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Make Yourself at Home

What makes the experience of starting out married life in Eretz Yisrael so elevating and valuable for some couples, and so disastrous and destructive for others? 

It’s a young couple’s dream: Spending shanah rishonah in Eretz Yisrael, building a home on the recaptured foundations of the spiritual high of yeshivah and seminary days. But is every couple who packs up the gifts and books tickets ready, or even able, to build a life away from the family support they’ve enjoyed until now?

Before Yehuda and Michal Feld’s l’chayim, the young couple excused themselves while their parents hammered out the finances. At that meeting, both sets of parents agreed that since the young couple had their hearts set on starting off in Eretz Yisrael, they’d “let the kids go for six months, maybe up to a year, and then we’ll call them home.”

The Feld newlyweds knew nothing of this arrangement until Michal’s mother mentioned it when she flew to Jerusalem for a kiddush welcoming her first granddaughter. As Yehuda tells it, “My mother-in-law sat us down and said ‘I have to tell you, I’ve been amazed by the solid home you’ve built and your friends and neighbors sharing in your simchah — it’s all  so genuine, I couldn’t have had more nachas than I do, watching you and seeing what you’ve established.’ Then she told us of their little agreement, about giving us six months. Now, two years later, we’re still here in Sanhedria and making it work. Needless to say, no one is planning on ‘calling us home’ anymore — or as the case is now, calling us back to America.”

Moishe and Mati Hoffman saw Dini off at JFK with her newly married husband, amid the usual flurry of hugs, tears, and high hopes for the future. Just a few months later, the Hoffmans noticed how strained their overseas calls with Dini were. They wrote it off to the normal adjustment period, chalking up Dini’s unusual reticence to the time difference and other inconsequentialities. Isn’t shanah rishonah just like that for some couples? By the time the warning bells turned into an all-out siren, Dini was moving back into her parent’s home with two young children. In devastating retrospect, Moishe admits that his ex-son-in-law was “a good guy,” albeit with certain problems which eventually turned him into an abusive, unreasonable husband. “Had we been more vigilant, had he gone for help early on, had she gone for help,” says Moishe, “the outcome might have been different. But she was so far away, and we had no idea what was really going on.”

What makes the experience of starting out married life in Eretz Yisrael so positive and valuable for some, and so devastating for others? What should a young couple and their parents be aware of when making such a life-altering decision?

For the majority of young couples, the strongest impetus to make the move is the husband’s pull to return to an environment of learning unmatched in his personal growth, while many of their wives were inspired by their exposure to life in Eretz Yisrael while in seminary. Mrs. Chana Kalsmith, vice principal of Tehilas Beis Yaakov and founder and director of Ohr Miriam, a program for newly married women based in Ezras Torah, says that while couples come predominantly for the husband’s learning, there’s no denying the richness available for the wife too, despite the Americanization of Eretz Yisrael in recent decades. There are still fewer distractions and more opportunities for spiritual and emotional growth, as long as the wives are proactive and productive, keeping busy and staying connected and inspired.

Binyamin Samuels would agree. When he was first married, Binyamin learned in an out-of-town kollel in America for four months before he and his wife Yaffa made the transatlantic move. He currently learns in a kollel he terms a “Brisk offshoot.” For Binyamin, the greatest advantage of living in Eretz Yisrael is what he describes as the synthesis of Torah throughout all aspects of life. “How can you compare stopping at Walmart on your way home from seder to stopping off in Yossi’s Makolet? In America I was learning three sedarim a day, but kollel was someplace I went and learning something I did — I had a home and I went to yeshivah. Here in Eretz Yisrael, kollel is a part of you, it defines you. Going out into the street is Torah living — it’s all the time and everywhere, a steady Torahdig atmosphere, and we feel that we are creating a bayis within that space. It’s seamless — it affords a particular way of living and thinking. I know that my hashkafos have changed by being here this year and a half. A more ruchniyus perspective has becomes automatic, and for me, there couldn’t have been a better transition from ‘bochurhood’ to married life.”

