Sunday, April 14, 2024 -
Print Edition

Aliyah: Local families making the big move

Cali, Yosef, Mandy, Yehuda, Benjamin and Shimon Detweiler


THE word itself — aliyah — is loaded with significance. Translated from Hebrew into English, it means to ascend, or go up.

In terms of Zionism, it is a concept expressed as a lofty ideal or noble aspiration — the act of moving from the Diaspora to Israel — and has long been symbolically festooned with social, ideological or religious connotations.

Its opposite is yerida, to descend, or go down, and those who make the decision to leave Israel in favor of other pastures are derogatorily called yordim by many Israelis.

Those who make aliyah, however, are given many forms of official and unofficial assistance and support. They are highly regarded as people crucial to the very fabric of the Jewish state itself — not surprising, considering how Israel came into being.

Yet despite those praises, aliyah is, in down-to-earth and practical terms, a tough decision and an arduous process, especially for many American Jews who are not motivated by fears of anti-Semitism or economic desperation.

It is, as one Denverite, soon-to-be Israeli, recently told the Intermountain Jewish News, a process “with a lot of moving parts, a lot of logistical pieces.”

It can also be emotionally daunting, as aliyah-makers must usually leave loved ones, and their own hometowns, behind.

Yet there are people, right here in Denver and right now in 2012, who have decided to make aliyah.

The experiences of two local families who have recently made, or will soon make, that big move illustrate the many ways in which aliyah is not only difficult and intimidating, but life-altering in many positive ways.

“It’s a new place, a new way of life, a new everything,” another future Israeli said. “That’s exciting. Some people might view that with fearfulness but I think you can turn that emotion into excitement.”


Shimon and Mandy Detweiler, Denverites who attend services at the DAT Minyan, have been hoping to make aliyah for years. Any number of things prevented them from making the leap — an understandable reluctance to pull up roots among them — but they are now committed to leaving Denver for good on Aug. 20.

Shimon, who had spent part of his youth in Israel when his parents made aliyah, says the couple got serious about it last fall after he had an experience that can only be described as mystical.

A follower of Breslov chasidism, he finally got the chance to go to Ukraine at Rosh Hashanah to join in a customary pilgrimage to the gravesite of the movement’s founder, Rebbe Nachman.

While there, he took a break from collective activities to engage in “personal prayer” — a conversational, informal form of prayer favored by the Breslov — in the Ukrainian woods. Shimon was seeking Divine guidance on whether he and his family should finally commit to aliyah.

“I went into the forest to talk to G-d,” he says, “and while I was in the forest, probably for three hours, I prayed and cried, then prayed and cried some more, begging G-d, saying, ‘Please G-d, open the gates to Eretz Israel, help us to go home, please unlock the gates.’

“I bent over because I’m crying and I looked down in the dirt, in the middle of the forest, literally where my tears were in the dirt, and I see this key laying on the ground.”

The key was very rusty and obviously old. To most people it would have been nothing more than an antique curiosity, but not Shimon.

To him, it was an answer.

“I was just praying for G-d to open the gates,” he says with a wide smile. “I don’t pretend to know what G-d thinks of when He’s speaking to me, but at the same time, I appreciate the small signs.

“My first reaction was ‘thank you G-d for listening to my prayers.’ Then I also thought, ‘Let’s push, let’s go.’”

His wife Mandy also believes that the key was a clear sign that she and her husband and their sons — Benjamin, 14, Yehuda, 7 and Yosef, 4 — should stop hesitating and go.

“Now it’s in our hands,” Mandy says. “It’s like Hashem was saying to us: ‘You have everything. You have the tools to get into the gate. Are you going to take it?’’’

Says Shimon: “G-d doesn’t have to make a miracle for us to go. We have the key. We have to make the effort.”

(A brief aside: When he returned to Denver from Ukraine, Shimon had the key analyzed by an expert, who declared that it was 200-250 years old, which dates it to the late 18th or early 19th centuries, precisely when Reb Nachman was alive.)

WONDROUS signs aside, the Detweilers have since been working tirelessly in preparation for their move. The Israeli organization Nefesh B’ Nefesh, which assists Jews considering or planning for aliyah, has been an invaluable ally in their efforts, they say.

It was Nefesh that suggested they head for Israel’s North, a mountainous region that Israel is working to settle with Jewish immigrants. Their destination will be Ma’alot, a young city with a heavy concentration of high-tech industries.

Shimon worked for an IT firm in Denver and Mandy has established a business as a “doula,” providing assistance for women in birth labor. They both plan to continue those professions in Ma’alot.

They do not, however, expect to have secured jobs by the time they get there later this summer.

