'Working at Summer Camp, I Realized I Didn't Want to Raise My Kids in America'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: An Israeli New Yorker who experienced profound change during the coronavirus crisis

Noa Epstein
Noa Epstein
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Shir Cohen.
Shir Cohen.
Noa Epstein
Noa Epstein

Shir Cohen, 32, lives in New York and flying there

Hi, where are you going?

Home, after two months. I came for a visit, and then they started with the quarantine. And just as I was allowed to depart, my grandfather died.

From the coronavirus?

It’s not clear. For sure from loneliness. He was an active man with nine children and a lot of grandchildren and he used to go to a club. Suddenly he was left with only the company of his caregiver. He didn’t see anyone else for two weeks and he really missed them.

So, from quarantine to funeral?

Yes, but when we got there, it turned out that only seven people could attend, so not even all his children could go; they had to pick and choose. It was really strange. And then everyone sat shiva at their own place. Because my flight had been canceled anyway, I decided to stay with my parents, in Carmiel, and because my father has heart trouble, we stayed in the house the whole time. It was amazing.

Being with your parents for two months was amazing?

Yes. We talked a lot. My father made his incredible couscous whenever I wanted it. I’ve been in New York for six years – I suffer from parental deprivation. Every day I felt as though I had just landed.

How did you come to be in New York?

Shall we begin at the beginning? From the age of 6, I was really into horses. I was a ranch child: school in the morning, and in the afternoon the ranch on Kibbutz Yasur. On the day after I finished my military service, I founded a horse ranch – together with my boyfriend at the time – in Pardes Hannah. When I left, it was the biggest ranch in Israel, with 45 horses and 13 full-time instructors. Quite an operation.

Artistic riding?

No. Artistic riding is English, and we did Western. I know both, but in my opinion people who truly love horses want to work with them in a freer and more connected way – not on them. But after two years of workdays that began at 4 A.M. and ended at 1 A.M., I decided to go to the Technion in Haifa to study industrial engineering and management.

You didn’t miss the horses?

No, because I got to a point where I was dealing with dozens of horses, but I didn’t have time to ride them. I wanted it to be a hobby again, I wanted to have to pay for it and not have it be my profession.

And from the Technion you went to New York?

Not yet. I was accepted to a management program at the Unilever company [here in Israel]. I started with procurement. It was a program with a brilliant future that would have led ultimately to my becoming the company’s procurement director. But at some point I realized that this was what my life was going to look like – that I would spend decades at the same place. I was 27 and in line for a promotion, and figured that if I didn’t leave then, I would never leave. I resigned.

Just like that?

Just like that. I came in with dreams and I wanted to try, but engineering didn’t really suit me. One reason is that I don’t feel like sitting in front of a computer all day, being at the plant from 8 to 5, going home, in an endless loop. The breaking point came because I worked at a company and had a great idea for economizing that was related to green energy, something with real impact. Everyone liked the idea, but because we had already “economized” enough for that year, I was told to hold onto the idea until the following year. An idea that could save $1.5 million a year and help protect the environment was going to be rejected because there were too many full Excel spreadsheets. That broke me. I said to myself: Am I really such a small cog in the system? I’m not built for this.

So from there to New York?

Not yet. I wondered what to tell my parents. What kind of report would I give them? I googled “USA,” because that’s where I wanted to be; I wrote “summer,” because it was spring then; I wrote “Jewish” because I thought that was my relative advantage; and of course I wrote “horses.” That same evening, I found a job managing a riding stable at a Jewish community center summer camp in Colorado.

How was that?

Fantastic. We got there a month early to train the horses, and then the kids came for two months. That’s when I understood that I didn’t intend to raise my children in America.

Why not?

There were 300 children in each session, and 180 of them would wait in line at the clinic each morning for medication – allergies, anti-anxiety pills, Ritalin. What’s all that about? Besides that, there’s that expression, “homesick.” Only for them it’s not an expression. There’s are days at camp when a kid is declared homesick, and he really is sick; he stays in the room and doesn’t participate in the activities. I found that strange.

