Dreams Come True : Journey to Netanya, The Aliyah of the Lehman Family


When I think of Netanya, my mind’s eye goes straight to its beautiful beach. The blue sky, warm sand, sparkling water, and, of course, the waves – crashing against the shore one after the other, each one in harmony with the next but coming in at a different angle. Recently, I had the privilege of spending Shabbos with a most incredible family in Netanya. Similar to the waves of the ocean, the Lehman family has found a home in the welcoming community of Netanya, yet remain distinct.

I meet Dina Lehman by the boardwalk on erev Shabbos. I assume she frequents the beach quite often, but she laughs and says, “People have to bring me out.” When the grandchildren visit, she enjoys the ocean’s beauty with them, but life is busy, and she doesn’t always have the time to relax by the beach. As we sit on a shaded bench next to the boardwalk, with paragliders cruising along the cliff line like giant kites, Dina shares her aliyah story.

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Yehoshua and Dina Lehman left their Pickwick home in Baltimore in 1999 and settled in Netanya with their three young elementary-age children. They figured they should not delay the move because, according to Dina, “It’s so much easier while the children are younger. When we first told the kids we were moving, they were young enough to see it as an adventure.” At this point, years later, the Lehman children have all adjusted and are more Israeli than their American parents.

I ask Dina what prompted their move. She answers me simply, “I think it’s a mitzva to live in Eretz Yisrael; it brings you closer to Hashem.” When Yehoshua and Dina were dating, they discussed their mutual dream to live in Eretz Yisrael but were unable to do so immediately. Yehoshua was in medical school studying physical medicine and rehab and had to finish his internship and residency before relocating.

When they did make aliyah, Dina explains why they settled in Netanya. Dina’s parents were actually raised in Israel. Her father was eighth generation Israeli; his family originally came on the aliyah of the students of the Gra (the Vilna Gaon) in the 1800s. Dina’s grandparents on her mother’s side made aliyah from Germany before the outbreak of World War II. In the 1950s, food was scarce in Eretz Yisrael, so Dina’s parents left to chutz la’aretz to find means of support to feed their children, literally. Even though they left Eretz Yisrael, they retained an apartment there, “because they felt they would come back.” The last one they owned was in Netanya, so upon aliyah, the Lehman’s moved into that apartment.

When Dina’s parents moved back to Eretz Yisrael, the Lehman’s bought a smaller and more affordable apartment for them a block away. In addition to her parents, Dina’s sister was already living in Petach Tikva when they arrived, and they had lots of aunts, uncles, and cousins in other parts of Israel as well. Looking back, Dina acknowledges that their adjustment was made easier by having close family around.

One of the first issues the Lehmans encountered upon making aliyah were the different categories of religious life. Although many people label them as chareidi, Dina likes to think of her family as being Jewish, shomer Torah and mitzvos. “I know it is important to define yourself in Israel, because people like to know where you hold – and I understand a lot more after living here all these years – but  I don’t like to classify people.”

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On the Lehman’s pilot trip preceding their aliyah, Yehoshua did some job hunting, and although he did not find anything concrete, the experience was helpful in getting to know people. He also gained a good awareness of possible work opportunities and the accepted norms of a new society.

I wonder how the Lehmans felt about the risk of moving their family with no real employment awaiting them. Dina answers, “It’s for sure starting all over again when you relocate, especially to a new country, but there’s an extra special siyata d’Shmaya here.” Upon arrival in Israel, Yehoshua’s medical degree was recognized, but he needed to do an internship to train in the Israeli medical system. He also did medical ulpan (language class) to achieve a higher level of Hebrew fluency. The original position that Yehoshua hoped to get in Tel Aviv didn’t work out. However, the Lehman’s cousin, a physician in Netanya, was able to help Yehoshua find a job in Netanya itself, as director of the rehab unit in Netanya’s geriatric center. Looking back at how things turned around for him, Yehoshua is very grateful for his current 10-minute drive to work compared to the long commute he would have had to make to Tel Aviv with traffic if he had received the first position! When questions arise on cultural differences, he also appreciates having access to his cousin to act as his springboard and provide him with guidance.

