A year on the road to promote Israel

A year on the road to promote Israel

Mom, dad, & children share their experience of life on a moshav

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

The journey includes four continents and 27 countries. The time frame is one year.

The adventurers are the Zemach family: parents Chami and Oksana, and three of their four children (Gali, 13, Tamar, 11, and Michal, four), who live on Moshav Kadesh Barnea in the Negev when they are not globetrotting.

(Their eldest daughter, Yulia, 22, is a student at Bar-Ilan University and lives in Tel Aviv.)

They call themselves the Israeli Family Project.

Traveling through Europe and the United States, the Zemachs are offering conversations and several presentations about their lives as a typical Israeli family. They appear on campuses and at community centers, in front of school groups and at special events.

The goal is to offer an alternative view to people who know Israel only as a place of conflict.

“We want to meet with as many people as we can and share our story. Many people don’t know anyone from Israel,” Chami told NJJN in a conversation at the Morristown home of Shana and Matthew Onigman, where the Zemachs were guests during their stay in New Jersey from Dec. 9 through 14.

The NJ connection was thanks to a chance meeting in mid-November with Natalie Elgrabli, the Israeli shliha stationed with the Jewish Federation of Central NJ. They were at a conference organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel, and when Elgrabli heard what the Zemachs were doing she was determined that people in New Jersey should hear what they have to say.

“They are an amazing family,” she told NJJN, “very down to earth, but so interesting.” She spoke to the folks at Congregation B’nai Israel in Basking Ridge, where Shana Onigman is the cantor. She and her husband offered to host the five Zemachs.

On Dec. 18, the family shared a breakfast with religious school parents at B’nai Israel and took part in a Legos project, where Livingston architect Stephen Schwartz led children in building what might be the largest Lego hanukkia ever created. Elgrabli said it was a wonderful experience for all concerned.

The Zemachs also got to visit with people at the Morristown Unity Charter School, where the Onigmans’ six-year-old daughter attends elementary school.

The newest of the Zemachs’ programs, developed for a New York audience, is “Ten Facts about Michal.” It’s a young child’s window into life in Israel, with facts about how long it took Michal to fly to the United States, how big Israel is, what it’s like to live in the desert, how many pets Michal has, what instruments she plays, and what kind of school she goes to. (By the way, the children may not be going to school this year, but they are not skipping an education. Their parents have brought along their textbooks to “homeschool” them, though they are far from home, with support via e-mail and on-line resources from their school.)

At the presentations, Gali often plays guitar and sings Israeli and/or American songs, while Oksana talks about family food in Israel and offers a cooking class. Chami discusses the family’s transition from the large city of Rehovot to their small farming community in the Negev, a change they made nine years ago.

There are always plenty of questions, but few people ask about the conflict, said Chami, although it is never off limits.

“People are really interested in Israel, both Jews and non-Jews. People really want to know; most of the information they have is about the conflict,” Chami said. “We’re coming in with the story of daily life and the way we live, and how it is to be Israeli, and we can really see people reacting in a very good way.”

They are meeting with Jews and non-Jews, splitting their time about 50-50 between the two groups.

The family’s travels are loosely planned, with plenty of room to add stops and speaking engagements along the way.

They are independent, not sponsored by any umbrella group.

“We like adventures!” said Chami, explaining how the trip came about.

Becoming leaders on their moshav after moving there from Rehovot “showed us we can lead, influence, and change things,” said Chami. He and his wife established Desert Magic, a company that produces jams and spreads from the fruits grown by their neighbors, and Chami introduced the importance of a PTA to the local school.

As leaders, the Zemachs often found themselves talking about Israeli life with tourists who visited the moshav.

“Every time a group came, we saw they got something out of it they did not have before — a new look at what an Israeli family is like, what Israeli life is like,” he said.

Two years ago, the couple decided to send that message beyond the moshav.

They have put all their savings — $100,000 — into the project. They expect the year to cost a total of $300,000 and hope to make up the shortfall through fund-raising. An additional $50,000 has already come from private donations, Chami said.

The Zemachs are posting tales of their journey on a Facebook page and a website as they travel.

The learning is also a two-way street, as the family members learn about the world from the people they meet. They spent Thanksgiving at a homeless shelter run by the Goddard Riverside Community Center on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where they had lunch with a Druse man originally from Kuwait. Chami described him as “really brilliant” and knowledgeable about the politics of the Middle East.

The family has noted a stark contrast between American and European Jews. Jews in Europe, Chami said, live a much more covert existence. “They have another status, at least in their own eyes. For example, if you would come to a community center in Europe, it would be a fortress — it’s not like it is here. They don’t share being Jewish with everyone, and the Jewish connection to Israel is less obvious.” They have not encountered any face-to-face hostility, although they have gotten a few unkind messages on-line, according to Chami.

‘The coldest country’

Gali, 13, who wandered into the conversation after playing upstairs for a while with her siblings, offered her impressions of New Jersey.

“New Jersey is the coldest country I’ve ever been too,” she said with obvious delight. “I went for a walk with my dad and we passed a little lake and it was frozen. I was very excited — I never saw a lake that was frozen!”

Her mother was a little less impressed with the weather. A native of Belarus who made aliya as an adult 20 years ago, she said she’s had her fill of cold weather. “It’s fun for the first few minutes. After that, it’s cold,” she said with a small grimace.

After just a few days in New Jersey, it was already time to pack up their minivan and head to Youngstown, Ohio, with a stop on the way in Amish country.

The family has gotten used to long drives — when they started in Europe they were driving over 300 miles a day. “The first few weeks were hard to get the balance of being in a journey on the road. Now, the long drives are pleasant,” said Chami.

The U.S. leg of the trip, which runs Nov. 18 through Feb. 2, includes plenty of open road.

Among the places they plan to visit are Chicago, Denver, Las Vegas, and, in California, Palm Springs and San Diego as well as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kansas, Wisconsin, Kentucky, and Indiana.

Once they leave the United States, their itinerary includes travel to New Zealand, Australia, India, China, Mongolia, Russia, Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.

As they travel, the whole project is continually evolving. “We’re learning a lot,” said Chami.

They will return to Israel Aug. 1, exactly one year from the day they departed.

read more: