David Winer (far right) with family. Winer formerly owned Adea’s Middle Eastern restaurant in Salem. The family moved to Israel this past winter.

At any age, Boston-area Jews find hope and community in Israel

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At any age, Boston-area Jews find hope and community in Israel

David Winer (far right) with family. Winer formerly owned Adea’s Middle Eastern restaurant in Salem. The family moved to Israel this past winter.

“Forward to the east to Zion,” goes the refrain in “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem. Every year, at least 3,000 North Americans take that sentiment literally, making aliyah to settle in the Jewish state.

Even as political turbulence roils the nation with protests, the Zionist dream holds allure. In fact, North American emigration to Israel shot up by more than one-third last year, while the 70,000 global arrivals marked a 23-year high, with the majority of new immigrants coming from war-stressed Russia and Ukraine.

The Americans are college students and recent graduates, young families and grandparents, secular and religious. Some come in pairs or groups, drawing strength from a shared challenge. Many Americans wait until retirement to realize their aliyah dream, since finding employment in a new country is complicated and Israeli salaries are lower.

Most of them are guided through the process by an organization like Nefesh B’Nefesh, a nonprofit that works with the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Government of Israel to promote and facilitate aliyah. Nefesh B’Nefesh coordinates everything from the one-way flight to assistance with immigration documents, the free Hebrew classes known as “ulpan,” housing, employment, taxes and more.

And every year, some of those new olim – as immigrants to Israel are called – hail from the Boston area. They trade long, snowy winters for a sunny Mediterranean climate – a change virtually all cite as a perk – but also struggle to master Hebrew and cut through the notoriously thick tape of Israeli bureaucracy for everything from healthcare to public schools. As one Boston-area transplant, David Winer, put it: “They say that if America is a melting pot, Israel is a pressure cooker.”

Nevertheless, having realized the hope that gives “Hatikvah” its name, these olim aren’t looking back. Here are some of their stories.

David Winer

David Winer has made aliyah twice. The first time, he was 25, footloose in New York City. A dozen years later, having realized another dream – opening his own kosher restaurant back home in Massachusetts – Winer returned to Israel for good, this time as a father of three.

“We always knew we’d be back,” said Winer, who now lives outside Tel Aviv in Ramat Gan. His wife, Adina, made aliyah as a child from Ethiopia with Operation Solomon, and her large extended family lives in Ramat Gan.

Winer grew up in what he describes as a “traditional” Jewish family in Swampscott. He first visited Israel with a Lappin Foundation tour at age 16, then returned for a 2007 family trip. A few years later, he and a brother “just kind of picked up and came to Israel with two duffel bags,” Winer recalled. “I was 25, living in New York City, and just decided to try something new.”

With a degree in hospitality management from UMass Amherst and a lengthy restaurant resume, Winer had no trouble finding work in a cafe, eventually becoming manager. The Hebrew he learned at what is now Epstein Hillel Academy came in handy – though “kitchens are a universal language,” he observed.

Once their two daughters were born, however, David and Adina wanted their children to get to know David’s family and home culture. They moved back to Massachusetts in 2016, had a son and opened Adea’s, a kosher vegan Israeli restaurant in Salem. Earlier this year, Winer sold the eatery and now works at an Italian restaurant in Tel Aviv.

The seaside metropolis “is the only place in Israel I could see myself living,” reflected Winer, most of whose friends are Israelis. “I like the city speed of life.”

He also loves that Israel provides a nurturing environment for raising Jewish families. “Passover and Rosh Hashanah are off, while December 25 is just another day,” he said. “That’s so cool.”

Ellen Levine

Ellen Levine moved from Swampscott to Jerusalem in 2021. Here she holds a sign at a recent protest that reads, “‘Religious Jews also believe in Democracy.”

Ellen Levine’s 2021 aliyah from Swampscott was decidedly bittersweet. For many years, Levine and her husband, whom she met at Brandeis and describes as “my life,” had planned and dreamed of moving to Israel in 2021, when his Social Security kicked in.

That plan shattered when Joel Levine died in November 2020. “They always say, when you lose your spouse, don’t make big decisions for the first year,” recalled Levine, 65. “But a month after he died, I just said, ‘I can’t live in this house anymore. I can’t live in this town anymore.’”

In July 2021, she settled near her husband’s large extended family in Jerusalem. “We were planning to make aliyah because we loved Israel, but it was really family more than anything,” explained Levine, who grew up Reform and happily adopted Joel’s Orthodox lifestyle.

Having lived on a kibbutz in her early twenties, Levine already knew enough Hebrew to navigate Israeli bureaucracy. The grief, however, was at times insurmountable. “Every time I saw my doctor or dealt with anything complicated, I broke down and cried,” recalled Levine, who also lost a brother in 2021 and her father in 2022.

Slowly but determinedly, she has built a new life. Having traded suburban car dependence for city life, Levine enjoys walking to errands in sunny Jerusalem. She cherishes the friends she’s made in her ulpan class, as she brushes up her rusty Hebrew.

