Plusses, pitfalls of making aliyah with school-age kids

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jerusalem | Four and a half years ago, Marty and Chavi Lee came to Israel on what they thought would be a one-year sabbatical. Halfway into the year, however, the couple decided to move here permanently.

“We hadn’t planned on making aliyah, but we just fell in love with the place,” says Marty, a biochemist who left behind a great career and a sprawling house in Asheville, N.C., to settle in Jerusalem. “It’s a phenomenal place to raise children.”

Unfortunately, the Lees’ daughter, Morit, then 8, didn’t agree. Believing that the sabbatical year was simply a blip on her radar screen, she made almost no effort to make Israeli friends or learn Hebrew. Making matters worse, she was expected to juggle two sets homework: one from her Israeli school, the other from her school back in Asheville.

“From her point of view, everyone was speaking a language she had no reason to learn,” Marty recalls of Morit’s Hebrew studies. Although Morit attended classes and received tutoring at both home and school, “she stayed with one or two of the English-speaking kids and didn’t try to forge relationships with the others. She was just killing time till the year ended.”

When her parents announced that the family would be staying in Israel, “Morit was understandably angry,” her father continues. “She felt we’d pulled a fast one on her.”

Yet within a couple of months of learning she would not be returning to the United States, Morit made a conscious decision to succeed in Israel.

“It was hard in the beginning,” admits Morit, standing in the garden of her Jerusalem home. “It was everything: the language, the new school, not knowing anyone. All the other kids already had their circle of friends and no one really paid attention to me.”

Once she realized she was in Israel for good, though, Morit says she had to make a choice. “I opened my mind to learning Hebrew and made friends. Now I’m really happy they brought me,” she says of her parents.

While making aliyah with children is full of challenges, there are many ways to ease the transition, according to both educators and parents who have done it.

“It is definitely a culture shock when kids arrive here,” says Sherrie Miller, a school guidance counselor at the Yehuda Halevy School in Jerusalem. “The general rule is, the younger the child, the better the transition.”

Miller, whose own children ranged from 8 to 12 when her family made the big move, believes that kids who come before they hit adolescence have an easier time of it.

“The high school years for your regular Israeli teen are difficult,” she says. “How much more so for someone who doesn’t know the language?”

While language is the most obvious hurdle for newcomers to overcome, deciphering what passes for appropriate behavior in Israeli schools can be even more perplexing.

“Kids in Israel tend to express themselves physically,” Miller notes. “They roughhouse more and grab each other. They’re more impulsive.” Kids in the States, by contrast, “are used to a much stricter code of discipline,” she says. “If a kid uses his hands to solve a problem, he’s suspended.” In Israel that’s not the case.

Michele Berkowitz, an educational consultant in Beit Shemesh who specializes in helping immigrant children integrate into the Israeli school system, notes that many of these children, particularly if they are over 11 or 12, find the culture gap “overwhelming.”

“They lose their cues on how to understand their world,” she says. “When all of the familiar things are stripped away, often the teen starts a downward spiral,” educationally and socially.

In the worst cases, Berkowitz says, the children become angry and stay angry. Families that were dysfunctional back home should not expect their problems to disappear. If anything, aliyah often adds to the stress.

In most cases, however, the culture shock and ensuing anger gradually dissipate as children become more comfortable in their new environment. Within a year, most children know enough Hebrew to function and their self-esteem soars.

Another thing to consider: Israel has several school sytems, ranging from secular to fervently religious, all recognized by the Ministry of Education. Before choosing a particular system, Savyon suggests that parents ask themselves the following:

“Would they mind if the child were in a class with both boys and girls? Are they going to have a TV at home, which would make them unacceptable in a haredi school?”

Miller strongly suggests that aliyah-bound families seek out a community with some common ties.

“When we made aliyah,” she recalls of her 1989 immigration, “we lived in a supportive community with many Anglos [native English speakers]. People there were especially helpful because they had been through the same experience.”

To best prepare the children, Miller recommends that parents hire a Hebrew-language tutor the year preceding the move. Whenever possible, parents should obtain the Hebrew textbooks the children will be using in the coming year in Israel, to familiarize them with the subject matter.

Reuven Kossover, who made aliyah with his wife and two sons, now 12 and 14, began teaching his children Hebrew before immigrating in 2001.

While logged onto Tachlis, an informal aliyah discussion group, Kossover learned that “unlike the States, teachers in Israel don’t break up fights. I figured I had to start preparing the kids for a world where they have to stand up for themselves.”

Avi, now 14, says this emotional and physical preparation “really helped me when I got to Israel.”

Avi admits that “at first it was hard, the language and stuff. For the first half of the year I was just sitting there listening and not understanding anything. It was boring.” Now, he says, “I’m happy we made aliyah. I have more friends in Israel and there are more things to do.”

These declarations bring a smile to Reuven Kossover’s face.

“We wanted our kids to live in an environment that would lessen their chance of intermarriage, which is very high back in the States. Here, they don’t feel left out because all their peers are Jewish.”