Journey to Beitar : The Aliyah of Sara Lea Baruchov

“Family meeting,” father and mother announce one fine day. The kids amble in and take their places at the dining room table. The news is revealed, and jaws drop. Hearts start to flutter, and the shock is apparent. How would you feel if you were a sixteen-year-old Bais Yaakov teenager and are suddenly told about your family’s impending departure to a new faraway country?

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Sara Lea Baruchov, nee Sondhelm, now a busy wife and mother, takes a trip down memory lane and excitedly shares her story with me in her home in Beitar. Sara Lea had just finished eleventh grade, when her family made aliyah in 1993. I ask her why her parents decided to pick up and move to Israel at that point in time.

“They had dreamed of this for many years,” answers Sara Leah. When her parents, Rabbi Uri and Mrs. Aviva Sondhelm were still a young couple, they took a trip to Eretz Yisrael and decided that one day they would make Israel their home. They were not ready to make the move at that time, mainly because of Rabbi Sondhelm’s commitments in America. He was involved in chinuch and therefore felt it was important to remain in his position for the sake of klal. In addition to working in chinuch, he also participated in the family business. And so, Rabbi and Mrs. Sondhelm asked Hashem for a sign from Heaven. If the business was sold, perhaps that would signal that it was an opportune time to move.

Mrs. Sondhelm was raised in a home in which Eretz Yisrael was spoken about lovingly and often. When her father, Mr. Fred Schlossberg, a”h, left Germany, he first lived in Eretz Yisrael before settling in America, and continued to feel sentiments towards the Holy Land. Mrs. Sondhelm’s mother, Mrs. Greta Schlossberg, “always had a yearning” to dwell in Eretz Yisrael. Her connection to the Land was secured when her Hebrew teacher in Germany went to what was then Palestine and brought his student a small stone. The young girl treasured the stone and every night before going to sleep would give it a kiss. This appreciation for Eretz Yisrael that Mrs. Sondhelm felt in her parents’ home greatly influenced her move with her own family, years later.

Over the years, the Sondhelm family had traveled to visit Rabbi Sondhelm’s sister and family in Rechovot and participate in their family’s simchas. On each of those trips, they would make it a point to stay in an apartment as opposed to a hotel to gain a small taste of Israeli life. “On our last visit before the pilot trip,” Sara Lea remembers, “my father mentioned a few times, ‘One day we’re going to move here.’” Their desire to move to Eretz Yisrael finally came to fruition when the family business was sold. Rabbi and Mrs. Sondhelm asked da’as Torah from the Bostoner Rebbe, who was visiting Baltimore at the time, and received a bracha from him to move.

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When Rabbi and Mrs. Sondhelm traveled to Israel in the winter of 1992, the children did not know that it was in fact a pilot trip and that their parents were going apartment hunting. During the family meeting, when the news of their aliyah plans was disclosed, the children were simply in a state of shock. Sara Lea remembers neither immediate excitement or upset, just a feeling of “What, I can’t believe it!”

Then Sara Lea’s parents did something “very smart.” They acknowledged that a move for their teenage daughter would be difficult and gave Sara Lea the option to stay in Baltimore and board with a family to complete high school. During that difficult time period, Sara Lea weighed the pros and cons of choosing between friends and family. She was suddenly facing the emotion that students typically face when they graduate from the cocoon of high school, and have to choose their path and confront the “real world.”

After all the deliberations, Sara Lea finally reached her decision upon looking at a bulletin board in the Bais Yaakov hallway one day. There were pictures of girlshappy, excited friends and shared memories. How badly Sara Lea wanted to be in those pictures at the end of her high school experience. To be part of graduation...yearbook. She was very much a part of school life and involved with GO and concert. But then another thought crossed her mind. Sara Lea thought of family pictures; “My family, too, they’re going to have pictures of their first year in Israel, and I won’t be in any of them. And they are going to have private jokes, just like friends have private jokes...and I am not going to know any of them.” And that’s when she concluded, “In life, you pick family.”