Dina was fortunate as well and was b”H able to find employment in the Israeli school system as an occupational therapist, rotating each year among the various schools that need her services. In the Israeli system, the schools can offer a special ed classroom if they have enough qualifying children. In these smaller classes, they receive personal attention and appropriate lessons. Except for severe cases, where a child would need services for a longer period of time, the children are given two years of occupational therapy in first and second grade. They also receive speech and one other emotional therapy service, such as music or art therapy. The students can also mainstream for part of the day, and the benefit is that their special ed teachers act as liaisons between them and their regular ed teachers.

Conditions such as ADHD, mental retardation, Aspergers, and reading differences can give a child the option to be put into the special ed track. I am a bit surprised that the system would allow children who are socially on par but have learning differences to be placed into special ed classes along with students with social and behavioral challenges. Dina explains that there are a few factors that determine who gets placed into the classes. First of all, parents always have the option of where to put the child. In many cases, the children in the special ed classes are more complex and have a number of issues. And in some special ed classes, there might be a majority of kids with socially acceptable behavior but have learning differences and only a few kids with social and behavioral issues. Regarding this controversial topic, there are no easy solutions of how to educate a child who doesn’t fit into the regular educational framework. All the more so, in Israel, where there are generally larger class sizes.

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The people living in Netanya itself are mostly mesorati (traditional), and there are over 150 shuls. Many Russian and French immigrants and lots of Sefardim live there. Dina describes the warmth that the Sefardi population exudes, which she experienced as a new olah. When the Lehmans first moved to Netanya, a Sefardi neighbor was so impressed with their move into a foreign city that she declared then and there that she would be their family. Sure enough, this neighbor invited the Lehmans to all her family simchos along with the many relatives of her own.

Real estate prices in Netanya are dependent on the neighborhood. The Lehmans live in an Anglo retirement neighborhood next to the ocean, so prices are quite high. Many French people own homes there as well. They buy an apartment for vacations but also to enable them to move to Israel if they feel threatened by the precarious security situation in France. There are other neighborhoods however, with younger populations, where housing is less expensive than in Yerushalayim.

There are two Anglo shuls in the Lehmans’ neighborhood, where the rabbis give their speeches in English. One shul is the Young Israel synagogue, whose members are mainly dati leumi English-speaking retirees. The Lehmans attend the Young Israel, and Yehoshua helps run the youth minyan, which can have as many as 40 boys in attendance during weekends when the boys are at home. Many boys come to the youth minyan from a neighborhood nearby. Initially, the shul wisely attracted the boys by offering a lavish kiddush for them, which was in addition to the shul’s main kiddush. The second neighborhood shul is also dati leumi, and since it is located on a street called McDonald, it is known as the “McDonald shul.”

Another neighborhood in Netanya is Ramat Efraim, which has a Litvish yeshivish population, half Ashkenaz and half Sefard. The two married Lehman daughters, Esti and Yaeli, live in Ramat Efraim, which is only a 30-minute walk from the Lehmans’ neighborhood. In the dati leumi Kiryat Sharon community, there is an Anglo population, mainly from England. There is also a Chabad kehila with a shul next to the boardwalk. The English-speaking community offers an array of shiurim with speakers such as Rav Zev Leff from Moshav Matityau, who gives a shiur twice a month.

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The famed Kiryat Sanz chasidishe community, established in 1956 by the Sanzer Rebbe, Rav Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, zt”l, is located down the block from the Lehmans’ neighborhood and is also in the immediate vicinity of the ocean. Although mainly Sanzer chasidim live in Kiryat Sanz, there are chareidi Ashkenzim and Sefardim living there as well. Kiryat Sanz is very self-contained, with a wonderful supermarket and lots of stores with anything you can possibly need. As the saying goes, “You can be born and die in Kiryat Sanz and you don’t have to leave!”

