“Wow,” I exclaimed to my friend as we walked the streets of Be’er Sheva, “this must be the greenest city I have seen in all of Israel!” We had traversed miles of beautiful fields and landscape to spend Shabbos with former Baltimoreans Rabbi Yaakov and Judy Neuman and to check out their community. Now we entertained ourselves exploring expansive areas of green grass among the lovely houses and apartment buildings that comprise this sprawling city in the Negev. I was soon to find other delights unique to Be’er Sheva.
We arrived early on Friday, and after we settled in, Judy kindly served us a light lunch and encouraged us to have some fun and walk to the largest Eco mall in the entire Middle East, only about five minutes from her home. An Eco mall, I learned is an environmentally-friendly mall, where, for example, the light is generated from solar panels, among other innovations. Be’er Sheva, we discovered, has malls and shopping centers galore, lots of culture, museums, as well as ancient archaeological sites.
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Over Shabbos, the Neumans treated us to their gracious hospitality and happily shared their aliyah journey and life in Be’er Sheva. Both Yaakov and Judy are born-and-bred Baltimoreans. Judy, whose maiden name is Altshul, lived in Lower Park Heights as a child before moving to Upper Park Heights with her mother years later after her father passed away. She went to Hebrew school and had good teachers who drew her to Torah and mitzvos. As a young girl, she went to her grandmother every Shabbos and was exposed to frumkeit. Although not religious, Judy’s parents were very involved in chesed. Judy’s older brother went to Talmudical Academy and was part of Bnei Akiva; he encouraged Judy to join as well. In the summers, Judy went to camp and gradually became more religious.
Judy’s brother had wanted to go to Israel after high school, but their mother only allowed him to go two years later. “He fought bitterly to go,” Judy remembers. “I was able to go because my brother had already waged the war.” So, after she finished school, Judy went to a religious kibbutz in Israel with Bnei Akiva, whose program included Torah classes in Yerushalayim.
Upon her return to America, Judy says, “I went with the intention of coming back to Israel. I figured I would marry someone from Bnei Akiva and go to a kibbutz.” That was not what was destined for her, however. After attending Stern College for three years and getting her degree in Jewish Studies, Judy returned to Baltimore and started teaching in Beth Tfiloh. After some time, she decided to return to Israel because there weren’t many frum young men to date. Her feeling was, “If I stay here, I’m liable to be stuck as an old maid for the rest of my life.”
Once again, Hashem had other plans for Judy, and just as she was working with the Jewish Agency to make aliyah, she received a shidduch suggestion. It was Yaakov, who turned out to be her future husband! Judy was already familiar with Yaakov and had seen him around on a number of occasions, although he did not know yet who she was. Judy’s mother worked in TA for a number of years, and Judy would help out in the kindergarten when the public schools had vacation days. That year, Yaakov’s nephew was in kindergarten, and his sister asked the teacher if she knew of any girls for her brother. The teacher thought of Judy and set them up. Judy put off her aliyah date and only a short time later found herself engaged to Yaakov.
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Yaakov is frum from birth and was raised in Forest Park, near Ner Israel, before the family moved to Smith Avenue. As a young adult, he studied at Yeshiva University and Columbia University and received his semicha as well as a degree in math. He returned to Baltimore and started working for Social Security, in addition to being an advisor for NCSY at Suburban Orthodox Synagogue.
Although Yaakov was also interested in aliyah, Judy was more vocal about it. They didn’t move immediately but stuck around a bit to be with their family and make the move easier. In 1978, a year after their marriage, the young couple made aliyah, together with their little son. When they arrived in Eretz Yisrael, they were sent to the absorption center in Gilo and stayed there for almost two years. Judy shares her experience: “It was very interesting. We met wonderful people from all over the world, which was really special, and we made good friends. We all commiserated about our aliyah experience.”
Overall, the Neumans had a very smooth landing and didn’t hit some of the rough patches that many other olim do. They studied in ulpan for a short while, even though both of them had learned Hebrew before: Judy in Hebrew school and the kibbutz, and Yaakov from being in yeshiva. Looking back at their adjustment, Judy says, “There were some hard times, because that’s life. When we were in Gilo, I said I wanted to go back to America. My husband said, ‘Give me one logical reason why we should go back.’ I couldn’t come up with a logical reason, and I’m very glad about that. I think I was overwhelmed being a young mother and without family.”
When they made aliyah, their five-month-old son, who had never been sick, now started to get ear infections from the winter cold. In addition, she says, “It was hard until my husband found work. Our second son was born during that time, and it was hard having a baby when your mother’s not around and in a foreign country. But one of the hardest things for me was that you don’t have a community in the same sense that we had in Baltimore. You go to shul to daven. It wasn’t the same kind of experience you have in chutz la’aretz. It was an adjustment.”
