Eretz Yisrael – the land of dreams, holiness, and beauty. For so many generations, a great multitude of men and women around the globe longed to lay their eyes upon this blessed land. How fortunate are we in our generation to grasp this dream, to walk on the soil of our Avos and Imahos, to taste its fruits, and to build homes of Torah within its borders. Every generation sacrifices in its own way to settle in Eretz Yisrael. It is true that in former times people had to undertake long voyages, and many who did arrive died of famine or plague. It is also valid, however, that in this generation, many who make aliyah sacrifice their familiar surroundings and, in many cases, living close to their families and source of livelihood.
Singles who make aliyah alone experience life in Eretz Yisrael in various ways. In the first part of this series, we explored how single women from Baltimore find employment and community. In this article, the reader will get a glimpse of how singles find themselves socially, learn the language, and deal with being away from family. In the final article, we’ll explore how singles navigate shidduchim and some of the beautiful aspects as well as challenges faced here.
When placing oneself in a foreign society, there is so much to learn: a new language, societal norms, and, of course, how to get around via buses and light rail! It is also essential for singles living on their own to find a social network, and that is one reason why so many singles settle in Yerushalayim after making aliyah. Of course, young olim live all over the country, but there is a large concentration in Yerushalayim, specifically because of the many jobs and other opportunities.
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When I made aliyah two years ago, I was 27 and full of optimism. I was determined to build a life for myself in Israel. My stipulation before moving was to have a social network in Israel to ease my adjustment. For several years before my aliyah, I visited Israel, and I lived here for an extended period in 2009. Those visits, along with working as a summer madricha in Neve Yerushalayim, connected me with friends and contacts. This proved to be a huge asset when I arrived as a fresh olah. I was excited to start fresh in Har Nof, get involved in the community, and meet more young singles. I am grateful for the many events that led me to some very like-minded friends, both in Har Nof and other communities, some of whom are olim like me and others who are Israelis from English-speaking homes. I find that it is actually easier to develop friendships in Yerushalayim than it was in Baltimore simply because there are so many singles here, including olim from a wide spectrum of backgrounds.
Another great way I was able to form a social network was by getting involved as a Shabbos madricha in the Heritage House, a kiruv organization that provides a hostel for not-yet-religious women from all over the world. Working there gives me opportunities not only to spend Shabbos and chagim in the Old City but also to meet other madrichot from all over the world and make some amazing friendships.
In a twist of hashgacha (providence) soon after I moved into Har Nof, I stopped at a married friend’s home and met a powerhouse of a woman, Mrs. Esti Yarmish. Esti had started a chabura project in Har Nof, named Project Connect. Its purpose was to create English-speaking chaburos for women at every age and stage of life. When I heard that Esti wanted to start a singles chabura, I jumped at the opportunity and offered to get it up and running. The idea is to get together with peers and learn something, have a party, or just socialize. Recently, a couple of other women took over leading the chabura when I moved into Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin as a live-in madricha. Har Nof is still my home, though, and I enjoy going back to visit my friends and the families I have formed close relationships with.
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Shana Laks arrived in Israel after Pesach, at the age of 26. She settled in Har Nof, where she studied prior to making aliyah. She enjoys the assortment of young singles in the neighborhood, many of whom are baalei teshuva and continue to live in Har Nof after studying in Neve or She’arim. On the other hand, Shana, like many others, views Har Nof as a place with established families, as compared to well-known singles areas like Baka and Katamon. Shana says that most of her friends are Anglos, but she hopes to improve her Hebrew so she can move out of her “English-speaking bubble” eventually. “I have met some really lovely people,” she says, “whether Australians, South Africans, or South Americans, whom I am lucky to call my friends.” She met most of them in She’arim or at Shabbos tables and events.
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Batya Miriam Perlman made aliyah about a year-and-a-half ago, at the age of 20. She describes her transition to a new country: “Moving to Israel was the first time I was independent, and also the first time I felt like I was single, since I had barely started dating in the States.” After moving many times, Batya Miriam settled down with some friends in the center of the town to be in a convenient location. She explains why she finds it easier to have a social life in Yerushalayim than in Baltimore: “From what I see, there are many singles both in Baltimore and in Israel but less opportunities in Baltimore to get together. Here, there is always something going on and opportunities to meet people.” Batya Miriam also enjoys connecting with friends from America studying in Neve and girls from home who come to visit.
