'Israel Paid for My Education and Gave Me a Stipend. It Didn't Feel Right to Walk Away'

A Canadian who came to Israel to attend high school and then decided to stay, and an American expat leading guided tours from the comfort of her living room

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Ayala Rotenberg,
Ayala Rotenberg,Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Ayala Rotenberg, 21; lives in Jerusalem, arriving from Toronto

Hi, where are you coming back from?

From Toronto. I’m a “lone soldier,” and I was visiting my family. I hadn’t seen them for a year.

How long have you been living in Israel?

I arrived in high school as part of the Naaleh program run by Jewish Agency and the Education Ministry. They bring young people from abroad to go to school in Israel. You get an Israeli matriculation certificate and then you can make aliyah or return to your country of origin. I chose to stay.

Where did you go to school?

In an ulpana [religious high school for girls] in Kfar Sava. I’m from a religious-Zionist family, I wanted an atmosphere of religious people and of Shabbat [observance] in school. The ulpana was convenient for me.

What made you decide to stay?

Since childhood I’ve really loved Israel. I lived in a very Zionist community in Toronto. After my education was paid for and I also received a monthly allowance, I didn’t feel right about just walking away. I was given so much, and now it’s my turn to give to Israel, to our country.

Did you feel the connection to Israel as soon as you arrived?

I think so. It’s really different when you come from abroad. I was in Bnei Akiva [youth movement], in school we celebrated every Independence Day and every Memorial Day. And it’s crazy to see kids who don’t actually know any soldiers crying on Memorial Day; who are they crying for? But you feel that it’s a family, that it’s really ours. I hadn’t been to Israel before I came in 10th grade. When I think about it, I was 15 then and I boarded a flight and was away for 10 months without returning home.

And you weren’t scared?

I didn’t think about it enough for it to scare me. I had the feeling of “Yallah, fun, a trip.”

How was it for you during the first months?

I always felt that if I took the right turn, I would get home. I didn’t feel I was in such a different place. But I was also in a class where all the girls were from other countries, and no one knew anyone before. We all arrived alone, but we were together, so it very quickly became a family.

Is it like that in the army now, too?

It’s a bit different in the army. You feel the difference between the lone soldiers and those who live with a family. I go home and do my laundry, go shopping for myself. If I don’t do it, no one will.

Where do you live?

In an apartment with other girls. You can live in an apartment of the Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers, but it’s not worth it. You won’t know the other soldiers living there, and the chances are that you won’t be off on the same Shabbatot. It’s a bummer to come home when there’s no one there. I prefer living with people I know. I also have friends from high school who live nearby, it’s a kind of family. And now my younger sisters are going to high school here.

They followed you?

They don’t think they were following me, but yes.

In the end you’ll bring the whole family.

Be’ezrat hashem [With God’s help].

How was it visiting your folks? A return to being a girl?

I don’t feel like a girl so much at home. It’s terrific to be with my parents. It’s also terrific to come back home and see my brother, who was 7 when I left and is now 14, taller than me and with a deep voice. I don’t understand how that happened.

What do you do in the army?

I’m a fighter-plane technician. It’s tough, but great because of the people. The hours are nuts, you get up at 5:30 and finish at 7:30 in the evening, in the best case. If there’s something operational going on, you might not get to sleep that night. There’s plenty of physical work, but I love that; I always like working and getting dirty. Fuel, let’s say, stinks and isn’t fun, but you get used to it.

Is nail polish allowed?

Absolutely not. I put it on when I flew here, but now, after I finish with my quarantine, I’ll have to remove it. Usually in the army the nails have to be kept really short and with no color. Only maybe pink or French [manicure].

Are you thinking of staying in Israel after the army?

Absolutely. I really want to raise my family here. Growing up overseas is very different, and not for the better. It means to grow up inside houses, there’s no independence for kids; at age 10 you can’t go to a playground alone, you need parental escort. It’s a bit crazy; after all, it’s not that there’s a real risk. It’s better here, calmer, and children are freer.

