Cornell University Chabad, Rabbi Eli and Chana Silberstein.
“We didn’t become religious overnight, but something clicked in us,” remembers Rabin. “When we left Chabad of Ithaca we felt alone and wanted to rekindle that Shabbat experience. So we started lighting candles, buying halla and slowly embracing Judaism at the most basic level. In retrospect, it was a remarkable beginning for a family still on that journey.”
Her husband adds: “We’re together through thick and thin, riding the wave of life, knowing that at the end of the day it’s all going to be okay. We have ups and downs but we can talk about it. That’s what really makes us successful as a couple.”