Few people I’ve met were as enthusiastic as Chava Vodka about sharing her aliyah experience with Baltimore readers. Her response – that spreading the beauty of Eretz Yisrael is a tikun (rectification) for chet hameraglim (the sin of the spies) – revealed her deep love of Eretz Yisrael and passion for yishuv ha’Aretz. So, off I went to Bat Yam, where Chava resides with her family, to hear about her life and explore the seaside town.
Chava, the daughter of Dr. Gershon (George) and Leah (Lila) Lowell, had a happy childhood with her two brothers in their home on Western Run Drive. When she was twelve, her family moved to Israel for two years. The move was prompted by Dr. Lowell’s promise to the American army. Rather than being drafted immediately for the Vietnam War, he would join of his own volition after he completed medical school. Dr. Lowell indeed joined the army as a doctor and moved his family to Silver Spring to be near his assigned hospital in Washington. Shortly afterwards, the family moved to Baltimore for schooling for the children.
After several years of serving in America, Dr. Lowell, expecting to be sent to a foreign country as per army regulations, asked his superiors to send him to Israel. The army willingly acquiesced, because non-Jews were reluctant to be sent to the Jewish State. Although the U.S. army wanted the infectious disease specialist to live in Herzelia with the rest of the American diplomats, Dr. Lowell was not moving to Israel to live among non-Jews. He requested Rechovot, instead, which has a frum community. He spent two years serving as an American liaison to the Israeli army.
I wonder how Chava adjusted to the situation. She answers that she is fortunate to have an easygoing personality. Although Rechovot has a sizeable English-speaking community, Chava’s class was completely Israeli. Entering her classroom with only with only basic Hebrew under her belt, she emerged as a fluent Hebrew speaker from being immersed in an Israeli environment. She did miss her friends in Baltimore terribly, however. They wrote her letters and even sent a recording from a bas mitzva that she missed. Chava appreciated their continued friendship immensely and, looking back, sees it as one aspect of the incredible achdus that can be found in Baltimore. In addition to missing her Baltimore friends, Chava also felt bad that she wasn’t doing well with her school work because she didn’t understand everything being taught in class. One almost comical situation arose when her teachers insisted that her poor grades were a result of slacking off and not, as Chava insisted, because she didn’t understand the material. Since Chava picked up the Israeli accent so well, her teachers couldn’t fathom what the problem was!
Chava was surprised that her new Israeli classmates sincerely befriended her. She recognizes that other American children might not have the positive experience she had. Even though the Israeli girls included her, Chava remembers times when she felt lonely. In her second year of school in Israel, she began to feel more connected with her classmates. She remembers the birthday party they made her and the goodbye party when she was returning to the States. They even playfully stole her passport and told her that she was not leaving!
Looking back, Chava believes that her short experience in Israel as a young girl implanted loving feelings for the Holy Land, and was the start of her journey towards aliyah. An event that made a strong impression on Chava was when she and her classmates celebrated Yom Yerushalayim by marching in a parade. “We all dressed in white, waved Israeli flags, and marched together from Kiryat Moshe to the Kotel. I felt so strongly that Yerushalayim is ours and only ours. Hashem gave it and the whole Land to us, to am Yisrael.”
Chava also loved “that everyone is doing what I’m doing.” The chagim are celebrated by everyone and the excitement from the festivities is felt on the street. On Chanuka, there are big banners on the highway wishing everyone “chag sameach.” Chava also felt a sense of belonging and pride in living in Eretz Hakedosha while taking school trips around the country. After moving back to America, Chava felt the contrast vividly. On family trips, the people around them were friendly, but there was not the same sense of belonging she had felt in Israel, the awesome feeling that everyone was like one big family.
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Chava attributes her desire to make aliyah to the Tzioni (Zionist) atmosphere she absorbed in her parents’ home. Even though the Lowells weren’t able to make a permanent move to Eretz Yisrael during Chava’s childhood, they very much wanted to live there. Eretz Yisrael was mentioned in the divrei Torah around their Shabbos table and in the speeches Dr. Lowell sometimes gave in shul. When Israelis came to town, they were invited into the Lowell home. In addition, the Lowells had lots of pictures of Israel and Israeli news updates were discussed and given precedence over the news in the Baltimore Sun!
After ninth grade, Chava’s father asked if she would like to go to camp. She responded that what she truly wanted was to visit her friends in Eretz Yisrael, with whom she had kept in touch. That summer, Chava flew to Israel alone and stayed with her friend in Rechovot. She also visited relatives, who made sure to keep an eye on her! She enjoyed herself so much that she made plans with her friend to continue high school in Israel. Chava called her mother to ask permission and was told that she was to get on the plane and come home!
