Fulfilling a Lifelong Dream of Living in Israel
Israel was always front and center in the observant Jewish home in the small southern town of Danville, Va., where I grew up in the 1960s. Like today, those, too, were times of upheaval and social unrest. Yet, despite the turbulence on the outside, our home was a fairly peaceful oasis filled with Yiddishkeit.
My family went to synagogue regularly, kept a kosher home and celebrated the holidays. On Sundays, we’d eat matzah brei, even when it wasn’t Passover, and listen to the melodies of Joel Grey and The Barry Sisters as well as the comedy routines of Zero Mostel and Alan Sherman. My father was active on the synagogue board and in B’nai B’rith and my mother seemed to always be going to Hadassah meetings, both locally and regionally.
Our pushke for the Jewish National Fund never left the kitchen table. In our tiny Jewish community, my mother was known as the “tree lady.” She would call the other Jewish women and ask them to plant trees in Israel for memorials, birthdays, anniversaries and life-cycle events. She even reached out to neighboring Christians and convinced them to plant trees in the Holy Land. She and my father held fundraisers in support of Hadassah’s hospitals in Jerusalem, and they traveled to Israel.
The women of Hadassah and their support for Israel were an important part of my mother’s life, and now I can see in my own life how that support has come full circle.
As a young teen, I had dreams of moving to Israel to become a kibbutznik. Fed a diet of books about Hannah Szenes, Henrietta Szold and the early pioneers, I, too, saw myself as a valiant Woman of Zion. My parents sent me and my sister to a Jewish summer camp for girls, and we traveled to cities with large Jewish populations to attend Israeli fairs. I formed friendships in both places with several Israeli scouts; we became pen pals and corresponded for years.
During the Yom Kippur War, I mailed a letter to Prime Minister Golda Meir, my heroine. I was 13 and wrote about running away to join the Israel Defense Forces. Fostering the romantic dreams of a young feminist and Zionist, I was determined to defend the Jewish homeland.
A month later, I received a typed response from the prime minister thanking me for my dedication but telling me to wait until I finished my education. My family needed me, she wrote, and I could raise awareness about Israel in the meantime. Then, when I grew older, Israel would be proud to welcome me.
That letter, along with the letters from my Israeli pen pals and other cherished items, eventually got packed away into a box that I initially kept under my bed.
Then came university, a move cross-country to California and marriage, followed by the births of four daughters. There was little time for outside activities. We attended synagogue services most Friday nights, but my attention was largely focused on our ever-expanding family. Making aliyah became a foggy dream of the past. We were creating a successful life in Southern California, and Israel was not part of the picture.
When our youngest daughter was 6, I gave birth to a son, Max. Both of my parents passed away before getting to meet the newest member of our family. Years later, one of Max’s summer camp directors introduced the campers to the comedy of Alan Sherman. Out of our garage came a box of my dad’s old vinyl records: Sherman, Mickey Katz and all the greats.
But that wasn’t all I found in the box. At the bottom were the letters from my pen pals and Golda Meir as well as a few of my mother’s old Hadassah Magazines. My girls got a kick out of the ’60s and ’70s fashions worn by the women featured in the issues, and I tried a couple of the recipes.
In 2011, as a bar mitzvah present for Max, my husband, John, and I took him to Israel. It was the first time for all of us, and we felt an instant connection to the land and the people. Perhaps it was the complete surprise of seeing the names of my parents, Dr. Milton and Thelma Weissman, on donor plaques at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem, or seeing the blue and white flag waving at the top of Masada. It could have been the friendliness and hospitality of the people. Strangers, when they found out we were visiting for the first time, invited us to dinner and to stay in their homes. We knew we had to be a part of this country, a part of our people.
In 2014, Max graduated from high school at the age of 16, having been homeschooled, as his sisters had been. With the girls grown and immersed in their own lives and careers—one was married; another, our youngest, was in university—John and I decided it was time to sell our home and take the plunge.
The following year, we and Max made aliyah, settling in Karmi’el, a lovely mid-size city in Northern Israel. We chose it because it has a sizeable English-speaking population, and its topography reminded us of Southern California.
John, who had retired by that time, enjoyed a new volunteering mission—bringing American baseball to the youth of the North and coaching several newly formed teams. I started a blog about our adventures as olim chadashim, new immigrants, and reinvented myself as a freelance writer. We were, and still are, working on our conversational Hebrew.