“We’re going without an absolute guarantee,” Shimon says. “It’s our understanding of the statistics that 95% of people making aliyah with Nefesh B’Nefesh do not have a job before they go to Israel.”

The vocational uncertainty doesn’t intimidate him, Shimon says.

“Certainly as the head of our home, there is a part of me that says I need to make sure I have all my ducks in a row. I have responsibility and I take that very seriously. But the flip side of that is that through my life Hashem has always provided. Not miraculously, I mean, I had to work, but we’ve never been without food, without a home, without clothing or any of the things we need.

“I don’t expect that all of a sudden, He’s going to stop helping me. I know I have to put out the effort and work hard, but I’m not afraid of not being able to make it. I just don’t feel that way.”

Mandy, too, relies on providence.

“I don’t think G-d would take us to our homeland, where we are supposed to be, and then say, ‘Now you’re on your own.’”

The couple has been saving money and planning out the transition with great care, Shimon adds.

“We’re definitely not approaching it like, okay, let’s just go and see what happens. We’re doing everything in our power to make wise choices and to push forward.”

Nor do their shortcomings in Hebrew daunt them, the Detweilers say.

Shimon can “generally understand what people are saying,” he says of his own Hebrew, rusty after years of living in the States, and Mandy is planning to study the language at an ulpan near Ma’a lot.

“I’m a little bit nervous but I’m ready for the challenge,” she says. “I don’t want to be one of those people that spends 20 years there and still can’t speak a word of Hebrew.”

The couple is fully aware that moving to Israel means accepting the political and military dangers that all Israelis face. Ma’alot is only a few miles from the Lebanese border. In the last Israeli engagement with Hezbollah, rockets fell on the town for two weeks.

“Unfortunately, with Israel as small as it is, there aren’t many places you can go within the country where you don’t have to worry about that to some degree,” Mandy says.

And what if things get worse between Israel and Iran?

“I don’t think Israel will allow them to get that far,” Shimon says.

“But if, G-d forbid, Iran develops a nuclear weapon, and if that war happens, America is not going to be a nice place for Jews, either.

“As a matter of fact, I think the nicest place for Jews would be in Eretz Israel, at home with their brothers and sisters.”

THE Detweilers do not deny that there are sacrifices inherent in their decision.

There are, of course, the children to consider. While all of their sons are excited about going, their 14-year-old better understands that he too will face a lot of challenges — learning the language and serving in the Israeli military in a few years, for example.

“For any teenager, I think, that aspect of change is daunting,” Shimon says. “He’s nervous about the unknown. What’s school going to be like? What sort of friends will he make? What’s the food going to be like? But he wants to go.”

Then there are the parents and extended families.

Mandy’s and Shimon’s parents live, and will remain, in Colorado. They are all supportive of the family’s decision to make aliyah and plan to travel, and communicate via Skype, to stay in touch.

Still, an element of sadness must be part of the decision, Shimon concedes, adding that he feels the sacrifice will ultimately be worth it.

“I’m more concerned with my children and the generations that are coming after me than the generations that came before me,” he says.

“I love my parents deeply and want them to be happy. In a way, I’m sad that they’re not going to get to see their grandkids all the time, but in the big picture, I have to make choices that I feel are best for the generations that come after me.”

While holidays and birthdays will likely be emotionally difficult without the grandparents present, Mandy says, aliyah is indeed a higher calling.

“For me it’s more about ending the exile of my family from being in the land,” she says. “I want my children to marry there. I want them to raise their families there. As beautiful as Colorado is, and as wonderful as is the community that we are involved with, it’s a hard place for us here.”

Even in tolerant Colorado, she says, she has experienced subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, manifestations of anti-Semitism.

“It’s about creating a norm for my kids, the norm being with other Jews, seeing men wearing kipahs and tzitzit, rather than think you have to take your kipah off and wear a baseball hat because I don’t feel safe.”

While Shimon doesn’t sense anti-Semitism, he feels the irresistible pull of Zion, both in religious and in nationalistic terms.

“Colorado is a wonderful place,” he says. “Our DAT community is a phenomenal community that we love deeply. But we’re not leaving something. We’re not running away from something. We’re not thinking the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. It’s more a mindset of running to something.

“I have very Zionist beliefs. I believe that Jews need to be in the land of Israel. That’s not saying that every Jew today should leave and go to Israel, but I think the land of Israel has to be occupied by Jews and that Jews should have a drive to get there.

“If that’s really what I believe, it’s one thing to sit in my house in Colorado and say that, it’s another thing to move and to be that.”

Gavi, Dov, Robin, Yonah, Azriel and Meirav HanssenTHE HANSSENS





BY the time this article appears, Gavi and Robin Hanssen and their four children will have already left Denver behind.

