Report from Israel: Rhode Islanders in Israel


Old City of Jerusalem

By Robert Israel

Nancy Wellins works in a modern Jerusalem office building just blocks from the no-man’s land that once tore her adopted city in two.

Two blocks away is the former Barclays Bank building, still marked by bullet holes from Israel’s 1967 War of Independence, which unified the Israeli section of the city with the ancient wall and gates of the Jordanian-controlled Old City.

The 31-year-old former Cranston resident, who graduated from Classical High School in Providence and attended Yale University, was attracted to Israel while working at Brown University’s Hillel House, the campus Jewish center.
“While at the Hillel job, a lot mail crossed my desk describing life in Israel. I realized I had no education about the country. I kept reading about people with frontier spirits who were making communities blossom in the desert…and I knew I wanted to give it a try.”

Wellins applied to the Jewish Agency in Boston, which is associated with the Israeli consulate and helps process applicants for Israeli citizenship. In 1981, the agency placed her on the northern border of Israel, six kilometers from Lebanon, for an intensive ulpan course in the study of Hebrew.

“Two weeks after I got there, the bombs started falling on the little town from over the border,” Wellins says. “It was frightening. I was working with children who were environmentally retarded. These children came from large families, and their mothers – they were often without fathers, because of the war – could not provide them with proper training. They had no toys and couldn’t communicate. I had to learn Hebrew and learn it fast.”

Many from her group returned to the United States, disenchanted with life in Israel. But Wellins stayed on. She moved to Jerusalem in April, 1981, and found her current job, as an editor and translator at the Israel Government Press Office. Foreign correspondents depend on her services for translated government documents and updated reports on all aspects of Israeli life. She lives nearby in an apartment that costs half her salary.

“You just can’t compare salaries between the United States and Israel,” Wellins says. “I make $300 a month and I work six days a week. It amounts to 45 hours a week, but on some weeks there is a lot of unpaid overtime. Several months ago, I literally slept at the office. But it’s different here. Nobody comes to Israel to get rich. That’s not my motivation, anyway.”

Wellins continues, “When I attended Yale, almost everyone in my class had aspirations to become the president of a business. But I didn’t share those values. Why I came here and why I have stayed is because I hold classical Zionist values and idealism. I was always reading about Jewish issues and I felt I should come here and experience them. After living on the Lebanese border, the myths I had grown up with were quickly dispelled, myths about Jews and Judaism.”

Wellins says that whereas the Jews she knew in the United States were, for the most part, financially well off, “in Israel it’s different. You meet Jews from all walks of life and from all countries, Jews who work in factories, Jews who’ve escaped from oppressed countries, religious Jews who refuse to acknowledge the ways of 20th century life and choose to live in ghettos, like they did in Europe.”

Residing in Israel has enabled Wellins “to live according to my ideals. I’m not always aspiring to possess material goods, but I’m striving instead to make a contribution. I’ve often felt that American suffers from emptiness. A sense of national purpose is lacking in the United States. In Israel, I feel I am part of a national effort for survival.”

Because the Israeli inflation rate hovers about 400 percent, due to the high cost of defense, Wellins, like many Israelis, freelances to make ends meet. She also fits in such other activities as singing with a madrigal group and working for Peace Now, an organization that attempts to bring about Israeli and Arab understanding.

“There’s never a dull moment in Israel,” Wellins says. “You never know when you turn on the radio in the morning if we are going to be invaded or if there are terrorist bombings in Lebanon. When I get to my office to translate the day’s news, I don’t have a feeling so much that I’m important as I do of contributing to my society, helping foreign journalists report accurately what’s going here.”

“Living here is often stressful and difficult. I feel I’ve given up on one culture – the U.S. – without fully acquiring another culture in Israel.

“In the U.S., I found myself anxiously waiting the New York Times Book Review each week, to keep up on the latest books. In Israel, I’m not familiar or especially interested in the vast amount of Hebrew literature that is published. I don’t go to the theatre, because I miss the context of what I see on stage. I frequently miss the point of Israeli jokes.”

Nevertheless, says Wellins, “I have a deep sense of belonging here, because I am a Jew.”

**

Twelve miles south of Jerusalem, on a road that winds past Bethlehem, lies the community of Gush Etzyon. Here, several settlements were reestablished after the 1967 war. Les Krieger, 36, and his wife, Freya, 37, and their four children live on one of these settlements, a kibbutz, or collective community, named Kfar Etzion.

Kfar Etzion is situated on a hill with a spectacular view of the Hebron hills. The air is cool and clean. There is a sense of serenity. Small stone houses are built on terraces along the slope, which leads to orchards and cultivated fields below.

It is hard to imagine the area under siege. Yet Kfar Etzion, which now numbers 450 people, was built and destroyed twice during Israel’s short history, before its final, current reconstruction. The synagogue, a spacious modern building near the entrance of the kibbutz, pays homage to that troubled past: three boulders are built into a stained-glassed window above the Holy Ark, signifying the three times Kfar Etzion has been built.

