I hop on the bus heading for Bayit Vegan in southwest Jerusalem, only a short ride from my home. As we pass the Yefei Nof neighborhood, with its beautiful scenery, I reflect on a thought I heard this past Shabbos: Heroic figures are not always the best barometer to measure greatness in life. It is the attainment of goodness, often achieved and known only in the depths of one’s self, that defines real greatness. Little did I know that I was about to meet one such person, who traversed seemingly ordinary chapters in her life, but with the faith and outlook that defines greatness.
The families who have shared their aliyah stories with me until now have all been Baltimoreans who made aliyah. The woman I’m heading to meet now, Mrs. Rochi Epstein, is different in the sense that she and her husband Shraga are native Israelis who spent 12 years in Baltimore before returning to Israel. I wonder what brought them to Baltimore in the first place and what caused them to move back to Eretz Yisrael.
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Rochi welcomes me warmly into her cozy home, and I immediately notice the small garden in her backyard with numerous cactus plants neatly lined up. She explains that gardening is her husband’s hobby. Luckily, the location of their apartment allows him that opportunity. Rochi insists that I make a bracha in her house and happily makes some coffee before sitting down with me to share her family’s story.
When Shraga and Rochi married, they lived the typical life of a young Israeli couple, and over the years they were blessed with four children. In 1989, they picked up and left their families and the familiar shores of Israel to start again on the other side of the ocean. Rochi explains their move: “We had parnassa difficulties – I don’t want to say problems – I don’t like that word.” Positivity is something that defines Rochi’s essence, but she tells me it’s something she has worked on throughout her life. Since they were having trouble making ends meet in Israel, someone suggested that Shraga learn shechita with Empire Kosher Poultry in America and that after two or three years of saving up money, they would be financially secure enough to move back to Israel.
Once the Epsteins arrived in America, however, they sent their children to school and had other expenses. The next several years brought them five more children, and the prediction of a quick move back to Israel did not materialize. Rochi’s outlook is that Hashem had a plan for them to be in America longer than they originally planned, and the attraction of parnassa was only a tool to motivate them to move there in the first place. “It’s not what we think,” she emphasizes, “it’s what He wants.” Since Empire was located in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania, the Epsteins chose to live in Baltimore, not too far away, enabling Shraga to travel back and forth a couple times a week. They also considered Baltimore a good choice because they heard about the very good community and schools.
Rochi praises the welcome she and her family received in Baltimore. Their relatives, Rabbi Sheftel and Judy Neuberger, completely took them under their wing. Not only did they house them until they found a home of their own in the Park Heights area but also enrolled their children in schools. Judy even started teaching Rochi how to drive.
Rochi already had a good command of English from when she and her family had lived in South Africa for four years as a child. After arriving in Baltimore, Rochi at first chose to be a stay-at-home mom. Judy, however, mentioned at school that her Israeli cousin was in town, and so Rochi was offered a position teaching Ivrit in Bais Yaakov High School, which she did for a few years. Rochi mentions that, throughout their stay in Baltimore, her girls were very happy in Bais Yaakov and found the school to be accommodating.
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As the years went by and the family adjusted to Baltimore life, their vision of going back to Eretz Yisrael was delayed until an incident that changed the picture. A sister of Rochi’s good friend passed away, and when she went to pay her a shiva call, she noticed that her friend was sitting shiva alone because her family was in Israel. A short while later, this same friend sat shiva again, this time for her mother. This was a wakeup call for Rochi. “I felt that with my parents, time was running out. B”H, my mother was fine, but my father was ill. I came back after that shiva call and told my husband, ‘I want to go home. I don’t want to sit shiva for my parents alone in America without enjoying them and without my children knowing them.’”
Although the seed of their return was planted, it took another two years before Shraga and Rochi were actually able to do it. Despite Rochi’s strong desire to return to Israel, it was important to both her and Shraga to move at the end of a school year so that their children would have time to adjust to Israeli life in the summer before beginning school in Israel. Well, that summer, Rochi gave birth, and their plan to move back was postponed until the following year. As the time approached to start packing, some of the Epstein kids had a hard time leaving their friends and familiar ground, even though they had missed their relatives and wanted to return to Israel throughout their time in the States. Caring people advised the Epsteins that it was unwise to go back without a clear plan for parnassa awaiting them. Unsure what to do, they consulted Rav Moshe Halberstam, z”tl, from the Badatz. He directed them, “Kol hatchalot kashot (all beginnings are hard), but if the children always wanted to go, they would be fine. Hashem gives parnassa, and if Shraga is willing to work, Hashem will give him work.”
