In this time of terrorism, hatred, and incitement against Jewry worldwide, a sense of security is very much lacking in a majority of people’s lives. Where can one turn and receive reassurance? A corner of security however, can be found in the city of Bnei Brak. Known as “a city of Torah,” its great number of giants in Torah grant protection to the city’s inhabitants. As the Chazon Ish promised a few generations ago, “A missile won’t fall in Bnei Brak.”
Located on Israel’s central Mediterranean coastal plain, Bnei Brak has seen much change from its agricultural start in 1924. Over the years, an urban shape took form, and today, there is even a large Coca-Cola bottling factory at its entrance. Bnei Brak also contains a frum hospital, Memayanai Hayeshua.
The bustling city that greeted me as I alighted from the bus teamed with shops of every kind at every junction, and people filled its streets. The common thread for the city’s residents is that their lives center around Torah learning and chesed.
Most children who are raised in Bnei Brak remain after marriage in the warm cocoon of their large extended families. I wonder, though, what brings others, especially chutznikim (immigrants) to join life there. I sit down on a shaded park bench and chat with Mrs. Sheryl Friedman about her family’s aliyah experience and why she and her husband chose to settle in Bnei Brak.
* * *
Raised in the Greenspring area of Baltimore in a modern Orthodox family, Sheryl Friedman met her husband, Alon, when he was learning as a bachur in Ner Israel and getting a masters degree in computers. The couple agreed that they would move to Eretz Yisrael in the future. Sheryl had visited Israel on a number of occasions, including trips to attend family simchos. Alon was born in Israel and lived a traditional lifestyle in a secular neighborhood in Bnei Brak bordering Ramat Gan. At the age of ten, his family moved to the States but kept their apartment in Israel as a rental property, in the hope of coming back one day. It was when he became bar mitzva that Alon began the process of becoming fully religious.
The Friedmans began their marriage in kollel in Baltimore until they saw it was time for Alon to look for employment. They decided to begin this next phase of their life in Eretz Yisrael. Sheryl says, “I wanted to live as a Jew – not as an American keeping the Jewish religion but living as a Jew.” She wanted to be surrounded by religious life on a constant basis and to raise her children in a purely Torah environment. In 1991, the Friedmans left Baltimore and made aliyah with their three children aged three and under.
Instead of going into his the computer field , which he studied because it was the popular thing to do but did not enjoy, Alon went back to university in Israel to study psychology. He also taught computers in a school in nearby Ra’anana while maintaining a part-time learning schedule in kollel. He currently has a private psychology practice and works with troubled youth in a school in Petach Tikva, commuting there on his bike in only 30 minutes. Although Sheryl got her degree in occupational therapy, she enjoys being a stay-at-home mom.
When the Friedmans made aliyah, they moved into the apartment that belonged to Alon’s parents in the Shikun Gimmel neighborhood of Bnei Brak. They were fortunate in being able to live rent-free, thought they eventually bought the apartment. At that time, the secular neighborhood was becoming more religious, and over the next several years, more and more chareidim moved in because of lack of housing in the chareidi neighborhoods. Today, the neighborhood has transformed to completely chareidi, with a good number of modern chareidi families as well. A few years after the Friedmans’ aliyah, Alon’s only sibling, a sister, moved to Israel, and not long after that, their parents joined them, moving to Petach Tikva.
I ask Sheryl about her adjustment to Bnei Brak, a mostly Israeli city, where Hebrew is the spoken language. Fortunately for the Friedmans, language was not a problem. Alon had retained his Hebrew while living in the U.S. as his family spoke Hebrew at home, and Sheryl learned Hebrew before their move, mainly from a private Israeli teacher and also from the environment in her in-laws’ home.
Even though the family had difficulty adjusting in other areas, Sheryl says, “What kept us there was that in Bnei Brak you live as a Jew, not as an Israeli who keeps the Jewish religion. On the chagim, you see tons of secular Jews coming into Bnei Brak just to look, just to walk around, because it’s all out on the street. Around Chanuka, people on the streets sell menoras, and before Sukkos, there are sukka and arba minim stands. All over the city, there are huge flyers advertising all kinds of religious happenings. It is common to walk outside and hear people calling for a minyan. Everything is based around religious Jewish life, and when events are scheduled, factors such as minyan are taken into account to avoid conflicts.”
* * *
Another special quality of Bnei Brak is its upstanding society. In the Friedmans’ neighborhood, a fruit and vegetable store leaves its produce on the street all night long. “No one would think of taking anything,” says Sheryl. She also enjoys being able to go out late at night and feel perfectly safe walking the streets. Many stores are open at night, and men are constantly coming and going to their learning sedarim and minyanim pretty much around the clock.