“I found friends easily,” says Batya Miriam, “which was very important to me as a support system.” It was mainly by going to shiurim and classes that Batya Miriam met people and also through the Jerusalem Girls whatsapp group that she created, which is comprised of over 100 young ladies. Batya Miriam also runs events, including girls meeting to go out to eat, getting together in her apartment, music jams, movie nights, a Shabbaton, and game nights.
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Two years ago, Rochel Ursey made aliyah at the age of 21 and began her life in Israel as a student at She’arim, where many of her friendships were formed. She appreciates her soft landing as an olah. After she finished her studies, she moved into a singles apartment and became even more involved in single life and broadened her circle of friends.
Rochel finds that singles tend to stick to the center of the city because there is a lot happening there. “We don’t have families to take care of, so it’s nice to be in the thick of things,” she says. Rochel’s friends are mainly American, but she has made English-speaking Israeli friends as well, mainly from Hebrew University. Recently, Rochel moved to French Hill to be closer to the university, where she is taking college courses, but she is still part of the singles chabura in Har Nof. Rochel enjoys going to other shiurim in nearby Ramat Eshkol and Givat Hamivtar, which are geared to both married and single women. Rabbi Doniel Katz is a popular chasidishe speaker who gives deep, spiritual classes and at times includes meditation. In the future, Rochel hopes to join Rabbi Leib Kelemen’s shiur, which focuses on self-improvement.
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In addition to the singles chabura and loads of shiurim offered in every neighborhood, the OU center offers shiurim in the center of town, and an organization called Malchus, a Chabad center, has free classes on Tanya and other topics that I attended for a while. Another social group for singles was started by an Israeli young lady from an English-speaking home, who sends emails about shiurim for singles in different parts of Yerushalayim and occasionally organizes Shabbatonim.
When moving to a foreign country as an adult, learning the native language can be quite a challenge. Some catch on to new languages more easily than others, and of course, people differ in their backgrounds and desire to learn. Rochel chose to do an intense ulpan (language class), called Morasha, which people highly recommend as being the best in Yerushalayim. Morasha is different from other ulpanim in providing an excellent foundation through their focus on sentence formation and verbs rather than vocabulary. According to Rochel, “It was an incredible ulpan and got my Hebrew up to basic level. Now I am taking ulpan in Hebrew University as part of the mechina program to prepare myself for my college studies.”
Shana doesn’t let her struggle to learn Hebrew get her down. “I like to joke that before I took ulpan at Morasha, my Hebrew was really awful, and now it’s just awful. Ulpan was very helpful, but there’s a point where you just need to go out and speak and not worry about sounding like an idiot. That’s where I really struggle.”
Batya Miriam describes her level of speech as decent enough to get around, but her goal is to be fluent. “Learning Hebrew is very important to me,” she says. “I know that people get by just fine in English, but I really don’t like the idea of living in a country and not speaking the native language. Besides, this is the language of our people!” When she first arrived, Batya Miriam took ulpan for a few weeks, which reminded her of the basics she had forgotten. Since she is currently studying in a Hebrew-speaking school, she is forced to communicate in Hebrew. “When I know how to say something,” she says, “I love speaking in Hebrew. I love how it sounds. It’s a slow process, but I do feel that one day I will be fluent.”
When I made aliyah, I came with a strong desire to integrate into Israeli society and learn Hebrew. I want my kids, b’ezrat Hashem, to have a mother who can communicate as much as possible in the language of the land. Since I have zero interest in sitting in an ulpan classroom, I figured that if I work with Israelis, I would learn the nuances of the language that are impossible with just a classroom experience. Thankfully, I found a job in a Hebrew-speaking gan (preschool) in Ramat Motza, where the staff, children, and parent body showed me a great deal of acceptance and sensitivity as I met my challenge to learn the language.
I will forever be grateful to that incredible gan, which gave me the confidence to persevere. I remember discussing with one of the staff members last year if I was ready to be one of the head teachers. I shared my doubts because of my difficulty in speaking Hebrew fluently. Her response was very positive and her belief in me continues to encourage me to reach my goal of becoming fluent one day.
I am now in my third year of working in a Hebrew-speaking environment, and although I still do not speak fluently and have an American accent, I am pretty comfortable conversing with both adults and children in Hebrew. I have to say that a resource that often saves the day is Google-translate, a handy and free app that you can easily download on your phone.
