Dreams Come True : Journey to Rechovot : The Aliyah of Meir and Debbie Tulkoff


Many dare to dream; some turn their dreams into reality. The next stop in my aliyah exploration leads me out of Yerushalayim to spend a Shabbos with the Tulkoff family. When the Tulkoffs made aliyah in July 2001, they moved to the predominantly Israeli city of Rechovot, an interesting choice for an English-speaking family. My curiosity is piqued, and I hope to get a taste this Shabbos of what the Rechovot community has to offer and to learn from the aliyah experience of this Baltimore family.

The Tulkoffs welcome me to their lovely home with its delightful garden on a quiet side street. Private homes are common in the Tulkoffs’ neighborhood, alongside the ubiquitous Israeli apartment buildings. Many parks and tree-lined streets give the city a suburban feel. One of the first things I notice about Rechovot is that, unlike other communities I’ve visited, the religious people live alongside the secular ones. A wide variety of shuls are situated within the radius of a few blocks. I take advantage, and on Shabbos I daven in the dati leumi shul, go to the tisch in the huge Kretchnif shul, and stop in at both the yeshiva minyan and the Sefardi shul.

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Meir and Debbie Tulkoff graciously shared their aliyah experience. Although the Tulkoffs began their marriage in Eretz Yisrael, they moved to Baltimore for several years, all the while maintaining their great affinity for the kedusha of the Holy Land. “We always knew we were making aliyah,” Mrs. Tulkoff says. It was during a trip to Eretz Yisrael several years later that they made the decision to follow their dream and settle in Eretz Yisrael. Although their rav, Rav Nachum Bulman, didn’t recommend aliyah as a fitting choice at that time – because the culture shock that the children would encounter would be too hard for them – if they were going to move nevertheless, the Rav advised them to settle in Rechovot.  

Mr. Tulkoff describes the benefits of Rechovot: its central location, the community, and its educational opportunities. Mrs. Tulkoff also appreciated Rechovot’s out-of-town flavor. Located in what is called Gush Dan, this older, established city is 15 miles south of Tel Aviv and 40 miles west of Yerushalayim. It is wonderfully situated to allow easy bus and train travel to all parts of the country. This was an important consideration for Mr. Tulkoff, since he doesn’t own a car and needed to be able to travel easily for work.

Shopping is easy in this small city, where just about any kind of item you might need can be found in the stores lined along its one main street. There’s also an old shuk in town, and the country’s largest shopping center is located just outside the city.

The community is at least 30 percent shomer Shabbos. It has a large Sefardi presence as well as Ashkenazim, Taimanim (Yemenite Jews), and Kretchnif, Vizhnitz, and Chabad chasidim. Rav Simcha HaCohen Kook, the Rav of the city, has managed to unify its diverse population, so that there’s a “low level of any kind of disagreements,” according to Mr. Tulkoff. It is to the Rav’s credit as well that the Rechovot mall is closed on Shabbos. Some of the English-speaking population, including the Tulkoffs, are led by Rav Dovid Stein, in the Chatam kehila (Chug LeTorah uMachsheves), established in 1983. Chatam has about 100 families in its kehila and offers a shul, Talmud Torah, shiurim, chesed initiatives, and a welcome committee for new olim.

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When the Tulkoffs made aliyah, their five children ranged from seven months to thirteen years old. Their youngest child was born in Israel. Education was a primary reason the Tulkoffs decided on Rechovot. They believed that integration should be a primary focus and that, by immersing themselves in an Israeli society and school system, their children would adapt faster and wouldn’t remain American outsiders, which often happens to children raised within predominately American and English-speaking communities. The Tulkoff girls went to the Bais Yaakov.  The community also has one public and one private dati leumi school. The Tulkoff boys went to a cheder guided by Rav Stein, which offers a high level of limedei kodesh and basic secular studies. Similar to the girls, there are two dati leumi school for boys and one other chareidi school which offers very limited secular subjects.

When it was time to choose a high school for their older son, Yehuda Tzvi, the Tulkoffs applied to the highly sought-out school Ma’arava, an Israeli chareidi school that combines Torah and secular studies. However, after meeting with the menahel of the school, Rabbi Baruch Chait (of The Rabbis’ Sons fame), their son was denied acceptance. When the master mechanech Rabbi Chait originally sought to open his revolutionary school for chareidi boys, he consulted the gedolim to gain approval for his idea. He was told to grant acceptance only to boys who could not make it in the solely Torah-oriented chareidi system. Because Rabbi Chait discerned that the Tulkoffs’ son did have the ability to flourish in the regular system, he turned him away. Indeed, his decision proved accurate. Yehuda Tzvi is very successful in the yeshiva system he is in now.