Laniado Hospital was built in Kiryat Sanz by the Rebbe in 1975. The not-for-profit hospital is run according to halacha under the direction of the current Rebbe and is the only hospital in the country that doesn’t close due to a strikes. Shortly after the hospital’s founding, the Rebbe opened the religious Laniado nursing school, which offers an excellent education as well as an emphasis on training the nurses to treat every patient with kindness and care according to the Torah’s standards.

During the Holocaust, the Rebbe suffered personally from the Nazis’ brutality and also experienced the murder of his wife, 11 children, and large extended family. It was these painful losses that led him to create the vision of a hospital of mercy. In a speech at the cornerstone-laying for Laniado’s second building, he shared his vision in Yiddish:

I remember as if it were today how they shot me in the arm. I was afraid to go to the Nazi infirmary, though there were doctors there. I knew that if I went in, I’d never come out alive.… Despite my fear of the Nazis, I plucked a leaf from a tree and stuck it to my wound to stanch the bleeding. Then I cut a branch and tied it around the wound to hold it in place. With G-d’s help, it healed in three days.

Then I promised myself that if, with G-d’s help, I got well and got out of there, away from those resha’im (wicked people), I would build a hospital in Eretz Yisrael where every human being would be cared for with dignity. And the basis of that hospital would be that the doctors and nurses would believe that there is a G-d in this world and that when they treat a patient, they are fulfilling the greatest mitzva in the Torah. (source: Wikipedia)

Indeed, the Rebbe’s vision has come true, and the hospital he created is well known for its excellent treatment and care. In addition to the huge undertaking of establishing the hospital and the entire infrastructure of shuls and schools in Kiryat Sanz, the Rebbe maintained a very sheltered, closed-off environment for his community. Kiryat Sanz provides a sectioned off beach with separate men’s and women’s hours to enable kosher swimming. Internet in Kiryat Sanz is restricted, and anyone who needs it for work purposes must first get permission.

After years of being involved with the Kiryat Sanz community, Dina reflects, “I think my opinions have changed. Because I’m American, I’m a lot more open, but since I’ve been here, I see how difficult society is getting...” In one school where Dina works, a six-year-old child came in with an Iphone. At  that point, Dina felt the need to interfere and request that the phone not be allowed in the school as it surely was inhibiting the child’s and other classmates’ learning. “So in a certain sense,” continues Dina, “the longer you close them off, the better it is for the kids.”

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Netanya has a few clothing stores with tzniusdik clothing but doesn’t have nearly as great a selection as larger chareidi cities, such as Yerushalayim and Bnei Brak. According to Dina, Netanya is growing in religious observance, and currently about 50% of the school children are in a shomer Shabbos setting. In the past few years, there actually has been a need for chareidi schools because of the many chozrei beteshuva in Netanya. The religious growth can be attributed to the efforts of two local Sefardi rabbanim, Rav Gabbai and Rav Moshe Ben Moshe, who are reaching out to the large Sefardi population in Netanya.

Dina thinks highly of the schools in Netanya. The family chose to send their daughters to Kiryat Sanz for school, mainly because it is very close to home. Dina explains that it’s unique to Sanz and other chasidishe schools that “academics isn’t the value of the school; it’s more about middos.” The school surely teaches middos through modeling and lessons, but Dina thinks it’s the “value” placed on proper middos more than anything that really influences the students. For example, before a girl receives her academic report card, a separate report card is sent home about derech eretz, which Dina considers a “statement.” Dina was very impressed with how, when they first made aliyah, there was a student from a large family who came every day to help the Lehman girls with their school work.

Although there aren’t many non-chasidic girls in the school, the Lehman girls weren’t the only ones from a Litvish background. They felt comfortable among the chasidim because Dina’s grandfather was chasidish and wore a shtreimel. The Lehman’s son, Ari who is now 23, went to a school in Ramat Efraim, named Olilim. During the interview to apply for school, the principal asked Ari if he had friends there and of course the reply was that he did not. The principal responded to the young boy, “I’ll be your friend.” Dina emphasizes that they weren’t just kind words. The busy principal really followed through and gave special treatment to Ari and would visit him. One day, he even gave him a pen as a gift. These simple gestures helped Ari acclimate, and today he is a true ben Torah, learning full time.