While the idealism for the move abroad is clear, the landing isn’t always as cushioned as expected. Yaffa Samuels, who lives with Binyamin in Maalot Dafna, says, “We set out confident that it was going to be so amazing, of course living here would be the ultimate! And then we landed and there was this bump of reality hitting, which was disillusioning and shocking from the unexpected force of the challenges.

“People warned me before I moved, ‘You won’t have friends! You won’t have a job!’ But I was sure that I’d get here, there’d be an adjustment and I’d be fine. I will have friends and will get a job… But then there I was… no friends and no job, and I can tell you, it’s really, really hard! So if a friend would ask me now, I’d say that before you come, don’t be quick to brush away concerns, take them to heart. I know a couple whose rosh yeshivah told the husband, ‘If your wife has no job, don’t go. You’ll be off in yeshivah and your wife will be in an empty apartment all morning crying.’ It’s definitely a hurdle to get over.”

Tehilla Balter had a similar experience, and she estimates that her number-one adjustment issue was unemployment. When she got married, Tehilla already had her master’s degree, and after settling into her new home in Ramat Eshkol, began looking to land her dream job fixed with a reasonable salary. But that fantasy never materialized.

“A job is more than what you might do from nine to five,” points out Tehilla. “It’s about feeling fulfilled from how you spend your day. But the bulk of job opportunities that came my way were in medical billing. I couldn’t face doing that all day, every day. It’s not well-matched to my personality or my skill set, and I knew I’d find it unfulfilling. Plus the pay for those jobs is so low that after transportation and certainly once I needed to pay a babysitter, it would hardly make any sense at all.”

Tehilla’s other option was trying to keep her American job long distance, which many manage to do, but that had its own drawbacks, chief among them the work hours — 4:00 p.m. to midnight Israel time.

“Without a job it was pretty horrifying, and at first I really fell into a rut,” she admits. “I slept till 10:30 every morning, because what did I have to get up for? To look at the walls of my apartment and wipe my clean counters again? But my husband was up at 7:00 – Shacharis, breakfast, and then over to Geula for yeshivah — so by midnight, just as I was full of energy and bouncing off the walls, he was exhaustedly falling into bed from his long day.

“After a short while of this,” Tehilla continues, “I faced my two options, as I saw it. We could move to America, which I considered a failure, imagining hearing ‘Oh, they came back because his wife wasn’t happy’ — which was actually true — or I could try to make it work. I chose to figure out a way to make myself happy, and I threw myself into that. I started getting up at eight and had breakfast with my husband before walking him a mile and half uphill to yeshivah, then home again, which became an invigorating daily exercise, with the special bonus of spending quality time together. I came home to get the day rolling. It was a whole different world.”

Added to her newfound commitment was to accept available employment options based on reality. Tehilla reframed her job hunt to the minimum requirement of a job she could live with. She contemplated opening a playgroup in her home, which she nixed, and then heard about working for VIP English, which meant teaching English remotely to Chinese children, which she says pays double what she could have expected from an Israeli job — $10 per half-hour class. She fills in with tutoring Americans going for their college degrees, and is involved in short-term seasonal jobs like shalach manos baskets.

“It was up to me to make myself busy, which made me productive and happy,” she says. “I make sure to get out of the house every day, and now with a baby I’m naturally busier.”

In order to manage financially, the Balters dipped into savings from their wedding presents, and Tehilla’s parents initially contributed more, which kept them afloat until Tehilla was settled into her job, about four months after their wedding. But even for couples being fully supported, entering a new environment with hours of unstructured time can wreak havoc on the equilibrium of a wife who just left a full schedule behind in America.

Mrs. Kalsmith sees unemployment and boredom as a crucial problem, which is why she founded Ohr Miriam 12 years ago. “It’s hard to settle in a foreign country with nothing to do, and it’s essential for the wives to have a structure and a realistic plan,” she asserts. But where there was once a dearth of available options, today there are myriad opportunities. Women can take online courses, study for their degrees, go to shiurim, and take advantage of chesed opportunities.

“True, there aren’t so many jobs available for talented, qualified girls who don’t know the language and culture, so couples are better off if the wife has a plan before she lands,” says Mrs. Kalsmith. “If she doesn’t, she should be prepared to be creative and flexible. Off-site jobs are popular, and aside from gainful employment, women are natural givers and there’s no end to available chesed projects. I encourage my students to have a steady chesed job at least once a week — a person who gives is a person who has sipuk.”