Sheryl compares life in Bnei Brak to a “village.” The shuls are where you go to daven and are generally simple shteibl style. In addition, there are no shopping malls, just storefronts. “Bnei Brak is a place where everyone takes care of everyone else’s kids,” says Sheryl. “If you’re at the makolet (grocery) and see a baby crying in the stroller, you take care of the baby. Adults stop to help children cross the street. People ask their Rav questions relevant to many aspects of life, not just halacha.” When the Friedmans made aliyah, they looked around for a chutznik Rav. People recommended Rav Aryeh Dunner, a British Rav in Bnei Brak, and they are very satisfied with his accessibility and ability to guide and direct their family.
* * *
As a new olah, Sheryl missed the friendly Baltimore community she left behind, where it was the norm to wish everyone on the street a “good Shabbos.” She found it difficult to adjust to her new Israeli neighborhood. Even though Sheryl lived in a mixed religious neighborhood along with some chutznikim, she had a hard time relating to her very religious neighbors. She felt that they were wary of what their new American neighbor was all about. In addition, she found that most people were surrounded by a large immediate and extended family, and she thus felt somewhat isolated, since she had no extended family nearby.
Sheryl describes the situation she experienced as a bit of a dichotomy. On the one hand, Bnei Brak is known for helping strangers on the street and going the extra mile to show their care for secular passersby. On the other hand, these same people try to keep their homes and their children’s lives as insular and sheltered as possible, so that anything foreign or even just different going on in their midst is not given too much tolerance. The Friedmans allowed their boys to do certain things that they thought presented no religious problems but found that their chareidi neighbors disapproved. For instance, the boys played ball in the park outside, went on tiyulim, wore T-shirts on hikes, and one son learned how to play chasidik music on a guitar. After that son was told he could not play his guitar in public in yeshiva, he switched to a yeshiva in Telz Stone, which was much better suited for him. This son is currently one of the leaders in the chareidi kollel in Tzfat yet still enjoys a more colorful lifestyle. I ask Sheryl how she worked things out with her neighbors at that time. She laughs and says, “Basically, we agreed to disagree.”
In fact, all three of the older Friedman children are married and live in the chareidi Litvish community of Tzfat, mainly because buying an apartment there is more affordable. Although her children never felt comfortable or found their place in Bnei Brak, they all live kollel lifestyles today. I am a bit surprised, as it is common for young adults to separate completely from communities and lifestyles that they didn’t feel a part of. Sheryl responds that the issues of contention were “relatively small things.” She explains, “It’s not like they wore clothing which was not tznius or were mechalel Shabbos. Still, I thank Hashem every day that my children turned out how they did.”
* * *
Part of the Friedmans’ methodology in raising their children was to keeping everything positive. They emphasized to their children their belief that everyone has a right to decide what they want to do. They explained that some families want to be more stringent on certain issues and that those stringencies are a positive thing. “We tried not to put them down at all,” Sheryl explained. “We helped our kids realize that those families might not understand that in America, things are different. We said, ‘People can be just as frum and have just as much yirat Shamayim as people in Eretz Yisrael but still play ball.”
Sheryl says that they did look into other communities where they would have found more acceptance, but nothing satisfied them elsewhere. They enjoy the flavor of Yiddishkeit in Bnei Brak, and the city is large enough that they were eventually able to find people similar to them and form friendships. “I was never one to need many friends and was always happy with a few close friendships,” shares Sheryl.
Alon and Sheryl have actually found that all of the families they know who left Bnei Brak to move to cities populated by more Americans have at least one child who became irreligious. She believes that is because people expect to live as Americans with American standards. She gives an example: “It is common in those communities to watch ‘kosher’ movies with parental supervision, whereas in Bnei Brak, such a thing is not allowed. In Bnei Brak, when a child decides that he will break the rules and watch a movie, it is usually nothing drastic. In American Israeli communities, kids who want to break the rules and watch something often wind up with x-rated movies.” Sheryl believes this is because, with everything allowed already, they have to go much farther to break boundaries, a common behavior among teenagers.
Sheryl thinks back to when her older children were younger and some children in the neighborhood wanted to watch “Lion King,” which, she tells me, was definitely not a typical phenomenon in Bnei Brak. When her children, too, asked to watch “Lion King,” Sheryl and Alon were glad that their kids had come to them and hadn’t surreptitiously watched the movie elsewhere. “Although we didn’t offer movies or approve of them,” says Sheryl, “we encouraged them to come to us with these things, so they wouldn’t feel they had to do them behind our back.” She and Alon believe in carefully weighing what a child asks for instead of being quick to deny their requests. They have found that when a child asks for something that they feel might not be 100% correct, and the parent considers allowing them to do it in certain cases, this often satisfies the children, and they do not move on to things that are not permissible. Sheryl laughs at the incident and is happy that the movie they so badly wanted to watch was “Lion King.” Indeed, after watching it, her kids were satisfied and did not ask their parents for additional movies.