And from there to New York?

Yes, but not yet to real life. I went on a post-army trip – at the age of 27 – that lasted two years. New York had always been my dream, I lived in almost every neighborhood in Manhattan. A tremendous period.

Did you find a job?

No. I came back [to Israel] because my brother had a first child and I wanted to be at the brit [circumcision ceremony]. Then I was offered a job managing an online store platform at Amazon. I did that for a year and then the job offer from New York arrived.

Arrived how?

I didn’t just wander around and travel when I lived in New York for two years, I also volunteered at an organization that teaches people about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I did a long course there and was accepted as a volunteer – they have very few Israelis. Through them I met a few people who worked at the Israeli delegation to the United Nations. That sounded very interesting, so I submitted my résumé. After a few months they suddenly called and set up an interview. After a few more stages, I was hired. Within a month I had all the papers and I was living there.

What did you do there?

Mostly I organized events. The first event was in honor of Israel’s 70th anniversary. We did a reconstruction of November 29th [1947, the date of the General Assembly partition vote on Palestine] at the Queens Museum, where the UN was located before it moved to Manhattan. Because Vice President Mike Pence attended, we had to work with the White House and the Secret Service. They went into extreme detail: The eagle on the American banner had to be exactly on the same line as the upper point of the Star of David, and neither could deviate by so much as a millimeter. The American flag had to be on the left side and the background had to be a very specific royal blue. Everyone who was photographed with Pence needed prior approval; there was a list of people who could have access to him. Every millimeter was coordinated. That was my “baptism by fire.” Now I deal less with events and more with special projects.

So you intend to stay there?

Today, after being with my parents, I have a very strong desire to come back. This was the first time that when I said goodbye, I blurted out, “See you soon.” During this visit I understood that it’s important for me to get as much as I can from them while I still can. My parents are healthy, by and large, and active, but I’m no longer willing to give up these years with them. The coronavirus crisis did a lot: I arrived as one person and I’m going back someone else.

But your life is there.

True. Most of my friends there are American Jews, even though I work mostly with Israelis. But they come [here] at least once a year anyway and will be happy to stay with me. Obviously in Israel, I would have to start all over again, because I don’t have friends here. I am a real homebody, and maybe that’s part of the reason I left: to be less like that. But after years of searching, I feel that I have really found myself and that I don’t need to search further – I can come home. All I need is my family: my brother, my sisters, my parents. Besides that, I had a few long-term relationships, and now I understand that if I go back to New York for half a year, I’ll be really anxious about finding my future partner, because if I find him there, I’ll have to stay.

Does a relationship that starts in New York have to continue in New York?

Yes. At first it’s all rosy, but I know a lot of couples, one of whom is from here and the other from there, and if one of them wants to stay there, they stay. Because things are a lot harder in Israel, there’s no way around it. And if you “import” an American, you make his life a misery. And our culture is so different. I really understand Americans who are afraid of Israel, for whom a week here is more than enough. The culture gaps are big, even for me.

What do you mean?

What’s important for Americans is money and status, but they don’t have the passion that comes from within – a desire to do something deeper, to improve and be better. I want a guy who has that passion, even if it’s a passion for making coffee. I’m always amazed whenever I find someone in New York that I can have a real conversation with. I talk to an American, I tell him something I’m thinking about, and he replies, “Yeah, yeah, for sure!” And then I test it by saying the exact opposite, and he says again, “Yeah, yeah, yeah! I know what you mean.” Darling, either you’re not listening to me, or I’m changing your mind incredibly – or what, actually? I want someone I can argue with, who will tell me what he thinks. When I was in Israel, I went on about six dates.

But you were in quarantine.

On video, of course. The thing is, my parents are at home, and I am at a stage where I’m totally opening up. So I tell them, “Okay, listen, I have a date from 7 to 8, so don’t call me then.” And when I come out of the room they’re like, “Well, how was it, how was it?” They’re unreal.

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