I am off to meet Pnina Eilberg, resident of Nof Tzion, a neighborhood of just 85 families living on two streets. It came as a surprise to me to learn that such a place exists within the boundaries of Yerushalayim. Located in the Kidron Valley above Ir David, it is surrounded by Arab villages. Its name, though, meaning Zion View, is not surprising. As Pnina graciously welcomes me into her apartment, I take in the gorgeous panorama of Har Habayit and Har Hazeitim from her giant living room window. And as Pnina explains the background of her family’s aliyah journey and talks about life in this tiny enclave, I begin to appreciate the importance of the neighborhood and the strength of its residents.
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Originally from Toronto, Pnina Shields met her husband Nachum while visiting her Baltimore relatives. One of them, her aunt Elky Kleiner, a”h, made the shidduch. After their marriage, the couple settled into a house on Wallis Avenue. Six years later, they moved to Ivymount Road, where they were part of Rabbi Shmuel Kaplan’s kehila.
The Eilberg family made aliyah in 2004 with their four children, and although Pnina believes that it was the right time for them to move, she wasn’t game when the idea was first put on the table. “I do think that this is where all Jews should be,” Pnina says, “but it has to work out for you and your family. There is no rushing it.” In her family’s case, Pnina says, “There were certain things that fell into place before we made aliyah, signs that it was our time to go.” One was that Eshkol Academy, the school her oldest son had been attending, was closing down.
In the summer of 2003, Nachum traveled to Eretz Yisrael with their oldest child, Pesach, to help his sister move from Har Nof to Kochav Yaakov, a religious yishuv just north of Yerushalayim, on the way towards Bet El. Since Nachum is handy, his assistance was most appreciated. “From the time they got back from the trip, all I heard was, ‘We have to move!’” says Pnina. Nachum had already been in Israel a number of times and was interested in living there, and Pesach simply fell in love with the Land and “and didn’t understand why all Jews are not living there.” Pnina, however, had been in Israel only twice, over 14 years ago, once for a summer tour and then for her sister’s wedding.
After some persuasion, however, she came to Israel to check things out. “I came for two weeks, and the whole time I said, ‘This is not for me,’” says Pnina, who spent most of the trip with her sister and sister-in-law. Caught up in the materialism of America, she felt that Eretz Yisrael at the time was somewhat like third-world country. “Part of my hang-up was that I wanted something along the lines of the standards of my house in Baltimore,” Pnina explains.
But on the plane back to the States, Pnina started to have second thoughts. She decided that she would make the move for the sake of her husband and son. Their other kids, 12-year-old Reva and the six-year-old twins, Chaim and Chavi, weren’t too happy when Nachum and Pnina announced the impending move. They complained that the move would “ruin their lives.” Now, after 13 years of life in Israel, all four Eilberg children are happy to be living there, and Reva, who was the most upset, is now married with a baby and would never consider living anywhere else.
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Upon arrival, the Eilbergs settled in Kochav Yaakov, right next door to Nachum’s sister! What drew them to Kochav Yaakov, aside from having close family nearby, was the many Israelis living there. It was important to them that their kids learn the language and integrate. One thing that made their transition easier was that they went from living in a single-family home in Baltimore to two-story house in the yishuv with beautiful front and back yards.
The community in Kochav Yaakov was welcoming, and, as is in many yishuvim, a committee that reaches out to new olim supplied the Eilbergs with many needs. In their case, they needed furniture and household goods. Although Nachum and Pnina had arranged for their lift to arrive a few days after they did, their belongings were unfortunately sent to Alexandria, Egypt, for seven weeks, as the result of a port strike in Israel.
Each family that makes aliyah and moves into Kochav Yaakov is assigned an adoptive family. Since Nachum’s sister was there, she was “appointed.” Much to Nachum and Pnina’s delight, a representative from the committee also accompanied them to government offices, to set up their bank account and kupat cholim (health insurance), and to the schools to register their children.
The Eilberg’s landing occurred a week before a nephew’s bar mitzva. Pnina says that having close family in Israel and sharing in each other’s simchot, definitely eased their adjustment. In fact, Nachum’s mother also decided to try life in Israel at that time but moved back to the States a couple of years later. She just returned this past March and is happily living in Beit Tovei Ha’ir, an assisted-living center in an elegant former hotel building. In addition to a beautiful living space, the center’s location in Geula affords Mrs. Eilberg the independence of ready access to public transportation.
Since the Eilbergs arrived in the summer, they had a chance to acclimate before school started. For the first several months of the school year, Nachum and Pnina took the kids out of school every so often to go on family trips and show them around the country. The giant trampoline that they brought with them helped to attract the neighborhood kids. It was also nice that there were other English-speaking kids on their street aside from their cousins.
