The sound of success

Mandel says her parents’ approach of “huge openness and acceptance of all of us as individuals” made her feel comfortable in her spiritual transition.

Erika Mandel (photo credit: AVI MENDEL)
Erika Mandel
(photo credit: AVI MENDEL)
If you ask Erika Shechter Mandel what she appreciates about Israel, one answer would surely be the very fact that she can hear the question.
Mandel was born with mild hearing loss that never affected her much. But after she made aliya in 2011 at age 23, the impairment grew more severe. As she was struggling to become fluent in Hebrew and find a job in her field of social work, the problem became unbearable. Many employment possibilities vanished when she could not clearly discern the words during the initial phone call.
Encouraged by her friends and her new husband, Avi Mandel, she received a cochlear implant in May, and it was activated in June. Now, with a discreet hearing aid on the right and the implant on the left, her ears are adjusting to a new world of sound. The surgery, which would have cost about $50,000 in the United States, was free in Israel.
“Throughout this implant procedure, I’ve been blown away by the healthcare system,” she says. “Someone told me Israelis are ready to do anything to enhance quality of life, whether it’s financial benefits or tools, and that’s incredible.”
This is not to say that her entire immigration experience has been smooth sailing. She arrived entirely on her own, expecting to chill out for up to a year after earning her master’s degree in social work at Columbia University, and she decided to stay even though she had no immediate family in Israel. The first month, she lived in her relatives’ Bnei Brak storage room; she has moved often since then and has worked at many jobs – secretary, publicist, babysitter, social worker for recovering addicts – to make ends meet.
Yearning to define her spiritual path, she attended three different Torah-study programs for women.
But Mandel seems to have internalized the words of Ben Zoma from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): “Who is rich? One who is happy with his lot.” It is an axiom she first heard in the famous Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva while on a Jewish fellowship program in Poland and Israel during graduate school. This proverb stuck with her, as did something her guide said at Auschwitz.
“He said we should look around and realize a miracle was happening. We didn’t understand what he meant. He said, ‘The miracle is that you all walked in here, and in five minutes you’re walking out.’ That really put things in perspective for me about who we are as a people, who we are as a nation.”
She and her three brothers were raised in Florida by parents who had both emigrated from Israel as children. The family did not speak Hebrew at home, but she learned the basics in day school.
“My family was very traditional, though not religious,” she explains.
“There was a lot of Jewish and Israeli pride. Yet through high school and university, I was almost anti-religion.”
Nevertheless, upon moving to New York City after college, “I was always seeking more out of people and relationships and activities. I had no idea what that ‘more’ was, but I was looking for it.”
The fellowship experience awakened her Jewish identity, and when she didn’t find a job after graduate school, she decided to go to Israel on a three-week learning and touring program. Unexpectedly she immediately found employment at a nonprofit in north Tel Aviv. When she approached the Interior Ministry for a work visa, they reminded her that she was a citizen thanks to her parents, and handed her a national ID card instead. In an anticlimactic way, she had just made aliya.
“I never had a hard time adjusting to life in Israel, almost to the point where intrinsically I always felt more Israeli than American,” she says.
Five months later, she quit her job and moved to Jerusalem, close to her father’s roots. “People thought I was crazy to leave a well-paying job. But it was time to go learn Torah.”
Among the experiences that ensued was a month living in a caravan in Gush Etzion, learning in the B’erot Bat Ayin women’s seminary.
“That month changed everything about my life,” she says.
It led not only to a short-term PR job at B’erot, but also to meeting her husband to- be at a housewarming party of someone she’d met months before at Bat Ayin.
Shortly before the party – which she nearly didn’t attend because of a bad cold – she had prayed to meet a man who’d grown up in Israel with American parents.
Her eye was drawn to Avi Mandel the minute she spotted him at the party, singing and strumming a ukulele. At the time, he was a student at Yeshivat Otniel in the Hebron Hills. The Israeli-born son of American parents now attends Herzog College in Alon Shvut.
“I really wanted to have a conversation with him, but he didn’t notice me at all,” she recalls. “A few weeks later, I went to Safed for Shabbat, and there he was, staying with mutual friends. I already wanted to marry him, and he still had no idea who I was.”
Over the next three months, she and Avi often saw one another walking near the Mahaneh Yehuda shuk in the evenings.
They became friendly, and he discovered a woman he now describes as “smart, beautiful, outgoing, joyful and inspiring.” Several months later, he proposed in the same spot where they had kept bumping into each other.
After their November 2014 wedding, she joined her husband at Yeshivat Yesodei Hatorah near Beit Shemesh, where they served as “house parents.” The couple will be moving back to Jerusalem following a trip abroad to visit family.
Mandel says her parents’ approach of “huge openness and acceptance of all of us as individuals” made her feel comfortable in her spiritual transition. “Once [I was] becoming more observant, my visits home were always greeted with warmth and respect and appreciation for my path. I’m aware that it is a huge blessing. I truly believe this unconditional backing has been instrumental in me developing the confidence to pursue my dreams and passions.”
Marrying into the Mandel family has been another source of blessing.
“They are wonderful, amazing people who have made the concept of ‘home’ a reality and eased the longing of being so far from my immediate family,” she says.
As for pursuing dreams and passions, she took a three-month ulpan for medical professionals and landed a part-time position with the Welfare and Social Services Ministry, making home visits to the elderly – including many Holocaust survivors. She considers her current boss a role model and mentor, describing her as “an incredible social worker and professional” devoted to her employees with exceptional warmth.
After her rehabilitation following the cochlear implant is complete, Mandel will consider full-time work options.
In the future, she confides, she’d like to establish a spiritual retreat center for young adults with chronic or life threatening illnesses, incorporating activities such as adventure therapy and music therapy along with Torah study within a supportive community.
“I find there are many opportunities for challenge and growth together here in Israel,” she says.