* * *
Another challenge was dealing with the school system. All the schools in Bnei Brak are chareidi except for one or two that are dati leumi. The chasidish, Litvish, and Sefardi communities run separate school systems, although the Litvish schools take some Sefardi students. The best chareidi chadarim are hard to get into unless you have “protexia,” influence. The children with working fathers and those from modern chareidi families generally go to Chinuch Atzmai schools. These are partially controlled by the government and therefore receive funding and provide secular studies.
The Friedmans’ eldest son began learning in a cheder and initially had a great experience. His rebbe saw that he was very intelligent and actually looked the other way when he would walk around the room, finding it hard to stay in his seat. In fifth grade, however, things changed. He had negative experiences with his new rebbi and switched to a Chinuch Atzmai school the next year. The Friedmans sent their other sons to the Chinuch Atzmai school as well and were in general happy about the change, although they did have some reservations about the many students in the Chinuch Atzmai system who come from “modern chareidi” families. The Friedmans consider themselves to be American chareidim, who it seems are more yeshivish than modern chareidim, while also being generally more accepting of differences.
Because all the Litvish girls schools in Bnei Brak are Chinuch Atzmai, they have stricter religious standards than the boys Chinuch Atzmai schools. But here, too, Sheryl did not see eye to eye with all the educational methods her girls experienced. Now, however, her daughter is having a very positive experience in her high school. There are three Litvish high schools in Bnei Brak, and the one her daughter attends has a smaller student body. She is also very happy with the special ed system that her two youngest boys are in. According to Sheryl, the special ed teachers are trained well and have learned modern positive methodology in educating and disciplining students.
* * *
As for her own adjustment, Sheryl looked at her move to Israel as “coming home” and was therefore able to view the challenges as being par for the course. Alon and Sheryl dealt with the challenges their children experienced by making their family and home into a place where their children would want to be, so they wouldn’t feel the need to go elsewhere. “Our children were very happy within the family,” Sheryl says, while also appreciating the role of the Bnei Brak environment. “The community holds its members within certain boundaries, and we balanced those restrictions by giving the kids a little bit more freedom and openness at home so they would not rebel.”
Sheryl emphasizes the incredible acts of chesed that take place in Bnei Brak. There are sales catering to the large chareidi families where you can shop for clothing, school supplies, and all kinds of items at cost price. There are a myriad gemachim, everything from providing cooked food to helping people find jobs. Sheryl tells of a sweet episode that happened when her married son came to visit from Tzfat. They had forgotten their baby’s specific formula at home, and it couldn’t be found in the stores in Bnei Brak. Although it was midnight, sure enough, they found a gemach that stocked that particular formula!
The Friedmans’ journey was a process. Sheryl and her children feel more accepted now by the community at large. Sheryl stresses that she davka wanted to live in an Israeli community, and so she is for the most part happy with her place in Bnei Brak and counts the many blessings of what life there has to offer.
The Aliyah of Elisheva Grant
In any community, people have varied experiences, and so I turn to another native Baltimorean, Elisheva Grant, whose maiden name is Zucker, to share her story of what brought her to live in Bnei Brak. Thirteen years ago, when Elisheva met her husband Dovid Grant, another Baltimorean, he was learning in Yeshivas Ponovezh in Bnei Brak. Dovid began learning in a different yeshiva in Eretz Yisrael as a bachur, and when he was ready for a change, he tried out Rabbi Edelstein’s shiur in Ponovezh and loved the learning. It was a hard adjustment for him, because he didn’t know any of the other bachurim, plus he had to get used to a different culture and mentality. Thankfully, he knew some families from Baltimore living in Bnei Brak, who helped ease him into his new environment. Although Elisheva was quite comfortable in Yerushalayim when she met Dovid , she agreed to settle in Bnei Brak because her priority was that her husband should be happy with his learning.
Elisheva’s adjustment to Bnei Brak was made easier by having a good friend from her class in Baltimore, Sara Schondorf (nee Schleifer). Although Sara moved out soon after Elisheva arrived, Elisheva describes how it was a “huge thing” for her to have Sara’s company during her initial settling in. “Sara introduced me to other friends, we shared Shabbos meals together, and it was just fun to have her around,” Elisheva recalls. Lucky for Elisheva, she also had some other neighbors who were from chutz l’aretz.