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When they made aliyah, Pesach was already learning in the yeshiva Nahora, in Mevo Choron, near Modi’in. The three younger children started school in Kochav Yaakov. By Chanukah, everyone had made friends and was feeling more comfortable in the new environment. The only child who had a challenging transition was Chaim, who found it difficult to adapt to the culture, especially since his teacher didn’t speak a word of English.
Nachum had been a computer programmer in Baltimore, and his plan was to transfer to the Israeli branch of the company. However, he was told that he would have to improve his Hebrew first. So he took a leave of absence and, with Pnina, went to ulpan for six months. It was a great experience for both of them. After ulpan, Pnina acquired skills and more confidence in dealing with things like doctors and schools. Nachum came to realize that he had grown bored with computer programming and entertained the idea of switching to a different profession. He had always been handy and decided to reach out to the job board at Nefesh B’Nefesh to see if they had any employment options. A short while later, he was indeed contacted with an offer to buy a painting business that someone was selling. Nachum was interested and bought the business, and its former owner trained him in before moving to the States.
Ironically, when the Eilbergs met with Nefesh B’Nefesh to plan their aliyah, they had advised Nachum not to switch careers, because there is so much change happening as it is. However, now that Nefesh B’Nefesh sees how successful Nachum is, they have called on him to speak to new olim on how important it is to be open to switching careers!
In Baltimore, Pnina had worked as a secretary in Bais Yaakov’s elementary and high schools and at the Star-K kashrus organization. After arriving in Israel, she did legal transcription for a company for eight years. Currently, Pnina freelances and watches her adorable grandson.
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Seven years ago, the Eilbergs left Kochav Yaakov and moved to Nof Tzion, for practical reasons. Much of Nachum’s painting work was in Yerushalayim, and the traffic to and from Kochav Yaakov was becoming heavier by the day. Nof Tzion is situated close to Talpiot, where Nachum’s suppliers are. Another reason for the move was that the school in Kochav Yaakov only goes until sixth grade, and the twins were going to be attending middle and high school in Yerushalayim. So, when they heard about Nof Tzion from Pnina’s sister in Ramat Bet Shemesh, who knew they were looking to move to Yerushalayim, they came on a tour and decided it would be the right place for them.
Nof Tzion had originally been built as luxury vacation apartments for Americans, but when the families got wind of the location, and realized they would be surrounded by Arab villages, the majority of them backed out of the deal. Indeed, I notice from the Eilbergs’ window Arabs with their traditional head garb and long kaftans walking along the winding road below the mountain of Nof Tzion, some riding on donkeys. Pnina explains that Arabs pass through their neighborhood but do not linger.
When I ask about the security situation, Pnina says, “We have a very hard time when people ask us if it’s dangerous to come here. Things happen everywhere; it doesn’t matter where you are.” She says that during the seven years they have been living there, bli ayin hara, there have been hardly any incidents causing anyone injury, Although many residents in Nof Tzion are gun owners, Nachum does not have a gun. The Eilbergs even feel comfortable driving to Har Hazeitim in their own car without carrying any weapons.
The only time that things started to escalate was during Tzuk Eitan (Operation Protective Edge) in 2014. Pnina describes Molotov cocktails thrown into their neighborhood and one shooting incident. Baruch Hashem, no one was hurt. It was after the shooting incident that the government began providing the residents with full-time security. Security guards patrol Nof Tzion 24/7; in the morning they guard the gan (preschool) as the children enter, and in the afternoon they station themselves around the playground.
When the Eilbergs first moved into the yishuv, there were only 40 families there, and buses did not reach their neighborhood. Pnina would drive her two younger kids to Derech Chevron, a main road only a few minute drive away to catch their buses to school. Pesach was in the army at that time, and Reva was in Sheirut Leumi (a non-military national service program). Now, the population has doubled, and a minibus provides transportation to and from the yishuv once every hour. The municipality has also built a gan building.
A few years ago, the development company of Nof Tzion filed for bankruptcy. An Arab was interested in purchasing the remaining land, but the residents of Nof Tzion got together with the stockholders and were able to avoid that. The company in bankruptcy was bought out by Rami Levy (famous for his supermarket chain in Israel) and an investor from Australia.
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The Eilbergs remain close to their friends in Kochav Yaakov and always have places to stay when they visit. By the same token, they are acclimated to Israeli life and feel comfortable living in their almost purely Hebrew-speaking community. Nachum feels more comfortable speaking English, and most of his clients are English speaking, but he speaks Hebrew pretty well, which is important when dealing with his suppliers. Pnina speaks Hebrew well, although she still makes mistakes. She feels very comfortable and enjoys the smallness of the community. “It’s very much like being in a yishuv within the city. Everyone knows each other and helps out,” Pnina says.