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After checking into various communities in Israel, the Epsteins chose Bayit Vegan in Yerushalayim to be near Shraga’s parents. As hashgacha would have it, both of Rochi’s parents passed away within three-and-a-half years of the family’s move back to Israel. “Baruch Hashem, our children got to know and enjoy them and vice versa, and I was able to be there for them and help them during their hard times,” Rochi says.
It was a difficult start for the Epsteins. “The first year, I did my best to help my children,” Rochi remembers. The younger children did not know Hebrew well and had a hard time learning the language and adjusting. This was because a Baltimore friend of Rochi’s advised her to speak English to the kids to ease their adjustment to America. Finding an appropriate high school for the older Epstein girls proved to be a challenge, too, but once they did find a school, the girls settled in relatively easily and had a positive experience. Some of the children were excited in the beginning because everything was new. But as time passed, it became harder for them to deal with the different mentality, while others had an easier time adjusting. The Epsteins’ eldest son went to learn in Yeshivas Ateres Yisrael, the same yeshiva his father had gone to, and did well there. The Epsteins’ younger son went to the Mesora cheder and had a good experience, too.
Coming from the Baltimore schools that they had gotten so used to, the transition into the Israeli schools was a culture shock for the Epstein kids of various ages. One of the differences was the warm, close family-like teacher/student relationship in Baltimore as opposed to the more formal, slightly distant relationship in Israel. Rochi remembers how the principal of the BY elementary school, Rabbi Freedman, would accompany the new girls into their classes. “It’s not that the teachers in the Israeli schools don’t care,” she explains, “rather, the class sizes are so much larger, and as a result, the relationship is different.” Interestingly, Rochi shares that the reverse was also true. When she started teaching in Bais Yaakov of Baltimore, she had to learn its system and how to relate to her students!
Aside from the schools, it took time for the Epsteins to adjust to the new Israeli community they had moved into. They missed the friendly, supportive Baltimore community where they were warmly welcomed and invited out, where they had neighbors over for Shabbos meals, and where everyone wishes each other good Shabbos on the streets. When they first moved into their apartment in Bayit Vegan, one neighbor brought them a cake, and another family invited them for a Shabbos meal. One day, another neighbor knocked on the door and came in with a warm welcome and cold ice cream and proceeded to invite them for a Shabbos meal – invitations that made the family feel welcomed.
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Rochi explains that the differences between Baltimore and Bayit Vegan are not negative: “In Baltimore it’s community life, and here it’s city life.” Society is different in Bayit Vegan, where many different kehilos exist, and people by and large are busy with their own lives. When Rochi speaks with her Israeli friends about the difficulties she perceives in Israeli culture, they don’t necessarily share the same attitude because they don’t know any different and are happy with their lifestyle. Rochi believes that it is only because she has spent time in America that she perceives things differently now. She adds, “When I came back to Israel after living in America, I felt that there is so much to appreciate in both places that if we could learn from each other and combine the ma’alos of both societies, we could almost be perfect.”
Another difference that Rochi experienced was that in Baltimore they owned a car, but after coming back to Israel owning a car was not a given. After a few years without a car, Rochi’s uncle gave them his car when he was looking for a new one. One month, when things got tight financially, Rochi stopped using the car and started taking buses. During that month, she realized that she was unable to continue riding on buses. She had felt nauseous on buses ever since she was a small child. In addition, the commute to work by bus can take up to an hour-and–a-half, and by car it is about 15 minutes! And so she started driving again. Rochi shares, “This experience helped me understand why, when giving tzedaka, in order to fulfill the mitzva to its greatest extent, one must give even a horse to ride on and a servant to run in front of it. This means catering to what the person was used to. This is because when someone is used to something, it is no longer a luxury but a basic need. I understood that, since I had a car, it became a basic need for me. Our experiences in life open our eyes to see different things.”