The gap between their familiar seminary cocoon and the unknown reality of being an akeres bayis in often unfamiliar and lonely territory creates a huge adjustment for many young wives. Yaffa Samuels says that she never realized what shopping, stocking an apartment, and all the details of daily living in a foreign country would actually feel like.

“We Americans are so used to jumping into the car whenever we need to do an errand. I never envisioned what it would be like to wait for a bus with a stroller and tired baby,” Yaffa admits. “But the bigger adjustment is the emotional aspect of not having someone to rely on unconditionally — like a close relative who will take your baby for an afternoon. It’s not the help so much as knowing that there’s someone to lean on. I think it’s something taken for granted for most of my friends living in America, but who factors that in when deciding to make the move? True, many people live in areas away from their parents, but they know that if they have a rough week, they can get into a car and be with their parents or in-laws a few hours later for a Shabbos or Yom Tov. I see Israeli couples waiting at the bus stop on Erev Shabbos with their wheelies and hat boxes and I feel a twinge. For me, it doesn’t matter how I might be feeling — there’s never a break.

“And the loneliness,” she expands. “It’s a real element. I feel so lucky to have gotten married, so lucky to live in Eretz Yisrael, and I knew before I got on that plane that I’d miss my family and would be less connected to friends than I was before — but really, I had no idea what it would be like in real life. I haven’t been to any of my friends’ weddings in an entire year. The reality is one hundred times harder than what I’d imagined.”

In Tehilla’s estimation, the younger you come, the more friends you’re likely to have. “I moved here when I was 23, which isn’t old, but I didn’t know a single person, which was very, very hard. Friends are important and I realized that I had to learn to expand my own horizons instead of waiting for it to happen by itself. I didn’t know a soul, was working remotely from home, and would have become a shut-in unless I was proactive. So I made a decision. After candle-lighting I’d knock at a neighbor’s door, sit and spend a little time, which isn’t naturally my type of thing to do. But I forced myself because it’s important to feel connected, and after two years here, I really am.

“If I could tell lonely newcomers one thing, it would be: Don’t chicken out and say you don’t know anyone. Get out there and join a Neshei, go to a shiur regularly — there are so many opportunities for connection! I went out on a limb, which took a lot of guts, but now I’m part of the Neshei planning committee and I meet amazing people. I’m so affiliated and love the strong sense of community – it just lends itself to forging connections.”

Many young men imagine marrying and then returning to their yeshivah in Eretz Yisrael to pick up where they left off — with the added bonus of having their own home instead of a dorm, and a wife and home-cooked dinner awaiting them at the end of a long day. Reality, though, often surprises. Yehuda Feld says that the biggest change as a new husband in Eretz Yisrael was the void in his wife’s life that no one could fill — aside for him.

“Given the time difference, it’s not as if her mother is just a phone call away,” he says. “There’s a big emotional piece that your wife is giving up with a move to Eretz Yisrael, and you have to be ready and willing to step into that place and be emotionally available to her on a greater level than you’d need to be if she had her family and friends local — or even in the same time zone. Women, on the whole, have a harder time acclimating than men. You’re off to yeshivah, to your friends, and your schedule, while she’s left home alone with nowhere to go — how committed are you?

“Things do settle down here,” he says. “We’re very happy. But that was the biggest struggle for me. And if you do step in and step up, it’s very healthy. It has built us both, and is an amazing way to start off. But you have to have the skills and the will, or work hard to get them. And like all challenges that you hurdle, you become better for it. We’re there for each other when there’s nobody and nothing else, in our most vulnerable times. As a bochur, I had absolutely no clue, and for me this has been a huge adjustment — but I feel enriched and rewarded for having faced it head on.”

This challenge, living on the island of “Just Us,” can actually be one of the greatest benefits of starting out marriage 7,000 miles away from what was heretofore called home. It means the newlyweds have to learn to turn to each other, from the very mundane “what do I make for supper,” to the more imposing rigors of navigating Israeli bureaucracy, culture, and an unfamiliar medical system.