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Once the shock subsided, enthusiasm filled the Sondhelm home in anticipation of the move. The children were excited, because, as Sara Lea puts it, “My parents were so excited, so it was like an adventure.” I wonder though, that even with their parents’ contagious excitement, how the children reacted towards moving away from their comfortable Baltimore life in Greenspring and saying goodbye to their friends? Sara Lea responds that a few things helped them along. One was that, as she puts it, “We were adaptable type of kids; we went along with things.” The vacations and happy tourist memories of falafel, pizza shops, beaches, and Masada also helped. Since the kids were already a bit familiar with Israel, they had an idea of what to expect.

A few months later, the Sondhelms made aliyah and settled into Har Nof to be part of a community that includes other Americans amidst Israeli yeshivishe chareidim. Their move “was as good as it could have been,” says Sara Lea. The initial adjustment presented fairly minor challenges. One that Sara Lea experienced was being part of a community where hardly anyone knew her or her family. She describes her pride in being a daughter of her parents. In Baltimore, her parents were well known and involved with the community. Amongst many other community involvements, Rabbi Sondhelm produced the Purim shpiel every year at Shomrei Emunah, and Mrs. Sondhelm was in the former Encore women’s band. In general, the Sondhelms did a lot of chesed and hachnasas orchim. Sara Lea sorely missed this sense of “belonging” and pride she felt as being part of the Sondhelm and Schlossberg family in Baltimore.

Other initial challenges were getting used to a simpler lifestyle. It was a much hotter climate than in Baltimore, and there was no air conditioner. They also didn’t have a dryer or a car, and lived in a much smaller apartment than they were used to. The year they moved was a shmita year and the prices of tomatoes were “sky high.” So, one day, Rabbi Sondhelm announced that they wouldn’t be buying tomatoes for some time. Sara Lea remembers thinking in astonishment, “But tomatoes are so basic.” The children’s reaction, though, was not one of resentment. It was an attitude of, “Gosh, this is how people live here. Wow!”

Rabbi and Mrs. Sondhelm put a lot of thought and wisdom into their move to ease their children’s adjustment. One thing is that they did was not officially make aliyah immediately. Instead, they told their children that they would try out living there for a year and then would make aliyah if things were working out. After that year, everyone made aliyah aside from Sara Lea and her older brother Asher. They figured that it would be wiser to make aliyah when they got married, so as to gain better financial benefits.

The Sondhems also wisely thought about how they could enable their children to make friends in their new environment. The summer they came, Mrs. Sondhelm and Sara Lea worked in the English-speaking Camp Machanayim, and the younger girls came along as campers. “That was a great way to make friends,” says Sara Lea. The Sondhelm’s adjustment was made even easier with the move of two other Baltimorean families to Har Nof around that time.

Upon arrival in Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Sondhelm was able to find employment. He became a Rebbe for post-high school American boys who come to learn in Israel. Currently, Rabbi Sondhelm works in Yeshivas Ahavas Chaim.

Initially, Mrs. Sondhelm remained at home and kept house in Har Nof, in addition to hosting the many people they had at their Shabbos table on a weekly basis. At one point, the cheder her young son attended asked her to start an arts and crafts program, and she did. Currently, Mrs. Sondhelm gives piano and guitar lessons and conducts a sing-along for the elderly in the Beit Tovei Ha’ir senior facility in Yerushalayim. She also manages vacation homes in Israel for people who live in the States.

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The children adjusted to their new schools fairly smoothly. Things were easy for Asher, who was nineteen at the time. He had started learning in Yeshivas Bais Yisrael (at that time located in Bayit Vegan) the year before the family’s move and continued his learning subsequently.

As far as Sara Lea was concerned, she was too afraid to finish high school in Israel and therefore decided to go to an American seminary there. During that year, Sara Lea took tests to complete her high school studies as well, and received her diploma by mail. Although her parents lived in the country, Sora Leah stayed in her seminary dorm and went home most Shabbosim and chagim. Looking back, she says, “It was a fun year.”