Nof Tzion is a close-knit community, mostly Israeli dati leumi families of all ages. There are shiurim, Daf Yomi, and community-wide events around chagim. On Lag B’Omer, there’s a bonfire in an empty lot, and for Purim, everyone draws lots to give mishloach manot to two families. Even with the system in place, however, people still wind up giving Purim packages to their personal neighbors and friends, says Pnina. The yishuv has a gan (preschool) and ma’on (daycare), as well as a tzaharon (afternoon program). Some families in Nof Tzion shop in the nearby Arab makolets (small grocery stores); the Eilbergs do not. There are three minyanim in caravans, two Ashkenaz and one Sefard. Nachum prefers to take the 15-minute walk to the Young Israel of Armon HaNatziv to daven in a properly constructed shul.
I asked Pnina if they feel comfortable walking to shul on the road that connects to Arab villages. She answers that they don’t encounter any problems, and it was only during Tzuk Eitan, that they carried pepper spray with them. The single time they were attacked with rocks was when they were walking home one year on Simchas Torah. Their sons who were walking ahead ran to alert the security guards, who came immediately. Meanwhile, Nachum ran into the street to stop an Arab car because he knew that they wouldn’t throw rocks at their fellow Arabs. His idea worked, and the Arabs stopped throwing the rocks. B’chasdei Hashem, none of the rocks hit them and no one was hurt.
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Currently, the Eilberg children are grown up. Pesach lives in central Yerushalayim and is working full time with his father, in addition to taking a class in safrus. In the past, he has studied restaurant and hotel management and taken classes in Open University. Reva is studying to become a physical education teacher in Givat Washington, and her husband is studying horseback-riding therapy and working part time. Chaim is doing his army service in Totchanim (artillery), and Chavi is completing her second year of Sheirut Leumi at a special-needs high school.
Regarding the army, Pnina explains that people have varied experiences during their army service, as is to be expected with anything in life. When Pesach was in the IDF, he was in combat and was stationed in Chevron and Ramallah, but finished his service without any problems. Unfortunately, Chaim got a back injury during basic training and is not as happy. Although they suspect that it may have been caused by carrying heavy equipment, Pnina mentions that a ruptured disk can happen from all kinds of scenarios.
Dealing with the army’s medical system has been a complicated process, which Pnina believes could use improvement. Soldiers who need medical attention can only be seen by army doctors, and it can be very hard to get appointments. Although Chaim receives physical therapy from the army, Nachum and Pnina are also paying an osteopath privately. Chaim is now in a closed base helping a commander with logistics. As always, Pnina tries to stay positive. She views Chaim’s situation as better than before: The Rav from Chaim’s base lives downstairs from him and is a great source of chizuk, and his current commander is more accommodating than previous ones.
Pnina shares her perspective on the difficulties that they face: “I don’t believe in speaking lashon hara about Eretz Yisrael. There are challenges, but there are issues everywhere. Every kid has his own set of challenges. Do your kids stay religious here, or not? I don’t think it makes a difference where you are. Each child has to find his own way.”
She talks about the expulsion from Gush Katif, in 2005. The Eilbergs felt the tremendous loss acutely. Reva joined a family in Gush Katif to give support and accompanied them when they were forcibly evicted. Pesach’s yeshiva took a different stance; they believed that the boys’ role was to keep learning and not to take part in protests or demonstrations. “The expulsion and other political and societal events affected my kids’ attitudes and beliefs,” says Pnina.
Pnina sees much good in the Israeli educational system: “There is a lot to offer, especially if you need special education. In this country, it doesn’t compare to anywhere else in this world, especially if you want to keep your child in a religious environment.”
Pnina acknowledges that life in Eretz Yisrael is different from America in many ways, and it takes time to acclimate. She shares an example: “It took me time to get used to the different look of Shabbat clothing that my sons wear, which is khaki pants and white shirts. I finally realized that they don’t have to be less of a talmid chacham just because they are not wearing a black hat.” A personal challenge for Pnina is missing her family, who are mainly in Toronto, and she wishes she could go back more often.
There are also many aspects of Israeli life that Pnina appreciates. “When you go to a wedding here,” she says, “the joy is incomparable. You see the kids dancing; their whole heart is in it. It doesn’t matter what the food is or what the decorations looks like or what you’re wearing....” Even though Pnina paid attention to those details when they made their daughter’s wedding, they weren’t the emphasis.
When all’s said and done, Pnina is very positive about life in Eretz Yisrael and feels extremely fortunate that they have made smachot here. Their daughter celebrated her bat mitzva at Kever Rochel, and their son did his hanachas tefilin at Me’aras Hamachpeila (Cave of the Patriarchs) and his bar mitzva at the Kotel. “These are all dreams,” Pnina exclaims. “We are very, very lucky.”