I wonder how the Lehman children feel growing up in a retirement neighborhood without friends their age as their neighbors. Dina responds that it was really no issue since they are only a block away from Kiryat Sanz where their friends live. Indeed, I noticed on Shabbos how the Lehman’s 14-year-old daughter, Rivky, was plenty busy with a chasidish friend of hers, and even how her friend’s younger siblings stayed for shalosh seudos and felt completely at home with the Lehmans. Actually, the Lehmans graciously open their home to many Shabbos guests and warmly make each guest feel comfortable.

Dina appreciates the fact that she hasn’t experienced any negativity towards the religious in the secular school where she works. In Israel, there’s no separation of church and state, explains Dina, so when she gives out treats to her secular students, she has them make brachos. One time, a parent came in, looked at Dina, and exclaimed, “You’re the one who taught him the bracha?” Dina thought, “Oh my gosh, am I in trouble now!” So, she asked him if what she did was okay. He surprised her by saying, “Yes, you made the grandfather very happy!” Dina mentions that there may be some sentiments of worry among the secular population of the growing religious segment encroaching on their rights, “but in general, people are very respectful.” Although Dina and Yehoshua have personally experienced only respect for tradition and religion in the school and medical system, she acknowledges that things could be different in other systems.

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Looking back, Dina feels very fortunate in their aliyah experience. Their main challenge was adjusting to a different work system, especially writing in Hebrew on a professional level. Even though Dina wasn’t criticized, she felt a need to “put in a lot of effort and work” to improve her writing skills so as to send home professional-looking assessments to the parents of her students. She says that speaking Hebrew was less of an issue. “Because there are a lot of olim here, people are expecting you to make mistakes in your language skills, which is a nice feeling.”

Dina describes further her family’s adjustment as olim: “It is starting all over and learning a new system. You have to be open, but the truth is, there is a lot of extra siyata d’Shmaya. You need to get advice and help from anyone you can, because the system is different.” Dina stresses the importance of being open and non-judgmental. “If you come here and think that things are ‘different’ – not right or wrong –  your transition will be easier, and over time, you do want to understand the system more.” For example, the chutzniks usually wait in line politely while everyone else is crowding to get on the bus.

Another cultural difference Dina has noticed is that, whereas in America, the emphasis is placed on the academics of a child, she experiences in Israel more of a concern of how a child is doing socially. She finds that Israeli parents care very much about who their children’s friends are. When interviewing for her job, she experienced the cultural difference as well. Instead of asking her about her credentials, the interviewer played some “Jewish geography” and asked Dina whom she knew to get a glimpse of how she would fit in socially with the rest of the staff as a team player. Although Dina felt that the interview was done in a “bizarre” manner, she viewed it positively. “When your work becomes more than just being ‘work polite,’ your co-workers become your friends.” At the end of the day, Dina and her family’s attitude is, “we feel like we’re home.”

Dina encourages Baltimore readers, “I think for sure you should come. It’s a growing experience....There will be challenges along the way. We all face challenges; life brings challenges...and this one is a wonderful challenge! The more information you get, the easier it will be,” she advises. She explains with yet another cultural difference she experienced. When interviewing for her job, she asked about her salary and was told, “It depends.” They couldn’t give her any sort of definite answer. “It was totally shocking to be hired and not be told how much you will be making,” says Dina. “Over here, you’ll get a lot of information from peers.” Dina also advises that if one is looking for a steady job, government jobs are more reliable and the salaries are more fixed. Dina stresses again that to succeed in Israeli society do not judge. If you think that things are “nuts,” you will have a much harder experience.

The Lehmans have surely proven that a willingness to adapt and conform makes for a higher chance of integration into Israeli society, especially for the children of olim. However, Dina’s refusal to be classified as being part of any one segment of religious society as well as her family’s open, accepting manner allow them to be part of their own kehila and also blend in with the Sanzer community.

As Dina and I head home from the beach to welcome the Shabbos, the sound of the waves seem to share the same sentiment: Individuality is good if a harmonious balance is achieved.

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