Veterans: Reaching one’s full potential

Ari (Yehuda Aryeh) Pollack, 29, from New York to the Golan Heights, 2004.

Ari Pollack and his son Benayahu in the Kerem Meirav vineyard (photo credit: Courtesy)
Ari Pollack and his son Benayahu in the Kerem Meirav vineyard
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Many American Jewish teenagers come and serve in the IDF, motivated by Zionism and the lure of a meaningful challenge – but not all of them stay after their discharge.
When Ari Pollack arrived just two weeks after his 2004 graduation from the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns in Long Island, New York, he had no doubt that he would build his life in Israel. Of course, he did not yet know that he would become an information systems engineer and a boutique vintner. That came years later.
“Aliya was just something I wanted to do,” said the youngest of six siblings from Belle Harbor, N.Y.
“I always spoke about it in school. I argued with my teachers about how they should be making aliya. I was like a rebel in a good way. A lot of my friends said I was just a big talker, so my first chance to go, I did it.”
His brother Michael was already living in Israel, so Pollack stayed with him for a few weeks and then went to Avnei Eitan in the Golan Heights to attend a brandnew pre-army academy for eight months.
In fact, he was the first student to sign up.
“It was a great program because we were very involved with the community there. I wasn’t in an American ghetto in Israel. I told everyone I spoke only Hebrew, even though I didn’t know Hebrew well at all. That’s how I learned quickly.”
He served 18 months in the Kfir infantry brigade, officially making aliya about halfway through his service.
Then the disengagement from Gaza in the summer of 2005 changed his life forever, even though he wasn’t actually there.
“My brother Michael was living in Gush Katif for two months before the disengagement with three other families in the same house,” he explains.
One of those families, from Hebron, had a daughter named Meirav. About a year later, Michael introduced his 19-year-old brother to Meirav and they soon wed.
She was just shy of 18.
The idealistic young couple had no desire for a fancy American-style wedding.
Pollack posted a public invitation on his army base, and perfect strangers showed up for the ceremony in the Cave of the Patriarchs and the reception on the basketball court of a local yeshiva. It was exactly the wedding they wanted.
For the next four months, they lived in his parents’ Jerusalem holiday apartment.
Pollack came home on weekends.
After completing his service, he accepted a job as a counselor in his pre-military academy in the Golan, which by then had grown to 27 students.
His co-counselor was Tomer Pnini, son of a Jordan Valley date and olive farmer.
The two became best friends. The following year, Pnini purchased his own farm near Itamar and told Pollack he wanted to start a vineyard.
“I asked Meirav if we could use some of our wedding money to give him a loan. She was very into agriculture and the ideology of working the land of Israel, and we both thought it was important.”
Meanwhile, Pollack began studying engineering at Kinneret College, paying his way with several side jobs.
“We lived a very simple life for the next four years. There were no supermarkets and no buses where we lived. I don’t think we ever bought bread,” he recalls.
“My wife would make bread every couple of days. But after I finished college, my wife wanted to be near her parents, so we moved near a nature reserve in Tekoa in Gush Etzion. I found a job in a telecom company in Beit Shemesh developing software and databases.”
One early spring day in 2012, tragedy struck when Meirav fell from a precipice while hiking and suffered fatal injuries.
Her young husband was suddenly a single father with three preschoolers.
“Life changes pretty quickly. It’s a crazy thing and you just have to try to make the best of it,” says Pollack philosophically.
As a memorial tribute, Pnini renamed his vineyard Kerem Meirav, and Pollack began taking an active role in making and marketing wines from the grapes grown there.
“I feel blessed to be part of it,” he says. “I don’t do it for any profit. I work in high-tech, so I have a need to be connected to the ground.”
The first vintage from Tom Winery, about 600 bottles in 2013, sold out within two weeks. In 2014 the winery produced five barrels’ worth of four varieties: Shiraz, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
“We do everything very naturally, by hand. The grapes are grown without pesticides and the sheep take care of the weeds. The wine has no additives and the smallest amount of sulfites to keep it from spoiling. We try to be about quality, not quantity.”
During the shmita [sabbatical year] just past, Pollack put out the word on social media that the grapes on Kerem Meirav were free for picking.
“People from all over the place showed up and either took the grapes home or to the winery in Tomer’s backyard and we made wine for them. It is the way shmita was meant to be – a social justice project – because in the old days farmers were the rich class and during this year everyone could enjoy their bounty.”
Pollack juggles his time between Tom Winery near Itamar, graduate studies in business administration at Ben-Gurion University, his career in software development and his duties as a father in Tekoa. He treasures his community for its wide variety of religious and secular residents ranging from musicians and artists to high-tech executives. The family lives on Rehov Hasimha – Happiness Street.
Pollack says that his eldest child, Chana Yehudit, 9, is tenderly maternal toward her brothers Benayahu, 7, and Binyamin, 5.
“She puts them to sleep, reads to them and even massages them with olive oil. Since she was 8, she’s been doing a camp for kids outside the synagogue and everyone listens to her,” he says with a smile.
Some of his relatives and friends in the States urged him to return after Meirav passed away.
“After a tragedy you feel much more alone and it hits you, the things you’re missing,” Pollack acknowledges.
“But my decision to stay in Israel is not just for me; it’s for the future generations of my family. It is amazing being here, even if it’s a little bit harder. It’s here that the Jewish people thrive, where my children are speaking our own language, and that is something I am proud of.”
As a vintner, he adds, he relates strongly to a particular passage in Rabbi Yehuda Halevi’s 12th century work The Kuzari comparing the Jewish people flourishing in their land to a grapevine flourishing in the proper soil.
“It blossoms and will come to its full potential only here,” says Pollack.