'My Community Came From Iran, Where They Practiced Judaism in Secret for 200 Years'

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Netanel Maroof.
Netanel Maroof.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Netanel Maroof, 18, lives in Nof Ayalon, flying to New York

Hi Netanel, where are you flying to?

I’m going to see my family in New York. I’m studying in Israel as part of the Naale program, which brings Jewish kids here from all over the world. I’m a senior at a high school yeshiva, and I’m completing my matriculation exams this year. I’ve been here for three years, since 10th grade.

How did you decide to move to a new country at such a young age?

I read about the program online one day and told myself that this is what I wanted in life – to be here. It’s my heritage, and I grew up in a place with a lot of tradition. Judaism is what made me come here. My parents reacted well; my grandfather thought it was a little weird that I was leaving home, but he accepted it in the end.

What were you most afraid of?

I didn’t know Hebrew and didn’t know anything about the culture and the country. It really scared me the first year. People here and in New York are very different – in everything. In the U.S. you can’t just go up to people you don’t know and get them to talk to you. If you’re too assertive people look at you funny. I had to learn to be more sure of myself, because I was very shy before I got here.

Do you act the same way when you go back?

Yes, it really changed me. I can approach people and talk to them a lot more easily. Before, I wouldn’t talk to anyone or ask questions, just because that’s not how you behave in America, and because I wasn’t confident enough. It was one of the greatest lessons I’ve learned in my three years here. My self-confidence is higher than ever.

How did a year of the coronavirus treat you?

I live in the dorms so I was stuck there for seven months, until now. Also, it was hard to study for finals, not to see the teachers or study face to face. I was also planning to see my parents over Hanukkah and I couldn’t, so that was hard. But on the positive side I was with my friends the whole time. We were stuck together and I made many friends.

Do you plan to stay in Israel after the program?

Yes, I decided in my first year here that I would stay. My sister came here as well last year, and my parents plan to make aliyah this summer.

Wow, that’s a serious move.

It’s a big thing to leave the U.S., it’s a lot more comfortable there financially, but they decided to do it. My dad always dreamed of moving to Israel – he always waited for the right time. And when I decided to take this step, I think it inspired my whole family to do it too.

What will you miss most about the States?

We live in a very large Persian community on Long Island. It’s a community of 6,000 people, and it will be sad to say goodbye. I’ll miss being part of such a community; I don’t think it exists anywhere else in the world.

What kind of a community is it?

It’s the Mashhadi community. They were Jews in the city of Mashhad in Persia, and they weren’t allowed to be Jews. So they behaved like Muslims, but they preserved their Judaism for 200 years. They became a very close-knit community and when they left Iran after the revolution, they all went to the same place together.

They didn’t have anything, and they rebuilt the community on Long Island together. Everyone is really close, everybody knows everybody and is very active in the community. It’s like one big family. They speak Persian. I also knew some Persian but I was never very good at it.

It sounds very special.

They have an event for every occasion. If there’s a wedding, the whole community attends. There’s an election for the leadership of the community, there’s a chairman and council members, and everybody cares a lot about everybody else. On seder night they would have a great big celebration, but this year they won’t because of the pandemic.

Aren’t you sad to leave?

I didn’t grow up there. I was 12 when we moved there from Maryland, and I feel like I missed out on some things. But it’s still sad to leave this bubble. It’s special. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Ofir Popovich and Max.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Ofir Popovich, 32, and Max, 4; live in Hadera, arriving from New York

Hi Ofir, where are you arriving from?

From New York; I’m actually returning to Israel. I’m making aliyah for the second time in my life. I was born in America, we moved to Israel when I was 4, and we lived in Hadera. When I was 16 we returned to the U.S. I finished high school and lived there for 16 years.

Recently I met an Israeli and we wanted to get married, so I decided to return to Israel. What’s surprising is that she lives in Hadera, around the corner from where I lived before we returned to America, but we never met before. Her brother and I studied in the same grade.

How great, so you met her in Israel?

No, I actually met her in New York. She went there for six months, for work. Our parents introduced us. They know each other because Hadera is a small city and they worked in the same field. So they set us up, and we’ve been together ever since.

And what were you doing in New York just now?

I went back to get my dog; he was there a few months without me. We got married in Hadera, and then we went on our honeymoon in the Seychelles, from where I went to New York while my wife returned to Israel. Then I wanted to come back, but my flight was canceled three times in one day. Each time I had to make the trip with Max to the airport. It’s a cumbersome process to bring him here, but he’s such an amazing dog. Thank God we’re here, and my wife is now waiting for me outside.

How long have you had Max?

Four years; he lived with me in New York. I have a friend who watches him when I travel around the world, and they had a really good bond; she’s like his mom. So I can go on vacation and be sure I’m leaving him with someone who takes care of him well.

Does he get along with your wife?

They’re fine. Now she’ll live with him and see what Max is all about. We’re moving to a renovated place that’s also around the corner from the house where I grew up. It’s a pretty amazing story, no?

Totally. What was it like to return to the U.S. at 16?

It wasn’t easy to leave. I had a first love, I had many friends, a wonderful life in Israel, a big family. It took me a year and a half to finish high school, to get over all the difficulties, like the language. I was totally Israeli. But I really did finish high school in a year and a half, and I went to college and worked in construction.

Is that what you do today?

Until recently I had my own business in New York. I managed projects and dealt with construction-site safety. It was a pretty successful business, and New York is a great place to do those kinds of things. But sometimes things like COVID-19 happen and give you a new perspective on life. I met my wife, Renana, and realized that it’s more important to have a family than a business.

People who understand construction safety are needed here too.

It looks like I’ll start two safety projects, and there’s also the option of project management, but I was less interested in that because I realized how it works here; in comparison to how it was over there, it’s not a good fit for me right now. Recently I’ve also gotten into the stock market.

How did you get into that?

It started with the coronavirus; I was home and had to make money. Renana went to Israel and I found myself home alone. The next day I got into the stock market and suddenly found myself being successful there as well. Everything that happens in the world regarding innovation, medicine and technology can be seen in stocks. It clicked for me, and when things click I go with the flow. If I see I’m in the right direction, I go all in.

Sounds like you go with your gut.

It’s something that’s created over time. You learn from failures and successes. A few days ago I ordered Chinese food and got four fortune cookies. The first said: “Success is to be at peace with yourself.” Then my wife called and I told her to guess what dishes I was eating, and that with each correct guess I would open a fortune cookie. She guessed everything right and I opened all the cookies. Two of the three remaining fortunes also talked about success, each from a different angle. But the first was the most correct. Success is your own peace with yourself.

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