Les Krieger grew up in Providence in an Orthodox Jewish family. He went to the Providence Hebrew Day School and the Yeshiva University, in New York, where he met his wife. The Kriegers have lived in Israel since 1973. At first they worked as teachers on a moshav, or cooperative small-holder settlement, in the Negev desert, but after seven years they searched for a community that would better serve their needs as observant Jews. After a brief spell in a kibbutz near their present one, they moved to Kfar Etzion. This happened six years ago. It is here that they intend to stay.

“My day begins at 5:30 a.m., at services at the synagogue,” Les says. “At 6 a.m. we have breakfast, in the community dining center, and after breakfast I go to work in the factory, just down the road from the dining center. The factor makes propane camping stoves and other camping equipment for commercial and military use.”

Freya’s workday begins shortly after 7 a.m., where she goes off to the nursery. From an early age, the kibbutz children lead independent lives. Although they eat supper and sleep in their parents’ house, during the day they go to children’s houses, where they are grouped with others of their age. During the summer, some children work; Itai Krieger, a boy of 11, picks fruit, and his sister Maya, 13, helps out at the school or in the kitchen.

Work on this kibbutz is largely sex-stereotyped. Men have jobs in the fields or factory; women, in the kitchen, school or laundry.

“It’s true that women are stuck in woman-type jobs here,” says Freya Krieger. “On other kibbutzim, women and men share jobs, and women work in the factories alongside the men. But at this kibbutz, that’s not the case, and we accept this.”

Les Krieger says that he does not miss his former home in the States.

“In Israel, as an observant Jew, I feel more accepted,” he says. “I feel I am working to provide a better life for my children, for my wife and myself and for the community.”

He talks of the richness of his present life:

“The kids have their own group, their own lives. There are other kibbutzim in the area, and we exchange programs and cultural events with them. There’s a regional center, there are more opportunities for cultural exchange and programs. Jerusalem is only a short bus ride away.”

Near the small but comfortable Krieger home, children have planted flowers. A cherry tree blooms. But beyond, barbed wire festoons a guard post. It is all that separates the Kriegers from enemies.

Yet Krieger says, “We feel quite safe here. There’s an army base on that hill over there. Each family has a rifle in their home, and we have been trained to use it in case of an emergency. We are determined to stay here. We lost this settlement twice before. We won’t lose it a third time.”

**

The City of Haifa is one of Israel’s most spectacular. Overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, this port city sits on Mount Carmel. Made up of a waterfront, a downtown and a residential district, Haifa has Israel’s only subway, and a cable car, which runs from a high cliff down to the sea.

Kenneth and Harriet Resnick’s condominium apartment looks out on the glittering city. At night, the lights remind them of San Francisco. In the distance, the twinkling along the coast leads to the ancient port of Akko, the city Napoleon once tried to conquer, unsuccessfully, during his siege of Palestine.

Kenneth Resnick grew up in Providence and attended the University of Rhode Island, graduating in the early 1950s. While at URI, he and a fraternity brother conducted Jewish services before there was a campus Hillel center. After graduation, having always had Zionist leanings, Resnick traveled to Israel. There he met his wife, a native of Milwaukee, while they were volunteering on a kibbutz in 1955. They then returned to the United States to get married, in Rhode Island. Here Kenneth went to work in the family business, Artistic Leather Manufacturing Co., and the couple’s three children were born.

“We knew we always wanted to return to Israel,” Kenneth says. “We were born to families that believe in Israel as a nation. And when I lived in Providence, I helped raise money for Israel. But I felt the best way to contribute was to live here.”

The Renicks made their move in 1972. Kenneth got a job as a sales manager for Industries Trading Company, Ltd., a job he still holds. After helping her family get adjusted, Harried has worked for the past few years as a bookkeeper for the University of Haifa bookstore.

Says Harriet, “It was difficult to make a move here, especially with three teenage children. All our children, two daughters and a son, learned to read and write Hebrew before we moved here, but they did not have speaking fluency.”
She says it takes three years to settle in. “If you can get past those first three years, the rest of the time is easier.”

The Renicks are troubled by the Israeli economy. The prices of basic goods rise constantly, in some cases doubling overnight. Strikes are common. The black market boldly advertises in the newspapers. In the 13 years that they have lived in Israel, the Resnicks have had to take several pay cuts, and their salaries are now frozen, as part of the government’s austerity efforts.

But though the Resnicks would be better off financially in the United States, where the family business provided a good income, returning to Rhode Island is out of the question.

“It’s more of a relaxed lifestyle here,” Harriet says. “And there’s not so much of this constant keeping-up-with-the Joneses attitude.

