Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Before I left my job in the U.S., my office featured an interview with me about my upcoming aliyah in its weekly newsletter. My friend, who wrote the piece, suggested that we send it to Jewish media as they might want to run it as well.

At the time, I laughed off the suggestion. While aliyah may have been a new concept to many in my office, within the Jewish community, it is hardly so. We would be among the thousands of olim who make aliyah every year. Honestly, I doubted anyone would be interested in reading our story.

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Of course, by the time we boarded the plane to Israel, the whole world had changed. With the coronavirus threat rising, Israel had locked its borders, and only citizens were allowed to enter.

Although our aliyah flight had been booked months earlier, we only received special clearance that morning to board the plane despite our not-yet-citizen status. It appeared that we, along with a group of select others, would be the last olim arriving in Israel for the foreseeable future. Suddenly, our aliyah experience was newsworthy.

When Nefesh B’Nefesh approached us about participating in some media interviews, we readily agreed. My husband liked to joke that we became “celebrity olim.” While I generally had a lot of fun on these interviews, I still am embarrassed when I recall our first in-Hebrew television interview.

My husband and I barely followed the lightning fast pace of the Hebrew questions, and we struggled to cobble together responses with our still very rusty Hebrew. One thing was clear: We needed a Hebrew refresher.

Thankfully, one of the benefits afforded to new olim is five months of free intensive Hebrew instruction known as ulpan. So when my kids headed off to school, my husband and I reported to the Modi’in Absorption Department for Hebrew placement exams. The exam consisted of a written and oral examination.

The written test had 80 multiple-choice questions, which tested reading comprehension and grammar, while the oral component required the test-taker to tell an examiner about him or herself and answer a few questions in Hebrew.

It was clear from the start that the olim present for the test represented all different levels of Hebrew knowledge. Some could not yet read Hebrew. Others were clearly fluent in Hebrew and engaged the interviewer in conversation.

My husband and I were placed in rama gimmel (level 3), the highest level of Hebrew offered by the ulpan this semester. Our class is a microcosm of the kibbutz galuyot (return of exiles) with olim from South Africa, Kazakhstan, Argentina, Uruguay, Mexico, Azerbaijan, and of course North America. Our class is led by the always positive Dina, whose excitement over this tongue-twisting language is almost as contagious as her laugh.

Each day we begin by listening to the news headlines. As a class, we then discuss the news and review any new words that can be added to our otzer milim (vocabulary). Sadly, the headlines mostly concern coronavirus updates, so my new vocabulary includes the Hebrew words for morbidity, infection and crisis (tachlua, hadbaka, and mashber).

Discussing the news is usually followed by a reading comprehension exercise, in which we are tasked with reading a couple of pages of Hebrew and answering related questions. We then take turns reading sentences aloud to ensure we are properly pronouncing the words (even with my New York accent).

Another important part of our lesson involves students taking turns giving a matzeget (presentation). Many students have chosen to share a little bit about their aliyah, and their stories are mind-blowing. One student recounted growing up in a Muslim family, only to learn that her father had Jewish roots. After years of exploring her faith, she decided to convert to Judaism and later made aliyah.

Another student shared her experience working in a large hospital in Africa that often did not have sufficient equipment to treat patients. She chose to move to Israel, which of course offers medical innovation and high-level care to all its patients.

Dina constantly encourages the class to be sakranim (curious) and ask follow-up questions (in Hebrew, of course). These stories are so fascinating that our follow-up questions almost write themselves – though perhaps not in a grammatically correct way. (Don’t worry, the remainder of our four-hour lesson focuses on grammar.)

In the week we have been together, our eclectic group of international students is slowly coalescing into a crew. As most of us made aliyah during the coronavirus pandemic, we have been able to uniquely connect through our shared experiences. We look forward to getting to know each other better in the new year.

Wishing everyone a year of bsorot tovot (good news). Ktiva v’chatima tova!

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