Chava was very happy in Bais Yaakov high school and loved the teachers and principals. She also appreciated that so many girls from a wide range of religious backgrounds and outlooks could be found in one school. Chava reflects how it’s interesting that her own children are having a similar experience in their schools in Bat Yam. Some classmates of her children come from less dati (religious) homes. There are children from homes in which one parent is a ba’al teshuva while the other parent is still non-observant.
Chava fondly remembers her friends from Bais Yaakov and implements the ideas she learned from them and from Bais Yaakov in her current community. One lesson is from the concerts that the girls put on in BY high school. Chava views the idea of putting on concerts as an opportunity to allow every girl to shine, not just those who are academic achievers.
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After completing Bais Yaakov, Chava attended Orot, a religious Zionist seminary in the Shomron. It was there that Chava learned Rav Kook’s hashkafos (philosophy), which shaped her subsequent outlook and lifestyle. Chava summarizes the crux of Rav Kook’s hashkafos like this: “The ideal state of Yahadus (Judaism) is am Yisrael with Toras Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael. If you have only one or two of those components, you won’t be complete.” Chava tells me that she sometimes imagines with her kids what it would be like if everyone in Israel, including its leaders, were religious and how beautiful that would be. She explains that she learned that we are now in a “twilight zone” between galus and geulah. Things are happening gradually. The geula is coming slowly, slowly: First, the State is going through a period of being led by non-religious leaders, which will pave the way for Mashiach and the complete geula.
After completing seminary, Chava decided to do Sheirut Leumi (national service) in order to give back to am Yisrael. This is a program for religious girls in place of regular army service. She spent her time volunteering with friends at absorption centers where the Ethiopian community was living. The volunteers were mentors and tutors to the immigrants, and guided them in keeping modern day halacha, as the religious life in Ethiopia was outside the accepted norms of frumkeit.
Chava’s feeling of being somewhat of an outsider was one reason she loved working with the Ethiopian olim. “Although I was worlds apart from them culturally,” says Chava, “an oleh is an oleh.” She had “amazing discussions” with many of the older Ethiopian girls about the challenges of being an oleh. One very bright young girl worked with Chava to create leadership training programs for olim via Bnei Akiva. They came across a picture of an olah chadasha standing on a bridge; on one side of the bridge was her country of origin and on the other side was Eretz Yisrael. Reflecting on this poignant picture, they discussed how the aliyah experience feels like being on the gesher (bridge). At times, one feels closer to his country of origin, such as when he goes home, is part of family simchas, or eats traditional foods. At other times, he feels closer to Eretz Yisrael, as when he is in yeshiva, out with friends, on the bus, or talking to Israelis. “He is perpetually ‘living on a bridge,’ which can be disconcerting,” Chava explains, but she and the Ethiopian girl concluded that it was okay. “Aliyah is a lifelong process that may be difficult, but it’s definitely worth it!”
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The year after Sheirut Leumi, Chava began her studies in Bar Ilan University, working toward a degree in guidance counseling. In 1998, Chava officially made aliyah. “It was exciting and scary to make aliyah alone,” she says. On the one hand, she felt totally at home in Eretz Yisrael, where she had been for four years. She had many contacts and knew the language and how to get around. On the other hand, she felt she had no real roots. “My Israeli friends would meet with high school friends or bump into old teachers or neighbors or kids they had babysat for as teenagers. I had none of that.”
On the other hand, it was while studying at Bar Ilan that Chava got engaged. She met her Israeli husband, Asher Vodka, when both were volunteering with the Ethiopians. Asher, who began volunteering when he was nineteen and learning full time in Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, was helping with things like forming a minyan or shofar blowing. Over the years, he formed close connections with the Ethiopian children and their families. His involvement included persuading roshei yeshiva to accept certain children into their schools, getting tefilin for bar mitzva boys, teaching bar mitzva lessons, giving lots of shiurim and forming chavrusas with the older boys.
As the years went by, the Ethiopian families received aid from the government and moved out of the absorption center, which was nothing more than a rundown trailer site, and into regular apartments in various cities. Asher continued to maintain his connections with the families and would visit them in their new communities as well as the yeshivos of the children. Chava also visited the kids she had been working with in their new homes. A few times, Asher and Chava ran into each other. They also got to know each other from being involved in Heneni, a new organization to help the immigrants. Soon enough, the couple was dating and a short while later celebrated their engagement. Chava remarks that she and her husband are not the only Heneni couple. A few others also met this way!