Shira Kleinman.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Shira Kleinman, 30; lives in Haifa, flying to New York

Hi, where are you off to?

To my parents in the United States. I am a tour guide and I don’t have any work at the moment, so I’m escaping the lockdown. I’m supposed to come back in two weeks with 60 American kids who are coming for a super-cool program of the Reform movement. I hope that with the lockdown and all, they actually make it here. I’m supposed to escort them, because it’s easier to let me into the country than some escort from the United States.

What is this program?

The participants, from the 10th to 12th grades, come for four months, live at Kibbutz Tzova [near Jerusalem], go to ulpan [Hebrew course], learn history and the history of the land, and hike. I was a teacher there for six years and now I’ve returned to work with them a little on their educational program.

How did you get into this work?

I grew up in the Reform movement, and when I made aliyah, at 22, that was my first job. I taught Jewish history, and through the program became a tour guide. When I made aliyah, I wanted to find work with Americans but where the staff would be Israeli, so I would have the best of all worlds, a soft landing.

And was it a soft landing?

Relatively, yes. I’d learned some Hebrew before, but like you learn any language in school – it’s easy to understand what’s on the menu, but they don’t teach you to explain to the doctor what hurts or to talk to someone in the Interior Ministry. There were tough moments: I couldn’t explain what I felt, suddenly people didn’t understand my personality because I didn’t have all the words. But I’ve always tried with all my might to become part of the Israeli population. I always lived with Israelis, I have a lot of Israeli friends, I’m marrying an Israeli. I have a family in Israel. There’s a serious difference between living here with a family and living here without one.

When did you begin hiking?

It’s something I discovered in Israel, it’s not part of the culture in the United States. I’m an indoor kid – but I thought it would be a great way to get to know a country you didn’t grow up in. I know a lot of off-the-beaten-track places here that no one else knows. Even during the coronavirus crisis I wandered around relatively a lot. I discovered things in Haifa that I’d never had time just to roam around in and see. For example, the food scene in Haifa is really wow.

What did you discover, for example?

It depends if you keep kosher. I do, but Abu Shkara’s sandwiches are the most delicious there are. It’s not kosher, but just to see it is an art. My partner eats everything and explains to me what it is.

And you said you were able to travel in this period?

I give virtual tours from the living room – it’s totally weird. I sit with my hat and badge at 3 A.M. as though I’m traveling, and guide mainly retirees and families.

Where do you travel with them?

I create and film a route on video. I arrange the clips in 25-minute [segments] and take breaks to give explanations. They basically “walk” with me along the entire route. At the end of the month I’m doing a Tu Bishvat route – I hiked Sataf [a nature site near Jerusalem] and filmed all kinds of things. I work with Jewish communities [overseas] and send dried fruit to the families who will be on the trip. They eat the fruit and see the trees in Israel.

You found employment for the coronavirus pandemic.

Yes, I’m a classic corona story. I postponed my wedding from June to August. My parents and my brother, who live in the United States, couldn’t get here. We had planned a trip for all the guests, because this would be the opportunity to get to know my life here. Now I’m telling everyone that we’ve canceled the wedding, but that we’re still together and we’ll get married later.

Was it hard to postpone it?

We wanted to do something on the date we had planned for the wedding, mostly to feel that there’s a reason to be excited and that something good came out of this period. My father is a Reform rabbi. A friend of his said there used to be a tradition that, first you would have an irusin [engagement] ceremony, and then the official wedding ceremony only a year later. I thought we would do something like that. At the end of August, we did an irusin ceremony via Zoom on the roof. We created a ceremony, said things to one another, exchanged meaningful gifts, the family could offer blessings. There’s magic in that intimacy.

Delightful. And now you’re planning a wedding?

We’re less planning a wedding and more planning a marriage. That’s the emphasis now.

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