The decision to place their children in an Israeli environment wasn’t an easy one. Nowadays, families making aliyah are more informed by resources such as Nefesh B’Nefesh, Mrs. Tulkoff explains. When her family made aliyah, there was no Nefesh B’Nefesh. “We did what we felt was right for our children in terms of getting them settled.” Upon arrival, the children received some ulpan (Hebrew language) sessions in their schools. Both Mr. and Mrs. Tulkoff were functional in Hebrew. Mrs. Tulkoff had done ulpan years earlier, and Mr. Tulkoff, with his knack for languages, had also prepped himself with an Israeli chavrusa in Baltimore.

One comical episode stands out in Mrs. Tulkoff’s mind from when they were new olim. “I once had to write a late note for one of the children. I wrote, ‘Habat sheli lo higiah bazman mishoom shehe lo yachla lakoom min hamita.’ Clearly, I wanted to say that my daughter was too tired to get out of bed, but instead of writing the crucial word, mita, with a tet, I wrote it with a taf, changing its meaning from “bed” to “death.” Fortunately, my children caught the note before the teacher could read it and think that my daughter couldn’t awaken from the dead!”

“It was a very hard adjustment for the kids, and it lasted years,” Mrs. Tulkoff admits.  Mr. Tulkoff explains how his wife spent time with the kids doing schoolwork. They also hired tutors, and by Chanukah time, they were better grounded in Hebrew and were able to follow the classes. “Some of our kids got better grades in dikduk (grammar) than the Israelis!” Mrs. Tulkoff adds, “By the end of the first year, classmates were asking to borrow their notebooks.”

Even though the children caught on to the language fast enough, the culture difference remained. The Israeli system does not cater to the individual. Uniformity is stressed not only religiously but also in how the classroom is run and the school day structured. Mrs. Tulkoff believes that this is not necessarily a negative thing. “It teaches the children to deal with discomfort,” she says. “They don’t whine when they don’t get things the way they want, and that is a real strength. But we were used to more understanding and individualized attention.”

One area of great confusion was the student rule sheet that every student and parent had to sign at the beginning of the year. Mrs. Tulkoff is a teacher herself and comes from a place of respect for authority, and since the Tulkoffs’ mindset was to conform and integrate into the Israeli chareidi system, the rules were by and large carefully adhered to in their home. It was only years later that Mr. and Mrs. Tulkoff realized the parameters of the system. In a consultation with a rav, they were informed that the purpose of the rule sheet was to establish a standard to stem wayward behavior in students who are a bit on the edge. The social norm, however, among even the best of families, was to abide by the rules outwardly but to quietly circumvent them at times, without anyone noticing.

When the kids came home with complaints, Mrs. Tulkoff encouraged them throughout with her motto, “It’s not bad, just different.” With the little ones, she would count daled amos with them while walking down the street and sing how they were doing a mitzva just by walking in Eretz Yisrael. Mr. Tulkoff points out their efforts to fill their house with love, which was surely a boon for the kids after coming home from school. And although his children struggled in school, Mr. Tulkoff’s principles regarding life in Eretz Yisrael remain the same. “The (secular) culture infiltrates the community wherever you live, and there’s a much stronger infiltration – and contamination – in America.”

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The Tulkoffs suggest I speak directly to their oldest daughter Elisheva to hear what it was like for her to move to a city as a young teenager, where not a single girl in her grade spoke the same language. In a brief summary of those times, Elisheva describes that period in her life as being “traumatic.” Although she caught on to Hebrew after only two months of school and her grades were high, she had a terrible time socially. Coming from Baltimore where she was a popular girl, she was thrown into an environment with a culture she could not relate to and that could not relate to her. Elisheva describes how she was bullied by the other girls and, as is typical of the Israeli way, the teachers were tougher, unlike the more refined, polite mentality she was used to in Baltimore. Elisheva explains that the Bais Yaakov system is more black and white, in general, and students must fit into the box. The box mentality includes the expectation that all children from a family go to the same type of school, rules about what one can and cannot do in and out of school, how parents dress, and media access. Because she wasn’t a big talker, Elisheva didn’t open up to her parents, and they didn’t know the extent of her misery. By the time her younger sister came around, the Tulkoffs had a deeper understanding of what their daughters were experiencing and sent their second daughter to finish high school in Denver.

When Elisheva finished high school, she went to an American seminary in Eretz Yisrael, which is what saved her. For the first time since she arrived in the country, she fit in socially and felt normal and popular, as she had felt among her friends in Baltimore. She is now married with two children and living in Ramat Bet Shemesh. Although she has gotten used to the Israeli culture, there are times to this day that she is still not comfortable with it and considers moving to America. In a way, she feels like the outsider, not fully Israeli or fully American. Ultimately, though, she chooses to stay in Eretz Yisrael and appreciates what the community of Ramat Bet Shemesh offers herself and her family.