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Things started to pick up when the Neumans moved out of Gilo to Be’er Sheva. Originally, Judy wanted to settle in a kibbutz, but Yaakov wasn’t game. On the other hand, apartments were expensive and scarce in those days, so the Neumans looked around for a religious moshav. At the time, today’s established communities were just forming. They were accepted to go to Gush Katif, but Judy says, “We chickened out because we were afraid we would not make good tomato farmers!” They would have been expected to open a hothouse for tomatoes, and since they were given just a short time to decide, they declined the offer.
Unlike today, when there is housing available in many communities, back then, the Jewish Agency offered olim designated housing with good rates on a mortgage in various neighborhoods. The Neumans were offered such an apartment in Be’er Sheva. At the same time, friends who had moved to Be’er Sheva a little while before were helpful and encouraging. And so, the Neumans found themselves settling in Be’er Sheva. These same friends turned out to be instrumental in helping Yaakov find employment.
After their move, Yaakov started working in computers for a chemical company, similar to what he was doing in America. The company produces all kinds of chemicals, from fire retardants to chemicals used for water treatment. The head offices are in Be’er Sheva, so 99% of his time, Yaakov remained local. Once in a while, he had to visit the plants in Ramat Chovav or another location near the Dead Sea to see how they could improve the computer systems for the workers’ needs. He describes his adjustment to the Israeli workforce as being, “relatively smooth.” When Yaakov joined the developing company, there were only three other workers; by the time he retired, the computer department had increased to about 40 workers!
Judy comments on Yaakov’s positive influence he had on his secular coworkers: “He didn’t behave like the ‘messenger of religious people,’ but just by being who he was, he could show people who weren’t religious that a religious person can be a mentch and can joke around. Every year he took the children with him to bring everyone mishloach manos.”
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A huge positive factor in the Neurmans’ life in Be’er Sheva is their shul, Beit Shmuel Moledet. “One of the nice things that happened because of the shul is that we made it a community and created family among our friends,” Judy says. “The hardest thing for me, when we made aliyah, was not having a community.” The shul was started by American olim, but from the beginning there were Israeli and other non-American immigrant members. Since then, the shul has grown and it’s very integrated into society now. Yaakov says, “Everyone can feel comfortable. There are English, Spanish, and Russian speakers amidst the Israeli speakers.” One year, the shul made a communal Purim seuda for the shul members, and the women did all the cooking and serving. It continued for several years in rented halls but stopped when families became too large. “It was great fun,” Judy remembers.
About seven years after joining the shul, Yaakov was appointed as its Rav. I ask him what his tasks are as shul Rav. He answers, “Over the years, most of the questions have had to do with kashrut. At times I have to help families in personal matters. That is in addition to helping families when there are smachot (celebrations) and, lo aleinu, periods of aveilut (mourning). It’s a wide variety of activities that keep me busy.”
Judy says, “It’s cute when a student from my school ends up getting engaged to someone from our shul and has already met Yaakov with no idea that we are connected, and then sees the two of us together.” Judy doesn’t have any specific duties as the rebbetzin of the shul, however, she is part of the kiddush committee, unrelated to being the Rav’s wife.
A significant member of the community was Rav Aharon Rabenstein, z”l, and his wife, a”h, who were very close friends of the Neumans. (A native of Cincinnati and a musmach of Telz yeshiva in Cleveland, he was the brother of Mrs. Naomi Miller of Baltimore, tbl”c.) The relationship extended to the children of both families, and friendships formed among them as well. Yaakov and Judy considered Rav Rabenstein to be their Rav, and Yaakov conferred with him regarding shailos that others would ask him. Rebbetzin Rabenstein taught English to all of the Neuman kids after school. Today, Judy gives English lessons to one of the Rabensteins’ grandsons.
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When she first moved to Be’er Sheva, Judy had a friend who kept nudging her to become an English teacher in the Yeshivat Bnei Akiva where the friend was teaching English. Judy preferred being a full-time mother – until she had her third child, when she felt a need to get out of the house more. She decided to start working and received the teaching position on the condition that she would get her teacher’s license. Judy taught for many years, until she took early retirement. Now she tutors privately from her home and volunteers in her grandchildren’s school, where she helps kids learn English one-on-one. She also volunteers in the English library of the AACI, the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel.