Leaving behind all that was familiar to move to Israel was, perhaps, the hardest thing we’ve ever done, but it was also one of the most rewarding. We were gradually and successfully rebuilding our lives. There was so much to experience and learn: a new language and culture with a diversity of people, new places to explore, different foods, new styles of liturgy and new friends to make. We were living the dream.
After finishing mechinah, a gap-year program between high school and the army, Max became a soldier in the IDF. He served in the Foreign Relations division, working with the United Nations Disengagement Observation Forces and the United Nations Truce Supervision Organization along the Golan Heights border with Syria. During his service, Max received Israeli security clearance that enabled him to work on classified projects.
I made friends on social media and in person with other English-speaking parents with children in the IDF. We helped each other cope with the worries of having kids serving close to Syria’s civil war and on the front lines during the Gaza conflict in 2021. We all looked forward to the heaps of smelly, dirty uniforms dropped on the floor when our kids came home for a weekend. How one’s perspective changes with a loved one in the IDF!
Every two weeks, Max came home to sleep, eat and unwind. Except for conversations about new friends and superficial talk of army life, he never went into detail about his job or duties. We knew not to press him. We sometimes had a house full of Lone Soldiers, those without families in Israel, from all over the world. We hosted Thanksgiving dinners for them at our home and July 4th barbecues at the picnic grounds just off the base. We regularly took food and treats to the soldiers for birthdays, Hanukkah and Purim.
Max finished his regular service in 2020. After Covid lockdowns ended in the summer of 2021, John and I returned to the United States for a visit. Our family had expanded to include two new sons-in-law and four new grandchildren.
At one point, we stayed in the home of old friends from our California synagogue. Our host, Susan, had some old copies of Hadassah Magazine scattered across her coffee table. Drinking coffee by myself early one morning, I picked up the September/October 2018 issue and began thumbing through this familiar magazine.
My heart skipped a few beats when I came across a picture of Max and a couple members of his unit—in uniform, helmeted and wearing flak jackets. Even with his back to the camera, I recognized him and his buddies.
The article was about Operation Good Neighbor, the humanitarian aid efforts Israel undertook in the dead of night at secret locations on the Syrian border. The soldiers delivered palettes of unmarked food, water, diapers and essential supplies to the Syrian civilians caught up in the civil war. Syrians would somehow hear of the undercover operation and carry their sick and wounded children, some needing surgeries, some with cancer, to the makeshift triage tents at the border. Sometimes IDF medics and nurses would administer aid on the spot. The more serious cases were airlifted to local hospitals. My son had been there, but we had had no knowledge of his involvement in this dangerous operation.
Immediately, I called Max in Israel to ask him about what I had seen in the magazine: Yes, he said, he had been there. Yes, he had worked to help coordinate the operation, the security at the border checkpoints and the loading and unloading of supplies.
Max began to open up, and the formerly classified stories started to flow. He recounted the time the soldiers dressed up as clowns, juggling and performing card and balloon tricks for the small children to allay their fears. He told us about distributing gifts that the neighboring Jewish families of the Golan had collected for the Syrian families: toys, baby bottles, books, blankets, clothes.
He recalled how he had helped arrange a tense, pre-dawn IDF rescue of members of a Syrian volunteer search and rescue group, known as the White Helmets, who were being pursued by terrorists.
My parents would have been so proud of the involvement of their grandson in this daring military mission. I, however, was glad I only learned of all this after the fact.
After the army, max entered Reichman University in Herzliya, where he has continued with the foreign relations track, majoring in government and international diplomacy. Now in his last semester, he has been named an Argov Fellow, part of a group of 20 distinguished students who travel the world representing Israel. He is currently working on his capstone project on the normalization of Israeli-Arab relations in North Africa.
Nearly 10 years after our aliyah, one of our daughters, along with her husband and baby, has started their own preparations to immigrate to Israel. Hopefully, the rest of our daughters and their families will follow soon.
I will always be grateful to Hadassah. It was that box in the garage, with the letters and Hadassah Magazines, that rekindled my flame for the Jewish homeland. And it was the September/October 2018 article at my friend’s home that elicited all those IDF stories from Max and brought our son closer to us.
We are home at last, fulfilling my lifelong dream. I’m sure my parents, of blessed memory, are looking down upon us and smiling.
Tamar Dunbar is a freelance writer living in Northern Israel. She has written for the Jewish Journal and Times of Israel. You can follow her blog, Israel Dreams.