The third in a series of articles on olim, features Devra Stark, a North American immigrant who reflects on religious life in Israel, marriage to another oleh and how it all comes together in Jerusalem.
WHO: Devra Stark, maiden name Wanetik, age 24, made aliyah on 11 October 2001 from West Bloomfield, Michigan. Along with her husband, also an immigrant from the US, they are baalei tshuvah, which is to say they have become religious. Devra’s BA, from Ohio State, and professional experience is in journalism. You might recognize her name from bylines from her time at The Jerusalem Report.
THE CALLING: "I came to Israel for the first time for my 7th birthday. It was our first family trip here. My father decided he loved Israel and wanted to live here. My mom wasn’t so into it, so he decided the best way to have a future in Israel was to indoctrinate his children with a love of the land so that we would end up here and then they’d HAVE to come to be with us. Pretty sneaky, but I guess it worked since both my brother and I made aliyahin the same year," Devra says of her Zionist roots.
And the second phase is going well too she says, "My mother likes it more and more each time she visits. She’s begun taking a map and getting lost to learn her way around Jerusalem. They have begun speaking more aboutaliyah being a part of their future."
LIFESTYLE: Devra and her husband share a one room flat at Merkaz Hamagshimim in the German Colony of Jerusalem. They chose this half-dorm, half-absorption center for their first year of married life because, "we wanted our first year of marriage to be a pluralistic one. As baalei tshuvah, it’s easy to jump into your new lifestyle and leave out the rest. I believe in tying it all together, so I felt that a year at the Merkaz would be a good way to ground ourselves before moving to a community where most people are more observant." She adds that she is amazed a spoiled brat from Michigan is satisfied with only one room where her main cooking appliance is a George Forman (who is not Jewish) Grill. The benefit of this, she points out, is, "I’ve just been able to focus more on what really matters and less on the material, mostly because I can’t afford the material to focus on!"
But, it’s not that Devra isn’t looking towards a future that includes more than one room and, perhaps, a stove, "I hope to get a job in journalism, work hard and continue to live within my means and be happy with what I have. I think the main thing I gained from living in Israel in terms of material belongings is that I don’t need more, more, more. I need what I need and not what I want, want, want. Not to say I’m not spoiled anymore, it’s just on a lower scale." Adding that, while in the States for the past month, "All I’ve purchased is some tsnius long sleeved shirts I was searching for (they also go down long enough so that you don’t see my stomach every time I move) and underwear. How crazy is that? Don’t worry, I’m planning on getting some new leather boots before I leave, but it’s a shock to me that the GAP is just not as appealing as it used to be."
WHAT ABOUT THE BEEMER: Making the claim that she made aliyah "the smart way" she explains, "I left the US immediately after college. That means I didn’t give up the high salary and nice apartment. Sure, I gave up the prospect of the high salary and nice apartment, but I never really had it to lose it. I don’t think I really sacrificed anything concrete." She goes on, "I gained a peaceful neshamah and a purpose in life. I know that sounds cheesy and whatever, but this is where my soul is at peace. Some people dig Chicago and some feel like LA was meant to be their home, for me, it’s Israel. As for the purpose, there’s just something about being here that makes me feel like I am making a difference. I read in a column recently that someone was asked why they stay here even though they have lost children to suicide bombers. Their answer was that in the US, life just passed by. In Israel, life passes through you. It’s real here; it’s not just about your car, your house and your income."
Commenting on this mother’s dead children as marks of a life of greater substance Devra offered, "Last time I checked, more Israelis died of cancer and driving incidents than bombers, right? So, really, before dealing with the ‘dead child’ issue, I’d like some hard facts letting me know the odds for myself, or my future offspring, being harmed by a suicide bomber. Not to sound like I’m unafraid. Hearing Café Hillel [on Emek Refaim Street] blow up while I was lying down to go to sleep one night wasn’t pleasant. Knowing that there are people surrounding me who want me dead isn’t a bed of roses. But they’re in the US too; we’re just blind to it. Americans pretend anti-Semitism away. Every time I go to Yad VaShem I think about how dangerous it is to live in America with the false sense of security that President Bush really cares about his Jewish population. Yeah right, he’d sell us out for oil."
FAMILY PAST: Unsurprisingly leaving family and friends behind has been one of the harder aspects of aliyah for Devra. Though they visit three times a year, she lives far away from her parents; and, then there’s also her grandparents, aunt and uncles that she misses. She says, "It’s tough not being there for my friends when they need me, not having them here to hug when I need them. I have friends here, but I’m not looking to replace the ones who live in the US."
FAMILY PRESENT: Family indoctrination runs deep, as such, Devra’s older brother moved here the same year she did. "It’s great to have my brother here though. Some people leave all of their family behind," she says, adding that she also has extended family in the country. And there’s the husband.
THE MARRIAGE: Devra and her husband met at the Chabad House at Ohio State. He made aliyah after Devra and the engagement came while she was working for Mayanot birthright Israel and he was studying at the Mayanot Institute of Jewish Studies. The wedding took place in the States, though, "I would have loved to have been married in Israel, but my husband has 21 first cousins and wanted to share his wedding with them," she states, adding that, "My husband travels to Ohio every few months to work, but I have just gone back for my first visit since the wedding. I think I feel the same way most olim feel, more comfortable in Israel.
COMFORT IN ISRAEL: "I have that whole unexplainable/indescribable love for Israel thing going on," Devra insists, adding that the best part of her new life is "just being here." Breaking the language barrier is all in a days work for Devra. She just finished intensive Hebrew studies at Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem, an experience she claims was one of the most amazing of her life. This has turned her on to reading Shar LeMatchil, a Hebrew newspaper geared towards those still learning the language. In addition she also reads various sources, including the online edition Artuz 7, the news agency of the settler movement.
Shabbat in Israel is a particularly high point in Devra’s life. "Here it takes on a whole new meaning because this is a crazy country and we thrive on the news. So a day without newspapers, TV and phones is the best relaxation you can ask for," she states. Shabbat is also time to return to the Mayanot Synagogue, where Devra and her husband became engaged. She says, "It is where we connected with our chevre, and met the people who have become our family in Israel. Mayanot has been a bit of a lifeline for us."
SAGE ADVICE: "You really have to want it to make it work. People who come here half-heartedly go back to where they came from. It’s an all or nothing lifestyle. You have to take the good with the bad. Can I sum it up in any more one-liners? I don’t know, that last one has me singing the theme to The Facts of Life." Continuing, I find it better not to enter into things with expectations, which is good, because you pretty much have to make it on your own here. Granted, there are some very helpful people who have been through the system and are willing to help you out, but it’s confusing and frustrating and you just have to smile while you get the Israeli yelling mentality thrown your way."
At the end of the day it all comes down to her search for peace for her neshamah, the point of life, according to Devra. And does she have it? "I just know that I’ve learned, in my two years as an Israeli and almost four years in Israel that I made the right choice. Living in Israel is for me."
Aliyah - immigration to Israel, literally means ‘going up’
Olim - plural Hebrew for oleh, an immigrant, someone who has made aliyah
Baal tshuvah - someone who has returned to a traditionally observant way of life.
Tsnius - or tsniut, depending on pronunciation, means modest
Neshamah - means soul
Chevre - the folks you like