The next Sondhelm child, Devora, was fifteen at the time of the family’s move. Rabbi and Mrs. Sondhelm were worried about sending her to a chareidi Bais Yaakov, because coming from her background, they knew she wouldn’t fit in. The school they chose had more open­minded, lenient views. In fact, since it was the school’s opening year, Devora had only seven other classmates, and the majority of them were American just like her! The teachers taught in Hebrew, and the girls spoke English amongst themselves. The school provided tutors who caught the girls up in their Hebrew language skills, and upon leaving high school, Devora was fluent. Thankfully, Devora had a good experience and adjusted very well into Israeli life.

The younger children, Menachem, eleven; Shira, eight, and Zvi, four, attended the standard chareidi chadarim and Bais Yaakovs and did well in the system.

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An interesting incident happened before the Sondhelm’s move to Israel, which ended up having a good impact on their daughter Shira. While studying in Israel, a friend of Asher’s invited him come along to a family for a Friday night seuda, where he said there would be lots of beautiful singing.

During the course of the meal, Asher noticed that the children in the family were the same ages as his own siblings. After Shabbos, one of the children in the family, eight-year old Shani began a correspondence by mail with Asher’s little sister Shira. When the Sondhelms moved to Israel, Shira’s friendship with Shani increased. For the first year of school, Shira seemed satisfied with just playing with Shani and didn’t seem to be making friends with any of the girls in school. Mrs. Sondhelm thought that it was strange, because she knew that Shira was a sociable girl and had plenty of friends in Baltimore. She tried involving Shira with other girls, but friendships were not forming. At the end of the year, Shira finally confided in her mother and told her that her classmates were being friendly; it was she who didn’t want to be friends with them. Why not? The little girl reasoned that she would have to say goodbye to all those girls at the end of the year when her family would move back to the States. After reassuring Shira that they were in Eretz Yisrael to stay, she settled down and happily made friends.

When Sara Lea finished her seminary year, her plan was to go to the Israeli Michlala Women’s College to get a degree in music. However, she was not accepted, and was advised to first work on becoming fluent in Hebrew, so she would do well in the program. So, Sara Lea went to u lpan (Hebrew language school) and became a madricha as well in an English-speaking seminary. When the ulpan was finished, she attended Michlala and about a year-and-a-half later became a kallah to Yisrael Baruchov from Brooklyn, New York.

The way the couple met was almost a repeat of the story of how Shira met her friend Shani. Yisrael was invited by one of his friends to this same musical family for a Shabbos meal. Since Yisrael is quite a talented singer himself, his friend figured that he would have a good time. Little did he know that his shidduch was about to unfold. Upon meeting Yisrael, the family thought he would be a great shidduch for Sara Lea. Sure enough, the couple met and became engaged. One commonality was quite apparent: their shared appreciation and talent for music.

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The Baruchovs began their marriage in Yerushalayim’s Romema neighborhood, located a short distance from Yeshivas Torah Ohr, where Yisrael was learning. Unsure of where to settle permanently, the young couple consulted the Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Ohr, Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, z”tl, who advised them to buy their apartment in Beitar Illit.

So, in 1997, the Baruchovs moved into the beautiful city of Beitar, which is located in the Judean Hills of Gush Etzion, only 6.2 miles southwest of Yerushalayim. Beitar Illit was established in 1984, and at that time, the city completely built up its upper section. Down the hill, however, where the Baruchovs had moved, the new developing neighborhood was “very barren.” There was one makolet (small grocery shop), which was a 15-minute walk from the Baruchovs’ apartment. They didn’t have a car at the time, and buses came quite infrequently. In addition, there was no telephone service for four months, except for public pay phones, and most people did not have cell phones in those days. When they had to make a phone call, the Baruchovs would go to the next street over and wait in line for their turn. Sometimes, the pay phone rang, and they would track down a neighbor to tell them that they had received a call.

Since there were no apartments across from her building, just mountains and a lot of vacant apartments waiting for families to move in, Sara Lea felt like she was “at the end of the earth.” While hanging up laundry outside at night, she kept on hearing frightening noises that sounded like Arabs laughing and making parties. Finally she figured out that the sounds she was hearing were in fact hyenas. What a relief! One early morning on his way to a neitz minyan, a man even reported seeing a pack of wild animals strolling down the street!

