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Adjusting to Israeli Life a Year After Making Aliyah

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Sara Benuck, age 8, who immigrated to Israel with her family a little over a year ago from the United States, comes into the kitchen and thrusts a take-home science test in front of her mother. “What does this mean?” she asks, pointing out a long question in Hebrew about how electricity works. Her mother, Marni, a trained psychologist, tries to make sense of the Hebrew but then passes the test on to her husband, a doctor, who goes word by word through the question and helps translate it for Sara.

“Sometimes it’s a very humiliating experience doing homework with the kids” says Marni, 35, a mother of four. “But we show them we struggle too but are not giving up. We will persist.”

The Benucks made aliyah from their home in Passaic, N.J. They had good jobs, a spacious house and their children were happy in school. But they had always wanted to make their life in Israel, so they sold their home, packed up their books, the children’s toys, the cherry wood dining room set and matching dark green leather couches and set off to live their dream.

Theirs is a story of planning, realistic expectations and happy landings.

Before they even made aliyah, the couple visited Israel on a pilot trip and chose a community — Beit Shemesh, a town in the Jerusalem foothills that has become an increasingly popular residence for American olim — and even decided which home they would buy a two-story townhouse still under construction on the end of a quiet street.

There were delays and not everything went as planned. The townhouse, for example, was supposed to be completed by last November, but the Benucks only received the keys in July.

But, Mitchell, 36, says, “We had realistic expectations that not everything would go well.”

The couple’s first goal was to find work — a process that proved easier than expected. Marni, who worked as a school psychologist at a Jewish day school in New Jersey, was offered a job through Beit Shemesh’s municipality to work at two fervently Orthodox schools before they even arrived. The municipality noted her credentials through a posting on a Web site sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh.

Mitchell is one of a group of North American physicians who have immigrated to Israel with their families as an Applebaum Fellow. The program is in memory of Dr. David Applebaum, a Chicago-born Israeli doctor who served as head of emergency services at Jerusalem’s Sha’arei Zedek Hospital until he and his daughter, Nava, were killed in a suicide bombing at a Jerusalem café in 2003, on the eve of her wedding. As an Applebaum Fellows of Nefesh B’Nefesh — a North American organization funded by private, philanthropic sources, and the Jewish Agency for Israel — the Benucks receive financial and logistical support of up to $18,000 toward beginning anew in Israel.

According to a recent survey commissioned by JAFI of North American olim who just passed their one-year mark in Israel, 90 percent describe themselves as either “satisfied” or “quite satisfied” with their arrival into Israeli society. More than a quarter, however, have yet to find job.

Mitchell, a pediatrician, says he feels lucky to have found work in Beit Shemesh working at one of the national health funds. Before he could look for a job, however, he had to get his Israeli medical license. There were some bureaucratic delays such as the Ministry of Health temporarily losing his American license, but fairly quickly a committee convened and determined he would have to do three months of work in an Israeli hospital emergency room before he could be accredited.

Now, medical license in hand, he spends his days working shifts at four different clinics of one of the national health funds in Beit Shemesh. Last week he could be found in a bright, airy office with dangling butterfly and zebra mobiles stethoscope slung around his neck and wearing a Bugs Bunny tie inquiring about the X-ray for a young boy.

The medicine he is practicing in Israel is very different from what he did as an attending physician at a major New Jersey hospital but that, he says, has more to do with the difference between working in a hospital environment and an outpatient clinic.

Two of the clinics service fervently Orthodox neighborhoods, the other two mixed neighborhoods of immigrants from North America, the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia and local Israeli-born residents.

When it comes to his and his wife’s new jobs, there is a “significant difference in take-home salaries,” said Mitchell, but there is one major expense they no longer have to worry about tuition for their children at private Jewish day schools.

Last Tuesday he finished his morning shift at the clinic on Bar-Ilan Street and walked outside into the warm sunshine to pick up his two youngest children from day care. Marveling at the weather, he smiled and said, “I hope to not lift a shovel again in my life.”

Mitchell then walked a few blocks away to pick up the youngest member of the Benuck family and the only one to be born in Israel — Shoshana Meira — or Shani for short. She was born just two months after the Benucks made aliyah and was named for Marni’s close friend, Shoshana Greenbaum, who had been the maid of honor at the couple’s wedding. She was killed in the suicide bombing of the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem in August 2001.

Once Shani is in hand, Mitchell walks another few blocks to collect Yonatan, age 5, from his nursery school. Most of Yonatan’s classmates, like him, are the children of American immigrants.

“They are more polite and relaxed. Israeli-born children are more aggressive,” says his teacher, Michal Hadad. Yonatan, after his 15 months in the country, speaks Hebrew without an accent.

“Abba, look at my picture,” he says, pointing out his artwork of the day hanging on the wall.

Meanwhile his teacher thanks Mitchell for the referral to a good orthopedist who has been helping her with her back problems.

The oldest Benuck child, 10-year-old Eli, joins his father and two youngest siblings on the walk home. They pass newly planted palm trees in traffic circles and low stone walls that line the sidewalks.

When they reach their home on Gad Street, they wave to neighbors — most of them also recent American olim — and then push open the front door, walking past the dark wood side table covered with framed family photos. The table was originally part of a display cabinet that did not make the move when the family realized it would not fit in their new, slightly snugger surroundings.

After lunch, the children settle down for an afternoon of homework with the help of first Mitchell and then Marni when she returns home from work.

Eli, wearing a New York Yankees baseball cap, sits in a corner of the Benuck home’s combined living room and dining room and thumbs through a book in English, explaining that he still prefers to read in his native tongue. But, he says, he is adjusting to reading books and doing schoolwork in Hebrew. He figures he only understands about two-thirds of what he reads in Hebrew.

One of Eli’s new friends, a fellow immigrant from the United States who came a year before he did, is helping him and that, he says, is making a difference Of America, says Eli, “I miss my friends. I kind of miss my school.”

At his new school he is not an anomaly as an immigrant. Many of his classmates are the children of parents from English-speaking countries, and there are also children from France and Hungary.

And there are advantages to being a kid in Israel, he says. “You can play in the street on Shabbos, you can get a taxi without a grown-up and you can ride the public bus. Kids are more independent.”

Another added plus: going to the center of town to eat pizza with friends without having your mother or father take you. Another addition to the Benucks’ life that Eli is thrilled about is that one set of his grandparents — Marni’s parents — now live just a few blocks away, instead of the 3,000 miles away when they all lived in America.

Marni’s parents made aliyah three months ago from their home in Los Angeles, in large part to be near their grandchildren. They said they have met other grandparents like them who moved to Israel to be closer to their children and grandchildren.

“These are choices that are not easy to make,” says Sharlene Balter, Marni’s mother. “But when I walk down the street and see my grandson going to the park or my granddaughter coming over, this is why we are doing this.”

In the backyard the Benuck children swing on their new swing set and laugh and play.

“I think there is less stress than people imagine there would be our life is day-to-day. We have jobs to go to, a supermarket to shop in. We’ve settled into a routine and it is here,” says Mitchell, who is especially looking forward to voting in Israel in the upcoming elections.

And after over a year break since they made aliyah, it’s back to Tuesday night “Grill Night.” It’s time for hamburgers and a taste of America in their new Israeli backyard.

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