I believe that whether one immerses oneself in a Hebrew-speaking environment or takes ulpan, the most important element in learning the language is not to give up. It is easy to feel foolish and embarrassed by mistakes and to just switch to English. After all, many Israelis speak English. From my experience, humor helps. Laugh at yourself and never give up. I don’t think I will ever forget the time I walked into a crafts store and asked the saleslady in Hebrew if the thread I wanted to buy was good for my sewing machine. My mistake was that I asked her if it was good for a mechonit, a car, which sounds similar to the correct word for machine: mechona. Thankfully, she didn’t even smirk but with a straight face simply corrected me and life moved on. (And I learned a new word and got a story to share!) It is a process to learn a new language but the benefits are immeasurable.
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When families pick up from their hometowns and make aliyah, they may face challenges of finding the right community and dealing with the Israeli school system. Singles don’t struggle as much with finding the best possible community because they aren’t looking to establish themselves in any one place. The single lifestyle is based more on social connections and involvements. One big factor for both families and singles – often more difficult for singles – is leaving one’s family, especially felt on Shabbos and Yom Tov. Facing a foreign culture and integration alone requires strength and a whole set of tools.
Batya Miraim is fortunate to have many relatives in Israel, including a grandmother in the Old City; first cousins in Har Nof, Neve Daniel, and Givat Ze’ev; a great uncle in Romema; and distance cousins in Moshav Matisyahu. “Having family here is a huge plus because it has created a strong support system,” she says. “It’s hard to say if I would have moved had I not had family here.” Batya Miriam spends Shabbos with her relatives, or she stays home and goes to families or hosts friends. She enjoys the varied experiences but does find that being away from her family for Yom Tov can be hard.
Rochel has one aunt, who lives in Telz Stone. “It is really helpful,” she says. “I can always ask them for support, whether it’s letting me stay with them in between apartments, helping me move, or giving me advice on Israeli culture and bureaucracy. Having family is a huge bonus, but I would have come even if they didn’t live here.” For Yamim Tovim, Rochel goes to families she has become close to over the years but has a hard time being away from her family. “I find it so hard to be away for the chagim (holidays); I always want to go back to the States. But I can’t afford to, so I just remind myself what a blessing it is to be able to celebrate the holidays in Israel!”
Family also plays a big role in Shana’s integration into Israeli society. “I have a close cousin who made aliyah about 10 years ago, and it’s wonderful. On the pragmatic side of things, she and her husband have given me really great advice and explained parts of Israeli culture that I wouldn’t get otherwise. But there’s an emotional side as well: It’s really nice to hang out with them and catch up.” Aside from this cousin, Shana also has some supportive second cousins that she goes to for Shabbosim. “I really miss my family, especially around the Yamim Tovim,” she says, “but I also love Shabbos and Yom Tov here and will either go to a family for the entire Shabbos or stay in Har Nof and eat with friends and families.”
When I made aliyah, I had only a few distant cousins, living in different parts of Israel, such as Yerushalayim, Beitar, and Bnei Brak. Although I have a kesher (connection) with some of them, I relied on a close married friend whom I knew from Baltimore to be my home base. This made a huge difference for me: knowing I had somewhere to go to just feel at home. Recently, my brother and sister-in-law moved to Israel for several months, and it’s a bonus to have them around, too. I am pretty independent, though, and I enjoy traveling around Israel and experiencing Shabbos in many different ways. I love chagim here and spend most of them in Har Nof or in the Old City, where I work as a madricha in the Heritage House. Although I am close with my family in Baltimore and miss them very much (and wish they would join me in Eretz Yisrael!), I appreciate life here and focus on the beauty of being with my friends and the families I am close with.
I find that, for most singles, it is connecting with other young singles and families who start to feel like actual family that ultimately gives us the strength to forge our way into Israeli life. It helps to spend Shabbos meals with families with whom you feel comfortable and desire to form a relationship. Recently, I started a Shabbos meal placement project in conjunction with Esti Yarmish’s Project Connect to enable singles and young couples in Har Nof to connect with established families. The truth is, many families who made aliyah treasure the relationships they form with their guests just as much as the guests do. After all, as olim without family support, we need each other to feel a sense of belonging and connection, which is crucial in keeping singles in Israel.
To be continued.