The Neumans’ second trip back to Baltimore showed her how she feels about Be’er Sheva. “When we returned to Be’er Sheva, I remember saying, ‘We are home’ and truly feeling that we were home.” She expresses her appreciation for her community. “The nice thing about moving to a small place is that you have the opportunity to make a difference.” Judy describes how she got to know her students well and helped them out in various ways.
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Be’er Sheva has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few decades and is currently the largest city in southern Israel, prompting its nickname, “Capital of the Negev.” It is also being dubbed the Silicon Valley of Israel. Americans from many backgrounds were originally attracted to Be’er Sheva because of job opportunities, including Ben Gurion University, which is connected to Soroka Hospital.
Judy describes her community in Be’er Sheva as a “place where you can find your place; it’s not too big.” The American children living there become totally integrated, because Hebrew is the spoken language in the city. Another special quality of Be’er Sheva is its very warm, friendly, and accepting community, both religious and secular. On Shabbos, people wish each other a good Shabbos on the street, regardless of religious background. “Even among the non-religious in the city, a large portion of them are traditional,” says Yaakov.
When the Neuman kids were in high school, the concept of settling yishuvim was becoming popular. Some of their kids asked Yaakov and Judy to move to a yishuv, too, where they could live in a beautiful settlement and own a large house. Yaakov and Judy responded, “We live in the city because we want you to be exposed to all kinds of people.” Be’er Sheva’s dominant Sefardi community was an adjustment for the Neumans at first, but later on, two of the Neuman girls married Sefardi boys.
Another interesting feature of Be’er Sheva is its schools. When the Neumans first came to Be’er Sheva, the school system was very different from the way it has developed since then. The religious options were the Bais Yaakov, which is the Agudah stream of education, or the mamlachti dati, the religious public schools. The Neumans sent their children to the Bais Yaakov schools.
What was unique about the Bais Yaakovs in Be’er Sheva was that they served as real community schools and accepted children irrespective of their religious background. Many secular families wanted a good education for their children and would send them to the religious schools, where the education was better. Although the hanhala was chareidi, they felt that every child should get a Torah education, and made efforts to be mekarev the secular children by accepting them as students.
For middle and high school, the Neuman children went to religious high schools. After high school, two of the boys went to the Hesder army service and one went to Mechina, a preparatory army program, and then to the army. The girls did Sheirut Leumi, National Service, an alternative to the army for religious girls.
Many new diverse neighborhoods sprouted up after the Neumans moved in, which led to the development of new schools, too. About 20 years ago, more Torani-style schools started forming across Israel. The degree of religiosity and amount of hours spent on Torah versus secular subject depends on each community. A new Rav moved to Be’er Sheva at that time and spearheaded the development of Beit Moriah, which includes a yeshiva, education programs for all ages, a center for family, and kiruv programs. “They brought Torah to the South for people who want Torah,” says Judy. Many younger families have moved out of the Neumans’ mixed neighborhood to create Shechuna Datit, a dati leumi neighborhood.
A number of years ago, Rav Yehuda Deri, the brother of the politician Rabbi Aryeh Deri, became the Chief Sefardi Rav of Be’er Sheva and built a chareidi neighborhood, known as the Shechunah Chareidit. There is also an older, small Hungarian chasidishe community in downtown Be’er Sheva. Other than the dati, chareidi, and chasidishe neighborhoods, the secular and religious live interspersed in the various neighborhoods of the city.
Judy notes, “The big change today is that the kids who were born in Be’er Sheva are coming back or remaining in Be’er Sheva.” Judy tells me that there are a lot of jobs and real estate opportunities, and the inter-city transportation has also improved. “It’s a fun place to be and a lot to do.”
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The Neumans’ six children are all married, and two of their daughters live in Be’er Sheva. As is true of many families, each of the Neuman siblings has found his or her own path in adulthood, yet their general direction and level of religiosity is quite similar. I ask Yaakov and Judy to what would they attribute this blessing of all their children remaining on their parents’ path.
“We trusted them to make their own life decisions,” says Judy. “We never forced them to do this or that. We treat our children as individuals. They don’t have to follow a pattern. Everyone is accepted for being whoever they are.”
The Neumans encourage aliyah and advise people to come and settle in Israel – although Yaakov cautions, “Don’t expect everything to fall into place.” And Judy adds, “There are bumps in the road.” Nevertheless, the optimism and appreciation of life in Eretz Yisrael of both Yaakov and Judy takes precedence over everything. Judy interjects a final practical note: “There’s nothing like a one-day Yom Tov,” while Yaakov concludes, “This is the place we’re supposed to be, to live in a place where Avraham Avinu lived. Come with a good attitude and daven for siyata d’Shamaya, and it all works out.”