Levine relishes the song and community she’s found at her Carlebach-style shul and plans to return to violin teaching, the profession she loves. And she arrived at the perfect moment to carry on a family tradition she has cherished for decades: liberal activism. “I go to every protest I can,” she reported.

While the Levines’ two grown daughters, in Boston and New Jersey, were “very much against” her move, there are regular visits – and Levine hasn’t ruled out moving back for eventual grandchildren. “But right now, my life will be richer with a lot of family around,” she reflected. “I deliberately spent a lot of money on a large apartment. I hosted 23 relatives for the Passover Seder, and it was a wonderful feeling.”

Elana Rozenfeld

Elana Rozenfeld, (back left) and her family made aliyah in 2020. They live near Haifa.

For Elana Rozenfeld, making aliyah was so compelling that she was willing to sacrifice the career she adored. Rozenfeld had been a cantor at New York’s Park Avenue Synagogue and later at Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, and directed the cantorial program at Hebrew College in Newton.

But “cantor isn’t really a profession here,” said Rozenfeld, 40, from her home in the countryside east of Haifa. Most synagogues are Orthodox, and Jewish law frowns on women singing before men.

Yet Rozenfeld, 40, always dreamed of living in Israel. “I always felt more Israeli than American,” reflected the New York native, who grew up singing Hatikvah, rather than the Star-Spangled Banner, at her Jewish day school. When she studied in Israel for a year of cantorial school, “it was a feeling of being at home. I didn’t want to leave.”

Once she married Raphael Rozenfeld, a French Jew, aliyah became a regular topic of conversation.“But between family and career, we were never both on the same page,” Rozenfeld said. What changed that was rising antisemitism. “In 2020, we were like, okay, it’s time to go,” the cantor said.

Later that year, her own parents followed suit. Their parallel move made the transition easier, as did Rozenfeld’s large extended family in Israel, including a branch that settled in the 1930s and an uncle and cousins who made aliyah a few years back.

Still, coming from a spacious suburban house, “I knew I had to consider living smaller,” said Rozenfeld. “We didn’t know if I would have a career again.” The couple had prepared to live on savings for a year, though thanks to the pandemic, Raphael was able to keep his job remotely at a Massachusetts biotech firm.

Their new home suits their lifestyle, surrounded by nature and far from the high rents and frenzy of city life. The Rozenfeld children have settled into school in Hebrew – though Israel’s shorter school days have been a challenge for their parents. Raphael Rozenfeld now works with several startups, while his wife has found employment as a voice teacher and a bar and bat mitzvah tutor, working on Zoom with American clients and with Israeli girls who traditionally lack access to Torah training. Rozenfeld also sings with a Dixieland band – “Israelis love fun music” – and recently debuted an album of original songs.

“My friend, who made aliyah a few years before from the same area, told me the key is knowing that you’re not living in America,” Rozenfeld noted. “Things will be different.” They are, she added, and that’s fine with her.

Rachel Osher and Sarah Makhluf

Sarah Makhluf and Rachel Osher grew up together in Peabody, and made aliyah after finishing college in Israel. They live in Tel Aviv.

In 2011, Rachel Osher and Sarah Makhluf boarded a flight to Tel Aviv from Logan Airport, ready for a new adventure. At the time Rachel was 21, and Sarah was 20, and they had a lot in common: Both had grown up with Israeli fathers and American mothers in Peabody, in families that attended Chabad of the North Shore. The two women were headed to Reichman University in Herzliya (formerly IDC Herzliya), where Osher’s older sister, Lana, was already studying; Makhluf’s brother had made aliyah a few years earlier as well.

Today, Makhluf, a freelance content writer, and Osher, who works in e-commerce marketing, remain close friends in Tel Aviv and are part of “an amazing group of fellow olim,” said Osher. Tel Aviv, added Makhluf, “is almost like its own country within Israel. People call it the Tel Aviv bubble.”

While both had family in Israel, Osher first visited Israel when she was 16, spending time in Ashdod with her “saba” (grandfather), who’d fought alongside Moshe Dayan in Israel’s early War of Independence. Makhluf, on the other hand, grew up making regular trips to Israel to see the extended family of her father, who is originally from Tripoli, Libya. After high school, she spent a gap year on a kibbutz, studying Hebrew. “Israel was really different from a small town in Massachusetts,” Makhluf said.

It wasn’t hard to get used to the balmy weather. “Last year, I went back to the States and was so cold the entire time,” said Osher.

But while the pair successfully escaped winter, the political polarization they’ve heard about in America for years has landed at their Tel Aviv doorsteps. “It’s really disheartening to see the country, I feel like, falling apart,” Osher said, referring to the heated controversy over proposed judicial reforms. “I don’t like how they basically want to destroy democracy.”

Meanwhile, Makhluf has found love, and is planning a June wedding in Tel Aviv. The two are still nearly inseparable, talk several times a day and live within a seven-minute walk from one another. The women are grateful about how far they’ve come in their adopted land.

“I was really fortunate to come so young, starting a job right after college,” said Osher. She remembers facing what she calls “the challenges you always read about on Facebook” – figuring out office culture, healthcare websites and rental contracts.

“I do feel like we’ve overcome them all,” she said. Θ

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