Most of their familial possessions have been picked up, packed in containers and sent to Israel. They should be in New York by now, only a week and a few days away from embarking for Israel.

When interviewed by the IJN, they had just wrapped up a garage sale at their East Denver home, one of the last steps in what has been a long and complex process of preparation.

While aliyah has been on their mind for quite awhile, their dedicated push to make it reality has lasted about a year, they say.

Along with their children — Azriel, 12, Yonah, 9, Dov, 7 and Meirav, 3 — the Hanssens will soon find themselves in Eshchar, “a sort of bedroom community just south of Karmiel,” the Sister City of Denver, in northern Israel.

Approximately 500 people live there.

The house they are leaving behind in Denver was the one in which Robin grew up. Originally owned by her parents, the Hanssens took it over when they raised their own family. It will now revert to her parents’ ownership. They plan to rent it out, but in the remote chance that the Hanssens’ aliyah doesn’t work out, they’ll be able to return to it.

It’s a nice failsafe arrangement, Robin agrees, but she is adamant that she and her family are bent on making their move to Israel a stunning success.

Robin has worked for years in Denver as an educator, teaching in a variety of schools and programs, including CAJE and the Melton School. Fluent in Hebrew, she intends to continue teaching in Israel.

“I’ll probably switch venues a little bit,” she says. “It sounds like there are a number of opportunities for some quality Jewish education among more secularized Israelis and Anglos in the area.”

An experienced Bar and Bat Mitzvah tutor, she also plans to continue working with several Denver-area students via Skype, the cyber-technology that allows audio and visual communication via the Internet.

“And I’m hoping at some point to get a tour guide business license in Israel and create a little side business where people from America can contract with me . . . for private family tours, as opposed to the larger group thing,” Robin adds.

Gavi, a writer and editor by education and early experience, spent the last 15 years working in the non-profit world, often in grant-writing, mostly with non-Jewish charities. In the last few years he has moved into non-profit consulting.

In Israel, he hopes to return to his roots as an editor and writer. He describes his Hebrew skills as limited but steadily improving. In any case, he thinks that it’s his English skills that will come most in handy in Israel.

“I really want to go back to the world of editing and writing, probably on the commercial side,” Gavi says. “Because English is the international language of business, almost everything that is produced in Israel in large and medium-sized companies is translated into English. And somebody needs to proof and edit the copy.”

He hopes that northern Israel, with many hi-tech firms and NGOs, will provide plentiful opportunities for an English-speaking technical or grant-writer.

They chose northern Israel for more than professional reasons, the Hanssens add.

They like the hilly rural character of the region, the dry and mild climate. Both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv would be unacceptable, they say.

“Jerusalem has pockets of communities and I don’t want to be defined by the pocket I live in,” Robin says. “The North is a lot more relaxed. It’s more like Colorado.”

THEIR reasons for making aliyah are multiple, Gavi and Robin say.

“Everybody asks us that question,” says Gavi. “Robin and I have been married almost 15 years and we’ve been talking about this really from Day One. Our original thought was we would do this before we had children or when they’re very small. Then you start getting work and life has a way of progressing.

“We are very involved in the Jewish community and Jewish life. Judaism isn’t something we just plug into. It really defines who we are as a family, as much as anything. Education for the children is extremely important for us.”

Gavi articulates another motivation. “I think of it in terms of being a part of history,” he says. “Obviously the Jewish people have longed to be back in Israel as a people, safely, for 2,000 years. And it’s only been possible for 64 years. We live in a time when this is an incredible opportunity to be part of something.”

He is not necessarily expressing Zionist philosophy, Gavi clarifies.

“It depends on what you mean by Zionism. Zionism means different things to different people. There are people who think that all Jews belong in Israel. We don’t embrace that. We have a very comfortable life here, relatively speaking.

“Some of Robin’s family have been in Israel for four generations and they cannot understand for the life of them why Americans would leave the US to come to Israel.

“I don’t believe that we’re going there — that we’re making all these changes on everyone — because of some high-minded spiritual reason. I do believe that G-d is involved, but it’s not the kind of Zionism that suggests that this is the Holy Land or that we need to get it back from the enemy.”

It’s a much more subtle, more personal, motivation, he says.

Robin describes their decision to make aliyah as fulfilling a desire to lead a more intensively Jewish life than is possible in the US, but not an exclusively Jewish life.

“We’re moving to a community which is purposefully a mixed community between religious and secular individuals who are interested in living together, not just as an exercise in tolerance but an exercise in cooperation and respect and understanding.”

Eshchar strikes them as a place where that delicate balance is possible. The region surrounding it has, in addition to Jewish communities, both Muslim and Christian Arab communities.

“We live in a number of different worlds,” Robin says.