Even though Sara Lea made friends right away in Beitar, she felt an underlying loneliness until the population grew. Over time, Beitar expanded, and the newest neighborhood, Givat C, is almost finished on a third hill. In fact, Beitar has been rated to have the fastest population growth amongst the West Bank settlements. The buses come and go often, and shops of every kind are to be found. The city has received many awards over the years in recognition of its water preservation, beauty, landscaping, cleanliness, and prevention of teen dropout. It contains a very large number of playgrounds and parks, and has a gorgeous view of the surrounding hills.

Beitar is a one hundred percent chareidi community, and every chareidi sect can be found there; Litvish, Sefardi, Yerushalmi, chasidish, Lubavitch, Breslov, and Teimani. Beitar knows no shortage of shuls and schools, catering to the many different shades of Yiddishkeit living there. The residents of Beitar also receive top security. The town includes people from all kinds of backgrounds including Israeli, American, British, South African, French, Russian, and South American. With all these groups, the city maintains a remarkably peaceful existence. And despite the many nationalities, the streets of Beitar have a distinctly Israeli flavor, with most people speaking Hebrew.

Rav Yaakov Friedman, the son-in-saw of Rav Yosef Tendler, z”tl, moved his yeshiva, Bircas Mordechai, to Beitar about 10 years ago. The yeshiva and kollel are geared towards solid learners, and there’s a blend of American Israeli and American learners. One unique element of the yeshiva is that the kollel avreichim learn b’chavrusa with the yeshiva bachurim. The yeshiva was warmly accepted in the Beitar community because of its shtarkness. A good number of American families unaffiliated with the yeshiva were attracted to live in Beitar to be in an American yeshivish environment. The yeshiva offers a close knit community for its families, and even has its own N’shei for the kollel wives. The Rosh Yeshiva and Rebbetzin are mentors to the kollel families living there without relatives and give much needed chizuk and support.

In the larger Beitar community, an English-speaking N’shei unites the women living there. The ladies put on performances and arrange events to raise money for the various committees that offer services for the participating families. For example, when a woman gives birth, she receives meals and cleaning help, among other kindnesses. Beitar also has a beautiful Shabbos afternoon program for special needs kids, where they can go to a community center and enjoy games and activities.

Although Sara Lea has many Israeli friends and is comfortable living among them, she sticks mostly with the English-speaking crowd. The immigrant feeling she experienced in the early years while navigating the Israeli school system has generally worn off. All in all, she is very happy living in Beitar and feels very much at ease in the chareidi world she is part of. At home, the Baruchovs speak a mixture of Hebrew and English, and although the four older kids speak fluent English, the younger five children do not. The family is fortunate that Rabbi Baruchov’s married brother lives down the block from them, and Sara Lea’s sister Shira lives in Givat B.

Rabbi Baruchov is presently the mashgiach ruchani in the Israeli yeshiva, Toras Yisrael on Har Tzion, which is adjacent to the Old City of Yerushalayim. Although the family owns a car, Rabbi Baruchov prefers taking the 45-minute bus ride, which he finds more relaxing and gives him a chance to do some learning. Sara Lea currently works at CityBook in Beitar, a company that offers commercial real estate services. Prior to working for CityBook, she led a women’s choir, gave piano lessons, and taught music in English-speaking ganim (preschools).

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Aliyah is a journey and as shown by the wisdom and foresight of Rabbi and Mrs. Sondhelm, it can literally transform a family and securely plant them in the rich Holy soil of Eretz Yisrael. Night has settled into Beitar as I prepare to leave the Baruchov home, and Sara Lea accompanies me to the bus stop. When the bus arrives, I hop on and, as we start to move, I take a curious look at the darkened streets of Beitar. Two things strike me as most significant: so many winding streets, each named after a chasidic Rebbe or Litvish Rosh Yeshiva, proudly attesting to the peace and unity that the diverse population has created. As the bus rounds another corner, I notice an outdoor sefarim sale. It’s 11:00 p.m., and men are going in and out, perusing the sefarim. A city of Torah, I think, is a beautiful sight to behold.

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