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North American Doctors Build New Lives After Moving to Israel

August 12, 2004
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A week after the Benuck family made aliyah from New Jersey, lunchtime at their house is cheese sandwiches, fruit and yogurt on a wobbly card table in an empty living room. The room’s only decoration is a poster explaining the administrative steps for immigrating to the Jewish state.

But there is good news, Mitchell Benuck reports: Despite a strike by Israeli port workers, the shipment of the family’s possessions has arrived in Ashdod. By next week they hope to be able to replace the card table, air mattresses and hot plate with their own furniture and appliances.

After all, this is his family’s home now, says Benuck, 34, a pediatrician from Passaic.

“I feel my life will be most fulfilled practicing medicine in this country and raising my kids in this country,” he says. “I would hate to miss out on this opportunity.

“For thousands of years people have risked their lives to get here. All I had to do was get on a! plane.”

Benuck is one of 15 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 cafe in 2003, on the eve of her wedding.

As Applebaum Fellows of Nefesh B’Nefesh — a North American organization funded by private, philanthropic sources — and the Jewish Agency for Israel, which helps provide financial and logistical support for olim, each family receives up to $18,000 toward making a new life in Israel.

The Applebaum Fellows were honored at an airport ceremony Wednesday welcoming the arrival of the third plane of North American immigrants this summer sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency. Among the fellows are an emergency room specialist, a surgeon, a pediatric ! nephrologist and a pediatric gastroenterologist.

“Israel has a str ong, equality-based health care system, a system of which we are proud,” Health Minister Danny Naveh told the newcomers. “We look forward to integrating you into our hospitals, clinics and health care facilities available around the country. The legacy of Dr. David Applebaum truly lives on, and we welcome you home.”

Meanwhile, far from the festive welcomes and speeches, the Benucks are organizing their new lives in Beit Shemesh, a rapidly growing city of almost 60,000 people in the foothills of Jerusalem.

They are renting a two-story apartment in a building where they have bought a garden apartment that is under construction.

The neighborhood of brand new stone cottages and townhouse-style apartments is made up largely of American immigrants. Children who play in the quiet streets speak to each other in English, while the adults trade tips on adjusting to life in Israel.

Today is turning out to be a productive day: Aside from the news about the shipment’s arri! val, a phone technician has delivered a modem so the family will soon have high-speed Internet access, and they got a surprise Sabbath invitation from a family they have yet to meet in person.

The Benucks’ eldest children, Eli, 9 and Sara, 7, spent the day studying Hebrew at a nearby Ulpan.

Marni Benuck, 33, is seven months pregnant with the couple’s fourth child, and she sets out to register at Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem.

“Good luck,” Mitchell Benuck calls out to his wife.

“Every trip is an adventure,” he says with a smile.

Marni Benuck, who worked as a school psychologist in the United States, acknowledges it would have been easier to give birth in the familiar surroundings of the New Jersey hospital where her husband worked, but after years of planning, the couple felt, now was the time to make the move.

Both Benucks come from Orthodox Zionist families and have planned to make aliyah since soon after they met and married 11 years ago. But firs! t, they decided, they would finish their educations and get work exper ience in the United States.

“There’s no practical reason to explain why we are here. I had a good job in the U.S., my husband had a good job in the U.S.,” said Marni Benuck, who grew up in Los Angeles. “We could have made a lot of money and been comfortable in the U.S. But you have to do what you think it’s right to do.”

The Benucks are among a growing number of North American Jews making aliyah despite the intifada and the country’s economic challenges.

Nearly 1,500 North Americans are moving to Israel this summer. Israeli officials expect some 3,000 total in all of 2004.

The numbers have been rising steadily since 2001, when 1,600 Jews immigrated from North America.

Mitchell Benuck said that in some ways he feels safer here than in the United States because of the security precautions taken in Israel. He also feels there are risks involved no matter where you choose to live.

Mike Rosenberg, the Jewish Agency’s director general for immigration and abso! rption, said the increase in North American immigrants can be explained on two levels.

“You have a lot of identified Jews in a sense feeling a calling for the flag, to their homeland,” he explains, and there also “is enlightened self-interest. People are beginning to realize if they want their kids and grandchildren to be Jewish, then the best place to bring them up is in Israel.”

Eli, the Benuck’s son, said he is happy to be in Israel. The Hebrew classes, bus rides, hot weather — it’s all good, he says.

Even the air mattress he sleeps on in a room he shares with his brother, Yonatan, 3, isn’t so bad.

“It’s a chavaya,” or an experience, he says, using the first Hebrew word his parents taught him.

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