Aliya Stories: Roll of the dice

A Jew who had become far-removed from his Jewishness took a chance, made aliya and discovered that ‘the Jewish soul gets pulled here.’

Mike Wagenheim at the i24news studio in Jaffa (photo credit: JESSI SATIN)
Mike Wagenheim at the i24news studio in Jaffa
(photo credit: JESSI SATIN)
Vladimir Putin might be surprised to know he was one of the forces that propelled Mike Wagenheim to pick up and move to Israel despite never having set foot in the Jewish state.
Wagenheim was ready for a new challenge after a couple of years as assistant athletic director for communications at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana. He applied to the Peace Corps and was offered a position in Ukraine in 2014, but the Peace Corps had to evacuate that locale because of the Russian military incursion.
So, thanks to Putin, Wagenheim cast about for a new destination. Eventually, he homed in on a novel notion he noticed during a Google search: aliya.
“I had very little background in Judaism and very little knowledge of Israel. I hadn’t been with my family for the holidays in Philadelphia in years, and there was no Jewish presence in Thibodaux,” he says.
“I didn’t know anybody in Israel,” he goes on. “But the more I looked into aliya, the more it intrigued me, so I decided to roll the dice. They say the Jewish soul gets pulled here, and I understand that.”
Before heading for the airport on August 26, 2015, Wagenheim met with Nefesh B’Nefesh and Jewish Agency representatives and connected with Israelis in the broadcasting field through LinkedIn.
He also went on a Jewish dating website and “met” Hila, an Israeli occupational therapist from Herzliya. They had their first date soon after his arrival in Israel and are now husband and wife.
Their daughter, Ella, was born last September.
“Hila has been the most important thing that’s happened to me in Israel, a major reason behind any of my successes,” he says.
Wagenheim spent five months at an absorption center in Ra’anana before landing his first job in early January at Israel News Talk Radio. He got the tip through a LinkedIn connection who told him that Tamar Yonah was seeking a news presenter for her fledgling radio station. He had been a sports reporter in the States, but he convinced Yonah that he was a quick study.
“Broadcasting in English in Israel is a rare opportunity, so I had to take it,” he says. “She took a chance on me and I became the morning news anchor and eventually the marketing coordinator as well. It was a wonderful experience and still helps me in my everyday life here.”
Wagenheim fell into sports reporting, like aliya, serendipitously. While a teenage undergraduate at West Virginia University – where he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sports management – he approached the student radio station hoping to be an investigative reporter. The only opening was in sports.
“I was always a sports junkie; I just never thought I could make a career out of it,” he explains. “Everything fell into place and I got opportunities to get on the air in my junior year. Sixteen years later, I’m still doing what I love to do.”
Since December 1, he has been a reporter with i24news, and recently was appointed to be one of the station's diplomatic correspondents.
“Stepping into that newsroom every day is wonderful. TV is a much different medium than radio, but I’d done it before so it wasn’t a big learning curve,” says Wagenheim, who has interviewed American and European politicians and did a live Christmas Day report from Bethlehem.
He has kept a hand in sports as the head middle-school baseball coach at the Walworth Barbour American International School in Even Yehuda. He is also a referee with the Israel Basketball Association and a volunteer coach and umpire with the Israel Association of Baseball.
In his umpiring capacity, he represented Israel in the European Baseball Championships in June 2016.
“The first time I heard my name followed by the word ‘Israel’ was one my favorite moments since arriving here,” he says. “One of the great things about living in a small country is that you can make so much more of an impact than you can in a large country in a short amount of time. I like being a part of Israel’s developing baseball program.”
Last November, Wagenheim also launched an online business, Sportscast Coach.
“I really enjoy teaching, so I decided to open a consulting business teaching sportscasting for the North American market,” he states. “Clients send me their material and I identify strengths and weaknesses, and help devise a strategy for improvement. I’m teaching broadcasters in a Midwest league throughout the season, and also have a bunch of individual clients.”
Wagenheim says his relatives back in the States were “surprised but very supportive” of his decision to move to Israel.
“Even though they didn’t really understand, there was never any judgment; they gave me their blessing,” he relates.
His mother, his father and stepmother, his sister, uncle, aunt and cousin all flew in for his April 2016 wedding in Tel Aviv.
Wagenheim and his wife communicate mainly in English.
“I like to say that my Hebrew is getting better by the day,” he says. “Having an extended Israeli family helps. I can read signs and I can often make out what people are saying, but when I’m speaking I don’t have enough vocabulary yet.”
He’s also learning the language of Israeli bureaucracy.
“I came here with an American attitude toward customer service and orderliness,” he notes. “Hila told me to change that attitude or I’d get steamrollered.
It took me a long time to accept that instead of being nice and polite, you have to stand up for yourself and not get pushed around.”
On the positive side, Wagenheim has been pleased to find rewarding employment so quickly.
“I came here with nothing, not knowing anybody, but it can be done if you have the right attitude,” he says. “In a young country so open to the future, you don’t have to fend off so many people for every opportunity; you just have to find your niche and an opening in that niche. It’s not easy here, but it’s more possible.”
While he was still in Ra’anana, Wagenheim became friendly with an Orthodox resident, Don Kates, and often accompanied him to synagogue and went to his home for Shabbat meals.
“I grew up Reform and had a certain view of Orthodox Jews as stodgy and rigid, but there in Ra’anana, I found the most caring, warm, open people,” he explains.
“It changed my entire outlook on religion and I wanted to know more and more,” he goes on. “I started studying Torah an hour each day and reestablished my connection to Judaism, which had been lost since bar mitzva age. I think I’m becoming a better person each day because of what I’m learning about how to treat people and live daily life.”
Wagenheim once heard a story about a rabbi who died at 56 and was nevertheless eulogized as having lived “long days” because he “squeezed as much as possible into every second of every day.”
“I love that approach to life,” he exclaims.