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Chava and Asher are a beautiful example of couples from very different backgrounds who have created incredibly harmonious homes. Asher’s parents are from the former Soviet Union. His father and uncle were involved in anti-Communist activities and were eventually caught by the KGB and put into jail for several years. Asher’s parents, Zev and Malka, were about to become engaged, and his mother was given an ultimatum to either break off contact with Zev or be expelled from the university. Malka continued to visit Zev in jail and was subsequently expelled from university.
While Zev was in jail, someone gave him a Tanach, which he read diligently. Coming from a completely irreligious background, with only the knowledge that he was Jewish, Zev nevertheless came to the conclusion that he had found the absolute truth. As he read or heard from others about mitzva observance, he started keeping the mitzvos. In the 1970s, when he was finally released from jail, the couple married, made aliyah, and continued in the path of teshuva. Many of the families they connected with were Sefardi, so with permission from a rav, who explained that a baal teshuva without a mesora can choose which customs to keep, they chose to become Sefardi.
Growing up in Alon Shvut in Gush Etzion, Asher’s Sefardi minhagim, as well as his Russian-Israeli background, was a sharp contrast to Chava’s American mentality. One culture gap is Asher’s outlook that “you make do with what you have” in contrast to Chava’s upbringing, which was to “have available everything you need and don’t need.” Asher’s family had one bathroom in the house for seven kids, whereas Chava and her two brothers had three bathrooms in their childhood home! Also, Chava describes how hard it is to understand her husband’s Hebrew, even though she’s fluent. “He speaks so fast that I am forever telling him to slow down!” They laugh at their differences and concentrate on their similarities. Ideologically, they are “on the same page.” Both of them want to build a true Torah home, and they share a readiness to help others.
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Asher and Chava began their marriage in Kiryat Moshe, where Asher learned in nearby Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav. Two years later, they decided to look for a growing community where they could make an impact. About 40 years ago, their Rav, Rav Dovid Chai HaCohen, a talmid of Rav Tzvi Yehuda HaCohen Kook, had developed a dati leumi (religious Zionist) community according to the beliefs of Rav Kook in Bat Yam. He gave shiurim and established schools and shuls for both Ashkenazim and Sefardim. Now, Rav Dovid wanted to open a yeshiva gedola and invited Asher to join as a serious, dedicated learner. The Vodkas had been debating between moving to Bat Yam or to Gush Katif (before the expulsion) to help build the community there. In the end, they decided on Bat Yam and have been living there ever since.
The city lies on the Mediterranean coast, just south of Tel Aviv. When Asher began in the yeshiva, there were only five talmidim, but it has grown to close to 80 bachurim and kollel avreichim.
Their adjustment to Bat Yam went well – “We quickly got used to the ‘small town’ atmosphere as opposed to the bustle of Yerushalayim,” shares Chava – but she insisted on giving birth to her children in Yerushalayim. As she told Asher, “I can’t even think of having the zechut to live in Eretz Yisrael and giving up the zechut to have my kids be born in Yerushalayim!” Baruch Hashem, Chava says, she has long labors and was able to make the hour-long drive to Yerushalayim in plenty of time!
Most people in Bat Yam are balabatim, and the majority of the population is Sefardi or Teimani (Yemenite extraction), but there are some Ashkenazim as well. There is also a Bobov chasidishe community. Bat Yam is almost completely Israeli, and Chava shares her American status with few. Another native American living in Bat Yam is actually the Rav’s wife, Rabbanit Adina, who comes from Harrisburg, PA, is the granddaughter of Rabbi Eliezer Silver, zt”l, of Cincinnati.
Chava describes the community as being “very warm and welcoming, and everyone looks out for each other. “My neighbors will tell me if it’s too hot or cold and whether I should put socks on the baby or take them off!” Chava also describes the chesed in her community. “I have an easy time finding good babysitters,” she says, “and there’s always a neighbor you can call for something.” The community offers shiurim, Shabbatonim, and trips, and Chava is a part of those activities.
Some buildings in the Vodkas’ neighborhood are completely religious, while others, like their building, have a mixture of observant and non-observant residents. Since they have so many religious neighbors, though, Chava experiences a “normal” religious atmosphere on Shabbos and Yom Tov. She actually appreciates living in a mixed building and has managed to forge close relationships with many of the secular families living there. The Vodkas clearly create a kiddush Hashem. Chava receives comments from her neighbors, such as “I didn’t know religious people were so nice...” The Vodkas have become the address for many shailos from their neighbors, like how to build a sukkah or sell their chometz. On Chanuka, the Vodkas light an additional menorah in the building lobby, and on Purim, Chava sends mishloach manos to all her neighbors in the building.