“After our first year back in Israel, everything was pretty normal,” says Rochi, “not that there weren’t any challenges – we have to work in this world; perfection is up There – but we were more or less settled.” With time, she got to know the neighbors, whom she thinks very highly of, and adjusted back into the Israeli mentality. Not too long after returning to Israel, she found a secretarial position for an organization and continues to work there. It wasn’t easy for Shraga with parnassa, initially, but eventually he found a job as a mashgiach. The problem was that the company he was working for wanted him to be lenient in things that were contrary to halacha, so he left that job. After trying various things, Shraga found a good position as an office manager in a business.
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Looking back at the challenges her children encountered in the last several years, Rochi doesn’t see them as being related to their move. Rather, she feels that challenges are part of life wherever one is living. “I believe that each person has a maslul (path), that Hashem brings him into certain situations that he has to go through in order to grow to be who Hashem wants him to be.” With this attitude, Rochi was able to encourage her children when they went through tough times. One son had a rough time during his teenage years and decided to train in the Israel Defense Forces to join one of its upper ranks. Just at that time, Hashem orchestrated that a yeshiva reached out to him and drew him into the path of regular learning again. Although he had been accepted for the position he wished for, he preferred not to join the army but to sit and learn in the Sha’arey Yosher yeshiva, as his Rav advised. Baruch Hashem, this son is now married with two kids and is using his experiences to teach and mentor youths who are going through similar stages that he himself went through.
Rochi’s perspective on his maslul is clear: “He understands troubled youth because he went through certain experiences in his life and therefore has the ability to understand children who have a hard time. He is lucky that Hashem took him by the hand, went with him all along, and made sure he didn’t fall too deep.”
When another son was divorced after a short marriage several years ago, Rochi had the same perspective. “This is his maslul. There’s a reason he had to go through this maslul. We don’t understand, but Hashem runs the show. Things do not happen by mistake.” Almost a year ago, this son remarried. He showed Rochi papers from Harav Chaim Kanievsky, shlit”a, that in Sefer Chasidim it says that sometimes the real zivug of a person can come only after he marries someone else and gets divorced, because only as divorcees is the new zivug possible. Hashem causes circumstances to happen to bring them together and accept each other. Rochi is grateful that, in her son’s case, when he met his wife, it became clear to him why he had to first go through a divorce. Now, baruch Hashem, he and his wife are happily married.
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Although her family feels rooted and happy in Israel and doesn’t wish to move back to the States, Rochi misses Baltimore and her friends from there very much. Only one married daughter is actually moving to Lakewood in the near future.
Rochi offers advice from her own experience to those interested in aliyah. She encourages families to inquire about schools ahead of time so to be able to choose the most suitable ones for the children. On a different note, she advises people to sell their American furniture and buy furniture in Israel. Not only is bringing it on a lift an additional expense but also, American furniture might not fit into the rooms of the typically smaller Israeli apartments.
Before I take leave of Rochi, she asks me to give a message to the Baltimore community. “I want to thank the community for their warm welcome when we first arrived,” she says, “and for the wonderful years we had in Baltimore. Also, when living in a place and having a close connection with people, it is hard to be perfect. I am not saying this because I recall anything specific, and, b”H, there’s nothing wrong, but I want to apologize if I hurt anyone or owe anyone anything.”
It’s a warm day, and I stroll around Bayit Vegan a bit on my way to the bus stop, trying to get a feel for the neighborhood. The view is beautiful, but otherwise, I notice nothing unusual. It’s a regular Israeli neighborhood, just as Rochi described: a religious neighborhood, mainly Israeli, with a new French community that has its own schools. There are also Americans and English-speaking shiurim especially for them. Although Bayit Vegan is suburban, there is a lot of action on the streets, with many shuls, yeshivos, seminaries, and schools of all types. Some of the yeshivos in Bayit Vegan are Kol Torah, Kol Yaakov (a top Sefardi yeshiva), and Yeshivas Ateres Yisrael, where Shraga went as a bachur and now currently davens. The Amshinover Rebbe, known for his kedusha and long tefilos with tremendous kavanos, also has his kehila in Bayit Vegan. Rochi tells me that the myth that the Rebbe keeps Shabbos until Tuesday is actually true!
I’m at the bus stop now, and I glance around. One woman is saying a long tefila on a large sheet of paper, and another woman is davening from a siddur. This is what it means, I muse. This is the beauty of “regular” Israeli life.
Rochi welcomes contact either by email Rachel@eretzhemdah.org or phone 011-972-50-4146-423.