It was more than 12 years ago when my husband and I left Israel and went to live in America. But we always dreamed of returning.
We did not know where we would eventually settle in Israel, how we would earn a living, or how we would help our children acclimate, but we planned as much as we could.
When we came to America, it was our good fortune to land in East Windsor’s small but special Jewish community. We needed to live near Princeton, and the township’s Twin Rivers section fit the bill. What we didn’t know was that our experiences in that New Jersey community would spoil us; we knew, when we did start to make plans to return to Israel, that we couldn’t move just “anywhere.” The warmth and concern we felt at the Shalom Torah Academy, Congregation Toras Emes, and the Shalom Heritage Center made our community our family and we couldn’t give that up.
We decided that as a result of that experience, we had become “small-town people” — especially our six children, now ages four-12. What a gift to grow up in a place where “everybody knows your name” and you are surrounded by adults who care about you. We knew we had to find a place that would give them that sense of comfort again.
As luck would have it, we discovered the little settlement of Neve Daniel in Gush Etzion. It is a religious settlement on a mountaintop in Judea with approximately 400 Nationalist Religious families. There are many olim from North America in this growing, caring, small-town community that is only 15 minutes from the heart of Jerusalem.
How amazing it was to discover that of those 400 families, we were not the only ones from East Windsor! Rabbi Jesse Horn and Judy Goldgrab, brother and sister, both grew up in Twin Rivers and settled with their families in Neve Daniel. Rabbi and Tara Horn have lived here for seven years, and Judy and Barry Goldgrab have been here for three. “We wanted a warm, friendly place where people care about each other, like Twin Rivers,” said Tara Horn, “and we definitely found it.”
People ask us how we could have uprooted our children and moved them across the world, to immerse them in another language and culture. The answer is that we have raised them to know that Israel’s language and culture has always been their own, that Hebrew and Israel are the inheritance of every Jew, our gift to partake of and enjoy, as well as our obligation and responsibility. It’s true that our children have struggled with their schoolwork, but we are gaining from the many families from North America who came before us. The schools here are remarkably adept at providing the right assistance for each child.
“Banot sherut” — young women who choose to spend two years doing national service rather than enlisting in the army — volunteer all over the country, but some choose to work with new olim. Our bat sherut sits in classes with my children to help them understand the material, runs a club with games and homework help after school, and sits with them two evenings a week in our house. Perhaps most important, the volunteers who work with our children demonstrate that Israel wants them here. What an incredible way to feel that you matter.
There are many small differences in the daily routine, but smaller than you might imagine, and many for the better. All six children used to be in the small, warm, loving environment at Shalom Torah Academy, where they made up almost 4 percent of the student body! Now we have six kids in four schools, located in three different settlements. Each of my kids has almost 30 children in their class. This means more noise, more chaos, less personal attention — but a lot more friends.
The children are all involved in after-school activities, including choir, art class, Taekwondo, soccer, basketball, and extra Torah study. This is in addition to youth group activities and their “new olim club.”
No one drives in Neve Daniel on Shabbat, and the children can walk in the street. Also, since the settlement is closed and gated, they can go from house to house with friends. This doesn’t make anyone feel scared, but much safer. Our kids’ newfound independence is probably their favorite part of being here. It certainly makes parenting easier and more fun.
And we also have to pick and choose from the number of activities available to us. There is Torah study and simhas, old friends to see and classes — in Zumba, aerobics, parenting, cooking — every evening. That doesn’t include the options just 15 minutes away in Jerusalem. We are all the new kids in the candy store of a full Jewish life.
We moved from a detached house with a fenced yard and garage in Twin Rivers to an apartment that has five bedrooms but is not smaller in square footage than our NJ house. As we add decorations and furniture, we are all coming to love the new place, and we finally can invite everyone to visit (which means if you are reading this, you’re invited). We have already had the privilege of hosting two former Shalom Torah students who are now studying in Israel, Uri Richman of Twin Rivers and Baila Barron of Jackson.
We are all making new friends and finding our place here. For my children it is more of a challenge than for my husband and me, since we both lived here before. I know where to find parking in Jerusalem, but I still come home with the wrong ingredients from the grocery store, and am almost as confounded by the kids’ homework as they are! We still have a lot of adjusting to do, and we all miss our friends and family in the United States.
At the same time, the children have told us that they never want to move again, not from Israel, from Neve Daniel, or even from our apartment. They know this is home.