Things are different nowadays, says Elisheva. She hopes that the many young American families moving to Rechovot will have a better experience than she did. Times are changing is Israel, and in larger, more diverse communities, there is a better variety of chareidi school options. Elisheva explains her view of the benefits and challenges of life here today: Daily life can be harder physically and emotionally, because the country is fighting for its life. The outcome is a toughened, stronger mentality. On the other hand, there’s an atmosphere of greater appreciation of Yiddishkeit and ruchnius. This is the norm, she stresses, and is not considered nerdy. There’s much less of a stress on gashmius (materialism); people live more simply and are happy with what they have. As far as chinuch is concerned, Elisheva believes that there are challenges in any country you live, and you just have to pick your battles. In general, children living in Eretz Yisrael don’t have the attitude that “things are coming to them” and are more independent and mature. The most fortunate, Elisheva thinks, are the children born in Eretz Yisrael to integrated American parents. They are more balanced between an American and Israeli lifestyle and get the best of both worlds.

What advice would Elisheva give to parents who are considering aliyah? “Don’t make aliyah with children, and this means even preschool-aged children.” She recommends putting your dreams on hold so the kids won’t suffer. And if you do make aliyah with children, Elisheva concludes, at least give them the option of finishing high school in America.

Yes, it was a rough time, but, baruch Hashem, not only Elisheva but also her younger sister Leah are married and live in Ramat Bet Shemesh. Elisheva is finishing her law degree, and Leah holds a degree in social work. The next daughter, Adina, lives in New York, and the youngest Tulkoff girl, Tehila, born in Israel, goes to an American-style Bais Yaakov in Ramat Bet Shemesh. The two sons are still in respected yeshivos.

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Finding employment in Israel was less of a challenge for the Tulkoffs. For the first year they were in the country, Mr. Tulkoff took advantage of the stipend allotted to new immigrants to go to ulpan every day in Tel Aviv. For the next nine years, Mr. Tulkoff brought in nice income working for two hospitals as a medical magician. Israel is a pioneer in medical clowning, and hospitals view trained medical clowns and magicians as integral members of the staff, who provide important therapy and relief to patients. Mr. Tulkoff helps patients by using balloons and other props to make them laugh while working on gross and fine motor skills they need for their rehabilitation. Sometimes it’s just getting them to talk and interact in situations such as after surgery.

In addition to his work in the hospitals, Mr. Tulkoff is a professional educational entertainer and gives performances on stage as Magic Michael to teach road safety. His spectacular performances have taken him all over the country, except for Kiryat Shmoneh and Eilat. His goal, he tells his audiences, is to “inculcate road safety, so I will not have to meet you in the hospital.” About five years ago, because of budget cuts that affected his performances, Mr. Tulkoff began working from Israel with his brothers in the U.S., who operate the Tulkoff Food Processing Company, makers of the famous Tulkoff’s horseradish and other condiments, sauces, and dressings.

It was only several years after coming to Israel that Mrs. Tulkoff, a special ed teacher by training, went back to teaching. She accepted two very part-time jobs in two different Israeli schools teaching English. Like many other Americans, she then earned her certificate to teach English as a second language. Mrs. Tulkoff eventually left her jobs, because she found it hard to relate to classroom discipline in the Israeli system. She now tutors English privately in her home to both American and Israeli children about 20 hours a week.

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When it comes to advising other olim, the Tulkoffs would not recommend bringing children who are used to the American system to Rechovot. In hindsight, Mrs. Tulkoff believes that these children would do much better in places like Ramat Bet Shemesh, where they are surrounded by peers from similar backgrounds and can find school options catering to their needs. Mr. Tulkoff offers a note of caution: The highest rate of youths at risk, he says, can be found in all-inclusive American communities within Israel, where you can live without speaking a word of Hebrew. “Those children are not Israelis; they’re not Americans; they don’t know what they are. And that’s a very serious issue of not fitting in.” Ultimately, the key is to find an “Israeli-enough society” in a community where you will be comfortable with other Americans to raise healthy, well-adjusted children. 

Mr. Tulkoff concludes with one more important bit of advice: “It’s most important to establish yourself in a proper kehila to enable successful aliyah. “Otherwise, you’re just davening around,” he says. “Just as anyone who wants to have a healthy marriage has to have a support system, families need a community.” That is a priceless thing for any Jewish home.”


The Tulkoffs can be reached through www.MagicMichael.co.il where more information about Magic Michael can be found.



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