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Aliyah and Educating Sabra Children

The triplets (left to right): Esther, Aliza, Judi.

The triplets (left to right): Esther, Aliza, Judi.
Photo Credit: Varda Meyers Epstein

As an education writer for the nonprofit organization, Kars for Kids, and as someone who made Aliyah from Pittsburgh 34 years ago, I decided to write about the challenges of Aliyah from western countries with school age children. See the previous piece in this series, Aliyah in the National Religious Path. Today I interview Aliza of Zichron Yaakov.

V: When did you make Aliyah? How old were you?

Aliza: I came to Israel in 1991 when I was 23. I didn’t officially make Aliyah until 1993, a month before my wedding.

V: Where did you go to school? Do you have a profession?

Aliza: I have a B.A. in Music Education from the Eastman School of Music, at the University of Rochester, in New York. I began my career as a music teacher. In 2000 I took a technical writing course and for the last 14 years I have happily served as a technical writer at a global high-tech company.

V: Tell me a bit about meeting your husband: when you married, his background and profession, how many children you have and their names.

First Generation Sabra

Aliza: My husband Arye is an Israeli from Haifa, the first “sabra” born to a family who came to Haifa from Vilna in the 1950’s. His family tree goes back to the Gaon of Vilna on his mother’s side. When Arye was a boy he sang in the choir of the Haifa Great Synagogue.

He is currently payroll manager and controller at a high-tech company, and is a certified tax consultant. Arye served in the paratrooper unit of the IDF until an injury forced him into a position less physically taxing.

We met through a mutual friend on the last night of Chanukah and got married on Tu B’Av of the same year (1993). We have 3 children, Yoni (almost 14) and Matan and Na’ama (9 year old twins).

V: I know you are one of triplets. Did you all make Aliyah around the same time?

Aliza: We made Aliyah in age order! Judi, the first born, made Aliya in 1987; Esther in 1988; and I, unofficially, in 1991, officially in 1993.

V: Was it hard to be separated from them?

Aliza: It was a bit traumatic the first year not only going to separate colleges, but also with Judi across the ocean. We wrote a lot of letters, sent care packages which ended up arriving 4 months late and moldy, and sent silly cassette-taped messages to each other (pre-Skype!).

V: I know your mother is gone, A”H. Did your parents make Aliyah prior to her death?

Aliza: My parents made Aliyah in 1988 after they saw that two out of three of their triplets were already in Israel. They made Aliyah from Toronto with the Tehila program for North American Dati Aliyah.

V: Tell me about your children and where they go to school.

Aliza: The twins go to Yavetz, the Mamlachti-Dati elementary school (1-6 grade) in Zichron. After graduating Yavetz, Yoni started going to the Yeshiva Tichonit Zichron Yaakov (the kids call it “YASHTAZI”), part of the “growth program” (Tochnit Hatzmacha) for the graduates of Yavetz. There is a parallel school for the girls called Pelech. The two schools are both in their fifth year, so there is, as yet, no 12th grade.

Talented Children

Yoni is an expert card trick performer and is working on his blue belt in Ninjitsu. He has a magical way with animals; a kind of a dog-whisperer. Matan is a wonderful artist, drawing mostly animals, dragons, and dinosaurs. Naama dances jazz and zumba, and is in the school choir. They all go to Bnei Akiva.

V: How do you feel about their education compared to the education you received in the States? What is good about the system here as compared to there and vice versa?

Aliza: I think it’s good on the whole; there are things I got in my education that are lacking here, and vice versa. In my education, for instance, we got a lot more of the fine arts, and in Israel they learn more about modern Israeli history. When I made Aliyah I found that I was sorely lacking basic knowledge in modern Israeli history

My husband was shocked to learn that I’d never heard of Alexander Zaid, or what Lehi was. And because we studied all the Limudei Kodesh by reading and translating to English, the kids in Israel cover much more material. I got a solid education in American history, but my kids have not learned about it all – perhaps in later grades—I try to fill in the gaps at home.

I find the kids’ textbooks here to be very lively and engaging. I really wish they would not call teachers by their first names.

Dealing With Situations

V: What is difficult for you in dealing with your children’s education and the educational system here and how have you dealt with the situation?

Aliza: I think being a working mother makes it very hard to be as plugged in as I would like to be. Also, I do not see many teachers who have been provided the tools or schools provided with the facilities to help kids with differences, who aren’t “mainstream.” For instance, teachers might need additional help learning how to deal with kids who have learning or physical disabilities.

That said the communication channels are numerous (email, SMS, etc.), and this helps me keep track of homework, projects, and school trips. It seems parents today are much more involved in school than in my day, almost to the point of micromanaging the teachers. For example, it was unheard of for my parents to question the teacher’s syllabus, choice of textbooks, or homework load.

V: What is difficult for your children in terms of school and the educational system and how do you and they deal with the difficulties?

Aliza: I don’t think my kids have any difficulties that are specific to the Israeli school system. We are persistent in solving any issues that come up.

The Future Ahead

V: How do you see your children’s educational and career futures?

Aliza: If the SATs are important in the U.S., then the equivalent in Israel is the Bagrut. I think that any “soft skills” or extracurricular activities added by your kid to his CV’s really does not carry much weight in Israel. It’s all about the bagrut. And what kids end up doing in the army. On the other hand, it is much easier in Israel to reinvent yourself if your career need to change track.

V: What would you tell prospective Olim with school age children that might help ease their absorption?

Aliza: Take a pilot trip here and visit different schools and communities to get a feel. Learn Hebrew before you get here. Don’t expect the school to have all the facilities, bells and whistles that you had in America—there just is not enough of a budget here. Join some online forums and ask questions. I always said that my parents made Aliyah at the hardest age, in their 50’s. It’s easier to make Aliyah as a young couple, or toward retirement. Don’t be afraid to make friends with Israelis.

About the Author: Blogger and mother of 12 Varda Meyers Epstein is a third-generation Pittsburgher who made aliyah at age 18 and never looked back. A proud settler who lives in the biblical Judean heartland, Varda serves as the communications writer for the nonprofit car donation program, Kars for Kids.


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