But what about the parents back in the old country, who also want to play a role in supporting this new team, at least from the sidelines? Not long ago, Chana Greenwald’s oldest son moved to Jerusalem, and she says she and her husband, who live in Cincinnati,  are thrilled. “He had never learned at the level he’s on now until he joined this yeshivah as a bochur, and seeing him thrive there as a yungerman with a good wife is the most important thing for us. It’s a wonderful way to start off a marriage.”

At the same time, her son is building a relationship with a wife the Greenwalds have never gotten a chance to really know. For many, that can foment an element of pain or anxiety. “I see my friends’ children coming home and how they’re building relationships with the newlyweds and really getting to know the new child-in-law,” Mrs. Greenwald admits, “so in our case that’s a drawback — we haven’t yet gotten to know our new daughter-in-law in the same way.”

Mrs. Shaina Lesser of the Five Towns acknowledges that when her daughter in Israel gave birth on Erev Yom Tov, she had other feelings mixed with her elation over the simchah. With young children still at home, she also felt a stab of guilt mixed with defensiveness (“Did I ask them to move across the world?!”) Mrs. Lesser says there is an unspoken expectation, whether her own, her daughter’s, or society’s, that she was meant to hop on the next plane over to be there for the new mother. While this was something she instinctively wished to do, given the timing and her family situation, it was completely unrealistic, leaving her feeling bereft at being away from her daughter at such an exciting yet sensitive time. She was grateful — and a wee bit jealous — that her mechuteneste, who, as an empty-nester, was able to make the trip and help out.

Although she misses her daughter profoundly, Mrs. Lesser still feels that if the parent-child relationship was strong up until marriage, this generation of long-distance relationships is easier to navigate than ever before. “Today, with free calling, emails, and Skype, I spoke with my kids last night, and today we got pictures of my baby granddaughter’s newly pierced ears. The world is a whole lot smaller and I feel involved in the daily lives of my kids. Short of sending over supper, which I couldn’t have done had they moved to Lakewood either, we really are close. I am thankful that once my kids do live so far, it’s not because they moved to California or Australia, but because they have the zechus to be in Eretz Yisrael.”

But what happens when a newly-married, newly-independent young couple land in this new environment and are blindsided by some of their newfound responsibilities to themselves, their spouses, and to building a new home? Not all couples have the maturity or skills to navigate these new dynamics — and some crash without the safety net of responsible parents who have until now been a steady fixture of gentle guidance and support.

Rabbi Avraham Kahan, rosh beis din of Beis Din Vaad Hadin V’Horaah and rav of Congregation Khal New City, well knows the richness and benefits of starting out in Eretz Yisrael, having himself had the privilege to do so, living, growing, and surrounding oneself in the avira d’Eretz Yisrael. But through his position as head of a very active beis din, he sees the flip-side, as young couples show up at his door back in America, often with their lives in shambles. From last Pesach until the summer, his beis din has seen 40 divorces of couples returning from Eretz Yisrael.

But Rabbi Kahan says it doesn’t have to be this way. He gives one example of a young woman who suffered mild but manageable anxiety when she was single, but it presented differently in marriage, and her new husband could make no sense of his wife’s moods and emotionalism. Within the framework of their new relationship, it set off unhealthy cycles triggering her husband’s own insecurities, and six months later they were back in the US, their shalom bayis out of control.

“Many newlyweds in America belong to a community, and their shul rav becomes a natural go-to, while in Eretz Yisrael many yungeleit daven in shtiblach without a formal rav,” says Rabbi Kahan. “The wives have even less access to mentors or rebbeim than do their young husbands, and this means that many issues aren’t being addressed. No one is directing many of these couples, and they aren’t reaching out of their own accord either. They may feel they have no one to turn to, or don’t realize the severity of the issues until it’s too late, and tragically, parents are often unaware.”

Rabbi Kahan points out that some of the couples sent to live overseas, often with their parents’ input and blessing, really don’t have the necessary maturity and independence to carry through on the responsibility given to the young couple.