A beautiful “only in Israel” story happened last summer during the war. “My neighbor came by, tank top and all (covered with a jacket she wears when she comes over to us), and said ‘Chava! Chayavim la’asot hafrashat challa! SheHashem yishmor al kol hachayalim shelanu! (Chava, we have to do hafrashas challa! So that Hashem will protect all of our soldiers!).” So, Chava made the challa dough and that Friday, all the women in her building (mostly non-religious) came down to the lobby to do hafrashas challa and say tehilim.
Speaking about raising her children among secular people, Chava says, “You don’t want them to grow up in a bubble; on the other hand, you have to find a balance.” She encourages her kids to befriend the other children – to say hello and play ball – but there is no way she will allow them to play in other homes. The children know they can only invite their neighbors to play in their own house. Before Sukkos, the Vodkas invite all the kids in the building to their sukkah to make decorations. One year they made a paper chain so long that they measured it by wrapping it around the whole building!
Chava and her husband spend a lot of time discussing these concepts with their kids to help them understand the balance. Chava considers her daughters’ school and its teachers to be good quality, but she won’t send the girls to the school’s summer camp, because of her family’s stricter stance about certain issues. Instead of sending them away in the summer, Chava makes her own camp for her daughters.
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Chava makes it clear that their dati leumi community doesn’t compromise on halacha and that their yeshiva has serious bnei Torah. Generally, the bachurim marry young. They learn, their wives work, and they live the typical kollel lifestyle. Chava is in touch with her former Bais Yaakov high school friends who belong to chareidi communities in Eretz Yisrael. “We have come to recognize that halachically we’re more or less the same; it’s the hashkafa that’s different.”
The Vodkas’ community leader, Rav Dovid, has Iraqi origins and was close to former Chief Rabbi Rav Mordechai Eliyahu, z”tl. The Rav is very involved in everything that goes on in the community. He speaks at the general PTA meetings in the schools and gives out the siddurim and Chumashim at the first grade siddur and Chumash parties. He also attends graduation in all the schools and yeshivos. For Purim, the yeshiva offers a large seuda with the Rav, which the Vodkas hosted these past two years. At this last Purim seuda, they had 80 people in their ground floor apartment and backyard! The Rav is also involved in many political organizations and is often asked to speak at nationwide conferences.
Their Rav’s hashkafa is that “you shouldn’t only be a Torah person in the bais midrash.” A man who has a profession balances his time with Torah learning. Along those lines, Chava reiterates that her sons’ learning is the ikar, the main focus, but she also encourages them to get involved with other facets of life, including carpentry and art. She believes that involvement in other creative fields will enhance their limud Torah and their appreciation for Hashem’s amazing world.
Another outlook that Chava learned from the Rav is that being in the army is “hatzalat Yehudim” (saving Jews) and is “one of the biggest mitzvos you can do.” Unfortunately, because the army is secular and tries with all its might to get the religious to do aveiros, it’s “definitely very complicated.” The Rav therefore encourages the young men to join the army but to do so carefully, such as going into the Nachal Chareidi unit or the rabbanut hatzva’it, the army’s rabbinate. The Rav also believes in doing as much as you can through halacha and Torah guidance to be part of the government and national holidays so as not to separate and form a community apart from the rest of the country.
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For her first four years in Bat Yam, Chava was an English teacher. She then started to volunteer. She is currently the vice-president of the parent board of her children’s school and thinks it is important to let her voice be heard so as to represent the outlook of the yeshiva community. She and a friend also initiated a local clothing gemach. Families and store owners donate good quality clothing to the gemach, which sells it very cheaply (only a few shekels per garment). They renovated and designed the store to make it look like a regular shop where people would feel comfortable shopping for their clothing. She and her girls love shopping there as well! When the community needed a new kindergarten, Chava was there to help, and also created programs for women and girls. The next project on Chava’s agenda is starting a multifaceted learning center geared towards the needs of the religious community.
“American olim davka have a lot to give to Israeli community life,” says Chava. “Sometimes when you’ve seen how things worked differently in chutz la’aretz,, it enables you to develop change that others don’t see as possible.” The hardest part of her aliyah, says Chava, is being far from friends and family and not being able to participate in family simchas. She jokes that something that took her time to get adjusted to was that you don’t have Sundays off, as you have in America. “Sundays are considered a regular weekday, and everyone goes right back to school and work.”