Since Elisheva was already used to the Israeli mentality from Yerushalayim, daily life in Bnei Brak didn’t come as a shock to her. Yet she certainly had to adjust to being surrounded in Bnei Brak by Hebrew-speaking Israelis, and learning the language was a challenge. But her adjustment to Bnei Brak was just another piece of adjusting to being a young married woman. She also was interested and excited about living in Eretz Yisrael, and for her, that made all the difference. Elisheva states, “If you want something, you can do it, and when it comes to living in a place like Bnei Brak, you have to want it to be happy.”
Elisheva shares an incident that happened to her when she and Dovid first arrived in Bnei Brak as newlyweds. One Shabbos, they went to the famous Lederman’s shul, where Harav Chaim Kanievsky davens. After shul was over, Rebbetzin Kanievsky, a”h, noticed the young Grant couple and asked them to come over to give them a bracha. Elisheva remembers those words of bracha and the tremendous emotion she felt at being singled out by the chashuva Rebbetzin.
Elisheva describes her experience and perspective towards life in Bnei Brak. First and foremost, she enjoys the great kedusha suffusing the city due to the widespread Torah learning that goes on there. Every Shabbos during shana rishona, Elisheva would go to Ponovezh to daven. “I find it beautiful to see children outside playing carefree on Friday nights.” During the week, too, she and her children feel safe outside at night. Elisheva relates that her children are very helpful; the older ones watch the younger kids and do shopping for her. She believes that the standard level of responsibility of children in Eretz Yisrael is greater than you would find in America. The Grants live is very simple area, with the people trying their best and wanting to have big families. There are challenges as well, of course.
Looking back at these last several years of her life in Bnei Brak, Elisheva realizes that she learned how to live in Bnei Brak through her children. Yes, schools are different from what she was used to growing up in Baltimore, and class sizes are considerably larger, but Elisheva finds that having an older, experienced woman to whom she can address her questions is helpful in learning and understanding the school system. She points out that in, her experience, Bnei Brak is no different than other communities in the sense that sometimes you will have a good class with a good rebbi or teacher and sometimes you won’t. Elisheva has friends whose husbands are working, and their children are still accepted into good chadarim and schools. Elisheva acknowledges that chadarim are selective, which she perceives as a good thing for the general benefit of society, but of course it is hard for the family that is turned away.
Elisheva and her children feel very accepted within their schools, because she totally conformed to the chareidi lifestyle and tries to accept the differences. In fact, her daughter’s teacher actually appreciates that she knows English so well from speaking it at home.
When Elisheva initially looked for a job in Bnei Brak, she accepted whatever came her way. First she subbed for a friend teaching English in high school, which she found to be “amazing.” After that, she took over a babysitting group. There were times when she wasn’t employed and lacked the knowledge and skills to navigate the system, so she used her creativity and began a baking chug (after-school activity) and opened a Pesach and summer kaytana (camp). She also taught English privately to high school students. Currently, Elisheva runs a Hebrew-speaking two-year-old gan (preschool) in her home. In the beginning, the language was very challenging, but, baruch Hashem, she is satisfied that things are going well now. Elisheva did not do ulpan (Hebrew language classes) but learned to speak from exposure on the street, her neighbors, and even taxi rides! She is proud that she is American and finds that Israeli parents appreciate her American warmth.
Elisheva feels fortunate that she doesn’t come into contact with the technology of today’s world. The family does not own a computer, and she is fine without it. Since Elisheva and Dovid have their standards in how they want to raise their children and in keeping them sheltered, they don’t allow their children to enter the homes of families that Elisheva doesn’t know. But those kids are invited to play in the Grant home, where Elisheva can supervise and determine if it would be appropriate to allow her children to play in their homes. The Grants also happily host others in their home for Shabbos, such as bachurim from Yeshivat HaKotel and seminary girls from diverse backgrounds.
Elisheva shares two episodes that highlight the beauty of life in Bnei Brak: Once, a woman did Elisheva a kindness and remarked afterwards, “That’s why we’re here.” Elisheva is very impressed that not only is chesed very apparent in Bnei Brak but, as the woman told her, people live to help each other. Another time, when the generator broke on Shabbos and the neighborhood lost electricity, Elisheva encountered a neighbor who was smiling about the situation, glad that now she was able to show the children what it means to keep Shabbos. Elisheva sums up her feelings like this: “I feel blessed to live in Eretz Yisrael; it’s like living in a bubble, a huge zechus.”
Author’s Note: My byline is not a typo! Harav Chaim Kanievsky, shlit”a, changed my name to Sara Bracha. Although that is my new halachic name, I am now going by Bracha.