“We operate with our children’s education and our personal lifestyle and our community in a modern Orthodox world,” she says. “But most of the work I do is with liberal Jews or even very secular, not even identified Jews. I think that for us to be able to go to a community that embraces all of that integrated together as opposed to more nuanced and separated out, is fascinating.”

Being openly and proudly Jewish, mind you, remains a central component of that mix.

“To me it’s a place where my kids can feel the energy of Judaism wherever they go. That’s something I really want them to experience.”

Echoing Shimon Detweiler, Robin explains that in her case aliyah is a profoundly positive decision, not a negative one

“We’re not leaving because we’re trying to escape something and move to Utopia,” she says.

“We’re moving to become and continue to grow and challenge ourselves and explore. There was a window that opened and it was a window that we’ve always been peeking through. Now it’s a doorway that we can walk through.”

For their part, the kids are looking forward to the big adventure of moving, although Azi, the oldest, who just finished sixth grade at DAT, knows that it will have its challenging moments.

“I’m really excited to move to Israel,” he says. “I’ve never been there but I’ve heard many great stories about it and I’m always learning about it in school. But I’m also sad to leave my friends and family. My grandparents only live a block away and I’ve spent so much time with them.”

Azi acknowledges that learning to speak Hebrew “is going to be a challenge. And I’m scared a little bit because I don’t know what it’s going to be like there, but I’m also happy that I can go somewhere where I can be a better Jew than I can here and I can make new friends, live in a different place and see how I like it.”

Nor are his parents making the aliyah decision without a degree of trepidation.

Robin, who has been to Israel many times and has many relatives there, is fully aware that Israel can be a dangerous place.

“We’re either being courageous or absolutely crazy,” she says. “I spent my junior year abroad there and that was during the Gulf War. I’ve been there with gas masks and the sirens going off and I still felt perfectly comfortable and safe. You don’t feel threatened. I don’t know if that’s just pathetically stupid bravado.”

Unlike many new American immigrants to Israel, Robin isn’t counting on Divine protection.

“It’s certainly not because I have total trust in Hashem,” she says. “I’m not at that level of commitment or faith in that regard. For me, the world can turn on a dime anywhere. World War II showed us that. As much as I think that nothing like that will ever happen here, I’ve taught the Holocaust too much to be that blind.

“It’s like Gavi said, being a part of history. For our kids to be a part of something that’s bigger than just making sure we make our electric bills. It stands for something more significant than singing a Chanukah song in a Christmas choir.”

Gavi expresses no fears for himself but admits to a little nervousness when it comes to the children.

“Azi is almost 13 and he’ll be in the army in not too long,” Gavi says. “People sometimes ask, ‘How could you do this to your children?’ We would not put our children or ourselves in harm’s way in a casual way and of course we don’t want anyone, anywhere, to be hurt. But we want to be part of the solution, meaning participating in the building of Israel, hopefully in a peaceful way for everyone involved.

“I wouldn’t say we’re going without any trepidation . . . American kids hardly ever join the military. It’s not a common thing. But I won’t deny that there’s something about my children being in an IDF uniform that stirs up a certain pride in me.”

Azi himself has a ready answer when asked how he feels about being an Israeli soldier in a few short years.

“I know that I won’t be afraid because I know that there’s an amazing army with a lot of people that are watching over us and making us safe — Jewish, just like us — and soon I’m going to be a part of that,” he says.

“Then I’ll have my duty to take care of other people so they can feel safe. I’m excited for that, even though it’s a little scary.”

WHAT advice would the Hanssens give to those considering following their example?

“We have nothing but really wonderful things to say about Nefesh B’ Nefesh,” Gavi responds readily. “They’ve been so supportive. If anything, they’ve offered more support than we’re capable of taking advantage of.”

Also, he adds, potential aliyah-makers need to know that they have to be strong — physically, emotionally, mentally — to undertake something on this scale.

“It’s stating the obvious, but there’s a lot of moving parts, a lot of logistical pieces. Plus the emotional side of it — saying goodbye to family, friends. You need to be mindful of that.”

He also suggests that people planning to make aliyah should try to make as many contacts with people already in Israel as possible. Their help in easing the transition cannot be underestimated.

“Everybody has a different way of doing it,” Robin says.

“The Detweilers are taking basically nothing with them. We’re taking virtually our entire household.

“The single most operative word has to be flexibility. The advice we’ve been given is if you go with a variety of expectations then for sure you’re going to find that you don’t meet some of them and you’ll be depressed or disappointed or disenchanted.

“But if you’re open to anything happening in any direction, then you’ll find a lot more opportunities and possibilities coming your way.”

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Avatar photo

IJN Assistant Editor | [email protected]

Leave a Reply