When the Vodkas first moved to Bat Yam, Asher learned in the yeshiva. Then their Rav asked that he lead the new yeshiva ketana track they were starting at the local yeshiva high school. Asher has been leading the yeshiva ketana for the past seven years and also teaches the twelfth graders. “His current talmidim like him as much as the Ethiopian kids did way back when…,” Chava attests proudly.
Aside from his involvements in Bat Yam, Asher learns each Thursday in a yeshiva in Chomesh, one of the yishuvim in the Shomron that was dismantled at the time of the Gush Katif expulsion. Although the yishuv was destroyed, the land remains under Israeli control, unlike Gush Katif, which was given away to the Arabs. The yeshiva in Chomesh doesn’t have a building, but they have had a constant presence there for a few years now. Asher arranges for groups to visit Chomesh and for rabbanim from all over the country to come give shiurim and see how Chomesh is slowly being rebuilt. Asher and Chava believe that’s important to take an active part in rebuilding the Land, to bring us closer to geulas Yisrael.
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Chava and her family are fortunate that some of her family made aliyah. About 10 years ago, Chava’s parents moved to Yerushalayim and are very happy living in Baka. Chava’s brother Avi and his wife made aliyah as newlyweds soon after she did. Her younger brother Ari lives in New Jersey and hopes to move to Eretz Yisrael in the future as well.
Chava has advice to share with readers of the Where What When who are interested in aliyah. “Don’t be afraid to try new things,” she begins. “It can be a bit daunting at first but it gets easier and easier. Who hasn’t taken a bus in the wrong direction once or twice?!” Chava once spent hours on a bus because she didn’t recognize her stop and finally just went home. Chava quotes the Israelis: “Lo na’im aval lo norah (It’s not comfortable, but no big deal).”
Chava also shares her belief that, “Am Yisrael gets stronger and stronger in ruchniyut the more the nation is united, and the place to truly unite with Yidden from all over the world is here in Eretz Yisrael. There is so much thirst here among the secular for authentic Judaism. They already speak Hebrew, know about the chagim, etc., but often miss the point.” Chava has seen whole neighborhoods in Bat Yam change under the influence of just one Rav or a few families started outreach programs. “They’re just waiting for the pintele to be ignited.” Chava suggests that new olim should be active in their communities by being involved with shiurim, volunteer work, and davening at kivrei tzadikim (graves of holy people).
Chava also recommends taking advantage of being in the Holy Land to learn and explore. She describes the magnificence of going to places like Shiloh and Emek Dotan, which you learn about in Chumash and Navi. Chava mentions another important point: that it is very crucial to find a Rav here. “A lot here is so political, and it is therefore so important to find a Rav you feel is leading you in a true Torah direction and helping you continually grow in ruchniyut.”
Finally, Chava urges prospective olim to get lots of advice but “to make the decision that’s best for you. That takes siyata d’Shmaya and lots of davening. Sometimes the neshama (soul) just feels it’s being pulled in a certain direction, and you can’t really explain it. Many things, especially in Eretz Yisrael, just can’t be explained logically. This is often difficult for American olim used to things making sense and being logical.
“We are by definition an ‘unreasonable, illogical’ nation and country. There’s no reason we should actually exist today. It is only because of Hashem. It’s the same thing when you go to the makolet (grocery) and it’s suddenly closed with no explanation, but then you notice someone across the street you’ve been looking for and lost her number. So, expect the unexpected! It’s a major hashgacha pratit country: ‘Eretz asher eini Hashem Elokecha bah’ (a land that Hashem’s eye is always upon). Let go and let Hashem take control,” concludes Chava.
Chava’s experiences and growth produced so many lessons and such incredible wisdom, which she has so graciously shared. She concludes with a final beautiful message. “Everything here is extra-connected to Hashem – the rain, the weather, the news. You just feel yad Hashem everywhere and in everything. One day, after a few weird summer rain showers, my girls came home from gan and I mentioned how odd it was that it rained in the summer. One of them said, ‘Ima you know why it rained? Because in gan, we keep getting mixed up in the davening and we said mashiv haruach u’morid ha’geshem instead of morid hatal!’ I remember my neighbor from Baltimore, Mrs. Zelda Rosenthal, a”h, used to say, ‘In America I exist; in Eretz Yisrael I live.’ I totally agree.”