“I’m shocked at how infrequently some parents speak to their children overseas,” he says. “If your kids are away, make sure they’re doing well. If you can’t get a feel, visit and see what’s going on for yourself. You’ll say it’s expensive? Yes, it is, but your 21-year-old son just got married — he’s young and may need your oversight. If you aren’t the one giving the hadrachah, who is? Anyone? Don’t wait until they come home and then say ‘I had no idea…’ because had so many couples gotten the help they needed when they needed it, their marriages would have been saved.”

Mrs. Ahuva Lehrfield, a sought-after marital therapist in Jerusalem, says she’d be hard-pressed to claim a specific trend wherein couples will definitely have struggles based on geography. “I think they’re basically the same people on both sides of the ocean. If there’s a strong and healthy parental relationship in place, those parents may pick up on a problem — whether their kids are there or here.” She says that when issues do emerge, parental input may or may not be best, and heavily depends on what the family relationships were like from beforehand.

And in many cases, she explains, that distance from the parents can actually be helpful. “For couples who find challenging relationship issues or life issues coming up in shanah rishonah, Eretz Yisrael can be a very good place to work through existing difficulties before returning to settle in to the rest of married life in close proximity to family,” she says. “Many would never have gotten the help they needed had they lived close to their families, particularly concerning complications stemming from unresolved family-of-origin issue. Living at a distance from family may provide these newlyweds with the space and privacy to reflect on their own marriages and to invest in their relationship without the interference of family and friends.”

Rabbi Shmuel Weiner, rav of Zichron Nosson Tzvi in Ramat Eshkol, agrees. “Coming to Eretz Yisrael can be very healthy for young couples in many ways. It’s an opportunity for them to work on themselves and work on their marriages without the distractions, and often the pressures, present in America. But couples who need that freedom yet don’t take advantage of it or misuse the opportunities, get stuck in a host of detrimental consequences. Some couples come up against small issues that are left ignored and grow to medium issues, which are left ignored, which grow to big issues.”

It’s unfortunate, but not uncommon, that by the time some couples reach out to the rav, it’s often snowballed to a point of no return. “Proper and timely guidance is key,” urges Rabbi Weiner. “Every couple needs to have a rav or rebbe that they are comfortable speaking to, that they are in touch with, who can make sure they’re growing properly.”

Rabbi Kahan stresses the necessity for that safety net to be in place from the start. “If they have issues, who are your children’s go-to? Where will they turn to get the help they need? Educate them before they get on that plane, instructing them not to shy away from getting the help they need.”

There are many resources in Israel for couples seeking help, stresses Mrs. Kalsmith, noting that many of these issues are not exclusive to Eretz Yisrael, but come up among young couples everywhere. “There are always people who keep things quiet and put on a show, but any girl getting married has to know that when things seem off, she has where to turn. In Eretz Yisrael there are numerous experienced rebbetzins and teachers who make themselves accessible, and who have the addresses when things are more serious. The real trouble arises not for lack of resources but for lack of people taking steps to help themselves.”

Shaina Lesser admits that a lot needs to be factored in before sending her  children across the world. “For our kids who are growing up in the age of plenty — only without plenty of responsibility — it’s often sink-or-swim when they get there. He may be able to drive to the Rockies and back with his eyes closed, and she might have gotten a hundred on every test, but who’s cleaning the bathroom, making Shabbos, and turning on the washing machine? For the ones who’ll sink without parental support, a disaster might be awaiting them overseas. But for those who will swim, it’s that much greater an opportunity for them to take their lives up to a whole new level.”

Two years into marriage, Binyamin and Yaffa Samuels seem to be swimming along, and Yaffa says she’s proud of where they are today. “Most people who’ve never experienced married life in Eretz Yisrael can’t comprehend how significant the benefits and beauty of living here are,” she says. “When they see people — sometimes even their own kids — struggling emotionally and financially, they don’t understand why the couple doesn’t just move back. But enduring the hardships is what builds our marriages, our husbands’ learning, and impacts our lives in a way it never could have in America. Yes, it can be intense and the challenges are daunting, but you get used to a lot. What we’re gaining is endlessly rewarding — I wouldn’t trade it in for a nicer apartment, my friends’ weddings, or even for suppers from my mother.”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 791)

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