“On Friday, we come home from work early and rest. Later on in the evening, we have a Sabbath dinner. All day Saturday we relax or walk and visit neighbors. We are members of a Conservative synagogue in Haifa. We attend cultural events in the areas. Kenneth pursues his hobbies, painting and drawing. And we have the beach nearby, which we enjoy seven months a year, only ten minutes driving time from the apartment.”

The Resnick children have also adjusted to life in Israel. Murray, 26, is studying medicine and microbiology at the Hebrew University. His sister Shira, 25, is a nurse at Carmel Hospital. And Tammy, 23, is in her final year at Hebrew University.

A test of Shira’s absorption into life in Israel came last year, when she traveled to the United States.
“She told us she was taking this trip,” Kenneth says, “and that she had purchased an open ticket. She told us she wanted to look around and she what she felt about possibly moving back to the States. Well, after several months’ traveling, she called and said she was coming home. Home to Israel.”

**
The Aliyah Center of Boston’s Jewish Agency is the local office for applicants seeking to become olim, or immigrants, to Israel. According to Leslie Gell, assistant director of the center, there are two visas available to applicants: one that allows an individual or family to live in Israel for a trial period of up to three years, after which full citizenship is granted, and another visa that allows candidates to become Israeli citizens after living in Israel for one month.

“Because of the economic problems in Israel today,” Gell says, “one really never knows how long newly arrived immigrants will last in Israel. It is very difficult to make ends meet. We’ve had families quit the country after living in Israel for 10 years, who are frustrated with always having to struggle.”

The Aliyah Center does not have a screening function. Says, Gell, “If (people) want to make aliyah (immigrant), we try to assist them. But we don’t hide the truth that life in Israel can be extremely difficult. Because of the Law of Return, a law passed after Israel became a nation, in 1948, any person who is Jewish who wants to become a citizen of Israel has the right to do so. We try to help them toward that end.”

This help includes loans for air fare, the authorization to take possessions into the country tax-free, and accommodations in subsidized immigrant-absorption centers throughout the country. In the first half of this year, 592 people from the United States have made aliyah.

**
James Gershman, 36, is one of those 592 Americans who immigrated to Israel in the first half of this year. Having graduated from Providence’s Hope High School and attended Boston’s Emerson College, Gershman worked for almost 8 years as a public-information director at Channel 36, the Rhode Island education television station. Having visited Israel several times, Gershman decided to quit his job and move there. He opted to live in Israel as a citizen, not on a temporary basis.

“When I visited and talked with people I knew that had made aliyah to Israel,” Gershman says, “I was told that I could be successful. I was told that there is a need for people to know English, and that it is possible to make a living here.”

Gershman arrived in Israel in March and moved into Beit Brodetsky, an immigrant-absorption center outside Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city. His accommodations, subsidized by the Jewish agency, are Spartan: one room with a kitchenette and shower. He pays the equivalent of $20 a month for rent and electricity. At Beit Brodetsky, he attends ulpan, Hebrew classes, held six hours a day, six days a week. In the few months he has lived in Tel Aviv, Gershman has developed a basic command of Hebrew.

Says Gershman, “In Israel, you’re never lost. No one is a stranger. Everyone here is close to you. Being Jewish here is a positive thing.”

Gershman believes there is more opportunity in Israel than in the United States. “At Channel 36, I felt that people never had faith in my ideas. They were never open-minded. Here, people are the opposite: they’re interested in your ideas. This is a young country. I feel that I can get a fresh start here.”

Gershman’s decision to become a citizen means that he will have to serve in the Israeli army.
“I didn’t want to become a temporary citizen here, because I knew when I arrived it had to be a permanent move. And so, next March, I’ll go into the army. I’ve been basically a pacifist, but the reality of Israel’s position in the Middle East is that we need people to defend her borders.”

Gershman has already landed a freelance job, as a technical writer for a small Tel Aviv business. It’s the start, he hopes, of many more assignments, which might lead to a business of his own.

Along with the others interviewed for this article, James Gershman finds life in Israel – despite the hardships – preferable to life in the United States. Like America’s smallest state, the small country allows for intimate relationships, for a feeling of belonging. And because Israel is a young country, a person can have a very real sense of building the country.

A tragic accident occurred recently outside Haifa. A school filled with children collided with a train, killing all the children. People all over Israel grieved as if the children were their own. It was as though a period of national mourning had been declared.

But Israelis pull together also in happy times.

Nancy Wellins says that when she buys her Sabbath challah, or tradition egg bread, she feels she is participating in a ritual that she shares with all her neighbors. When the baker wishes her a peaceful Sabbath, a Shabbat shalom, he means it.

It is this feeling of solidarity that gives these expatriates the courage to live in their adopted land – to pursue their faith.

**
Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer. He can be reached at risrael_97@yahoo.com. A version of this article appeared originally in the Providence Sunday Journal.

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