Yael Sendler, 25; lives in Tel Aviv, arriving from New York
Hi, what brings you from New York to Israel?
I’m coming from California, but the direct flight from San Francisco was canceled, so I had to get a connection in New York. I came back from visiting my family in California – my parents and sisters. I’m a nursing student at Tel Aviv University, and when the studies and my job came to a halt, I immediately got on a plane to be with them.
How was it there?
More easygoing than in Israel, because I went from my tiny apartment in Tel Aviv to a big house, and people there are encouraged to go to the park and take walks, so you can get some air. It’s been years since the family was together so much. I was afraid we’d get sick of each other, but it was amazing. My parents worked from home, and my two younger sisters were there. I was sorry to leave.
Where is your almost-perfect Hebrew from?
My parents are Russian; they’re both from Moldova. We lived in Haifa, but when I was 2 and a half, we moved to the United States. I grew up speaking Russian, then English. A week after I finished high school I was already in Israel, in Garin Tzabar [a program that helps immigrant soldiers without family in Israel], which is where I learned Hebrew. I wanted to be a combat soldier: I was in search and rescue, in the operations room of a company commander. I was a sharpshooter, the whole nine yards. I said if I was going to pick up and leave everything, I’d do something meaningful – build myself up from scratch. And it really did turn out to be a wild experience.
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How does an 18-year-old American girl get to Garin Tzabar?
I come from a family in which my father and his father and his father before him were all in the Red Army, and I have relatives in the north [of Israel]. But the truth is that I always felt connected to Israel, I always felt like a proud Jew. It didn’t seem fair for me to say that I was a Jew who loved Israel without giving something of myself.
How was it for you?
Hard. I saw rough things, I served for a long time in Judea-Samaria. I was a lone soldier; I lived on Kibbutz Kissufim [along the Gaza border], which is a real hole. It was during Operation Protective Edge [in 2014]. There were rockets all the time, and it was new to me. There were missiles flying over me, and every day I would hear about people whose friends had been killed in the operation. I had never experienced anything like it. I’d had a pretty regular life in the United States, and suddenly you people are mourning a friend who was killed in Protective Edge, and you grieve with them even though you didn’t know their friend.
Suddenly I felt terribly alone. There was a period when I cried every day. I was also shut up on the base, and even when I could leave, there wasn’t really anywhere to go. I was always surrounded by the same 30 people. As soon as I could, I moved to Ramat Gan, and from there to Tel Aviv. I realized I wasn’t cut out to be a kibbutznik.
Today, I can say that there is a serious difference between me and my friends in the United States. I matured a lot, I learned how to take things in the right proportion. After becoming a sharpshooter, I did a paramedics course, which is when my love affair with the world of medicine and therapy began. That’s when it became clear to me that I would study nursing. And I’m back now, because studies are apparently about to resume.
University studies were halted, but it looks like we’re going back to clinical work, to hospitals. I haven’t gotten the official word yet, but the rumor is that we’re going back on May 5. From here I go into quarantine, so I’ll return a little late.
What are you going to do after you finish your degree?
I’ll go back to the United States to continue my studies, and become a nurse practitioner.
What is that?
It’s somewhere middle between being a nurse and a physician, but unfortunately the concept hasn’t caught on in Israel. On the nursing side, you work a lot closer to the patient, you know him, are attentive to him, you don’t just make a diagnosis and then leave, like doctors. On the other hand, in that role you are genuinely part of the higher medical team, you make diagnostic decisions, you can have a private clinic, you are more independent. It’s almost like being a doctor. The studies are serious.
Then why not be a doctor?
I like what nursing leads to – the identification with the patients, the closeness, rubbing elbows with them. I sit with them, get to know them, cry with them, accompany the family. It’s hard, but far more humane and personal. I prefer it that way. It’s important.
Adina Weisblatt, 26; lives in Beit Shemesh, flying to New York
Hi, why are you flying to New York?
To get from there to Maryland. My grandmother died from the coronavirus – it was only three days between the time the symptoms appeared and her death. My father is high-risk, because he’s had heart attacks and strokes, so I’m being sent to support my aunt, who was looking after my grandmother, and help her with all the arrangements.
And the shiva?
We did the shiva [seven-day mourning period] by Zoom, it was pretty awful. I just wanted to hug my father and comfort him over the death of his mother, but we have avoided seeing him in recent months. My father took a chair out to the yard, and receives anyone who actually does show up from a distance of two meters. My twin sister and I did shifts on Zoom, so that when no one is there, my father won’t sit opposite a blank screen. Once in a while someone shows up, says a few words and leaves.
What happened with the funeral?
My aunt delayed it so that the body could undergo tahara [ritual purification]. In principle, it’s forbidden to do that with bodies of coronavirus victims, but she insisted and found a cemetery that was willing, so the funeral was delayed.
Why was it so important for her?
Out of respect for her mother. I come from a religious family.
You’d never know it.
Right, that’s because at age 14, I stopped believing. We came on aliyah to Beit Shemesh 22 years ago, and we’re still there. We are originally twin boys, a daughter, and then my twin sister and me. My brother, of blessed memory, one of the twin boys, died of cancer when he was 29, leaving behind a wife and little children. He was sick for six years. I remember that before he died, on Yom Kippur, I pushed him in a wheelchair to the synagogue. Everyone cried and shouted the Yom Kippur prayers. During the service, I suddenly asked myself why we were shouting and praying, when there was no one there listening.
Did you feel betrayed by God?
I know it’s a dumb thing to say, because those who believe, believe despite everything that happens, but at the time, with my brother, and now with this coronavirus – you need very strong faith. I guess that’s what brought me down. My brother knew when he was about to die.
What do you mean?
In contrast to his twin brother, who was an officer in the army, this brother was more Haredi. From the time I was 12, he wouldn’t touch me. Even when we did shifts in the hospital while he was there, he preferred that I not touch him, but to call a nurse, and if it was necessary, only to touch him with gloves. But one day, he asked me to hold his hand, and he held it for a long time. He died the next day. That was shitty. It’s terrible to see a father burying his son. And I can’t imagine what my brother experienced, burying his twin. He visits the cemetery each year on his birthday. I knew before others that he had died.
How did you know?
I was a National Service volunteer in a hospital, and I would make a lot of phone calls to families. There’s a very particular formula you use, when you tell a family to come to the hospital, but you don’t tell them yet that the patient died. My other brother picked up the phone and told me what they said to him on the phone. I told him, “That’s it, he is no longer with us.”
Did you change your lifestyle all at once?
Right after I finished the religious boarding school I was at, I did National Service at Soroka Medical Center in Be’er Sheva. That’s when the bubble burst. They took me to bars, I smoked for the first time with them, and suddenly everything opened up, absolute freedom. I met so many people whom I had never come into contact with before – Arab men who spoke to me as an equal. Suddenly there was this understanding that no one is watching you, and you can do whatever you want. Then came a period of craziness and going out and septum piercing and tongue piercing and tattoos and going abroad and guys and eating shrimp. I went from one extreme to the other.
It seems like I’m looking for the middle way. I went back to Beit Shemesh so I could get close to my parents again, after something of a disconnect, and I respect them. I am secular, but there are still a lot of codes I don’t understand among secular people, and sometimes I still kiss a mezuzah or say a blessing, out of habit. My apostasy also has advantages in Beit Shemesh.
In what way, for example?
My bank is Haredi, so they prefer that I not show up at the branch. They hear my name and say, “It’s that one, forget it, do whatever she wants by phone.” That’s a terrific plus.