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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Doni and fellow HaKotel lone soldiers at a barbecue at Ra”m Rav Ari Heller’s house (Credit: Doni Cohen)

Doni Cohen

* From: Bergenfield, New Jersey. Doni went to RYNJ from kindergarten through eighth grade, and TABC for high school. He attended Camp Regesh, Camp Manavu and Camp Dora Golding in the summers, and was later a counselor at Camp MaTov and Camp Dora Golding. His family davened at Congregation Beth Abraham before making aliyah to Efrat four years ago, just as he began his year in Israel.

* Gap year and Shiur Bet and Daled at Yeshivat HaKotel

* Army service through Yeshivat HaKotel Hesder for 16 months

* Currently working as a madrich at the overseas program and the Bergman Family Leadership program of Yeshivat HaKotel, and living in the Old City of Jerusalem.

* Going on shlichut abroad for “Torah MiTzion” next year, then attending Hebrew University, where Doni plans on studying political science and Middle Eastern studies (Islam and Arabic). He eventually plans on completing a master’s degree in one of these fields.

What was the motivation for your family making aliyah when they did? Why did you choose Efrat as the community to settle in?

We decided to move to Efrat because we already had family here, the weather, the proximity to Jerusalem, the warm and welcoming community, the ideology of taking a part in settling Eretz Yisrael, and an Anglo community that would be easier for my sisters to integrate into. When we made aliyah four years ago, I had just finished high school, and my sisters, Shira (18, who is in her last year in Ulpanat Chorev in Bayit VeGan), and Miriam (16, who is in her second year at Chorev), were all at a transitional stage; we just had the feeling that if we didn’t do it then, we never would.

When we announced that we were making aliyah, so many people came up to us and told us that they had planned on making aliyah when they were in their year in Israel, but decided to go back to America for college and then make aliyah upon graduating. Then, one of two things often happened: they started dating in the U.S. and didn’t make it absolutely clear to the person they were going out with that they wanted to make aliyah immediately after college, thereby getting too deep into a relationship without aliyah remaining a priority. Or, they didn’t pick a profession that fit with aliyah, and couldn’t successfully move afterward.

Many times they also decided that they would try to develop their career or get their first job in the U.S., and then make aliyah. By then they had children and said they couldn’t make aliyah with a young family. Then their children got older and had friends, so they didn’t want to rip them away from their friends. Then their kids got to high school, and they said they couldn’t bring their kids to an Israeli high school with no Hebrew background and their whole basic education being in the U.S. So, they said when their kids finish college, they’ll make aliyah. But by then they had grandchildren, and they couldn’t leave them. And here they are. Lesson of the story: make aliyah when you’re as least attached as possible, and if you really want to do it, take the time to plan and ensure it remains a top priority when you make decisions about marriage and careers.

I remember six months before our aliyah, one of our family friends said she had a 10-year plan for aliyah. We sort of laughed it off, and said “sure.” Right before we made aliyah six months later she reminded us and said, “Remember, I have a 10-year plan for aliyah.” My father answered, “No, you don’t; you have a nine-and-a-half-year plan for aliyah.” That’s the way that someone needs to look at a plan for aliyah, if they are serious about it. An active, running plan. Not an ideological abstract idea of “one day.” We made aliyah because we knew all along that this is where we are supposed to be, but like many other families, we said “one day,” and didn’t really plan anything or really mean it.

My father was on a trip in Israel and one of his good friends, who made aliyah a few years prior, asked him when he’s making aliyah. He said, “Get me a job and I’ll make aliyah.” He walked out of their house and on his drive back to his hotel thought about it and realized he wasn’t being honest with himself. He realized that it was just an empty excuse, and at that second decided that if this is how he feels, then he needed to make aliyah as soon as practically possible. So, three years before I finished high school, he started planning.

How was your and your family’s adjustment to Israel?

Many people thought we were nuts when we made aliyah with me and my sisters being older, and it being harder to learn the language. We did not find this to be true. We all very much tried to learn the language, throwing ourselves into situations where we needed to speak Hebrew, and tried to learn on the fly. When one forces themselves to try, and they really, really want to learn, they’ll pick up the Hebrew in no time. I got to a point where I was pretty much fluent about two years in.

I approached my adjustment by not being embarrassed to make mistakes, and really wanting to learn. I refused to speak to Israelis in English, always having Google Translate out and ready to learn new words and phrases and sentences in Hebrew. I requested two Israeli roommates in HaKotel, and refused to speak to them in English. I would find excuses to start up conversations with Israelis and speak in Hebrew, and even started watching Israeli TV shows with subtitles. It’s important to seek out every possible opportunity to listen to and speak the language, without falling back on English as a backup.

How did you prepare for your aliyah journey?

Before we made aliyah I started learning a lot about Israel on my own, staying up at night reading Wikipedia pages on the lechi, yishuvim, Israeli politics, etc. My friends joked that I sort of “flipped out” in high school, only Israel-wise instead of religious-wise. While still in high school I started fundraising for FIDF, started an Israel Advocacy Club, initiated a bulletin board in the hallway and on Facebook updating the student body on Israeli current events. I also began a Israeli current events newsletter, and started working for former member of Knesset Moshe Feiglin, running outreach to supporters through Twitter and his weekly newsletter. I also did some work on the side for well-known Israeli radio personality Yishai Fleisher, and, of course, I worked at The Jewish Link as my work study in senior year, writing articles on Israeli history and current events, as well as helping out with strategy.

After all of this, I truly felt ready to begin my life in Israel.

Where did you serve in the IDF? What do you feel you gained the most from your army experience?

I went to Yeshivat Hakotel, which is a Hesder yeshiva. I specifically chose a Hesder yeshiva because it would help me with my integration more—interacting with Israelis, learning Hebrew, living with Israelis and understanding the culture. I knew that some decide to make aliyah from chutz la’aretz every year and become lone soldiers, but I thought it would be a small crowd. From my year, which included 50 chutznikim, there are currently 19 living in Israel, 18 having gone, or will be going, to the army. This is simply unprecedented. So, in terms of friends and a community, I couldn’t have been in a better place.

We drafted to Kfir, Tzanchanim and Shiryon. From our group there are guys who signed on extra time to become a sniper, mefakdim (commanders) and even a katzin (officer) as well. I was the only chutznik my year to not be in combat because of my asthma. I tried out for the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, but was not accepted because they had exceeded their limit of Anglo soldiers in the unit. I ended up in a group in charge of everything relating to charedim and the army, without any of my friends from yeshiva. This turned out to be to my benefit, as I met great guys, made more Israeli friends whom I’m still in touch with (we even go to each other’s smachot), and I was forced to go entire weeks with speaking almost no English, improving my Hebrew tremendously.

While working in this department I tried my hardest to build as much of a bridge between the army and the charedim as possible. Whenever I interviewed an 18-year-old charedi boy, I always tried to find something in common, whether it was where we learned (many times both in Jerusalem), where we lived (many times I in Efrat, and they in nearby Beitar Ilit), or chassidishe niggunim (of which I know a decent amount of). I always tried to show them we are not as different as it seems, we’re all Jews in the end. I’d ask them to share a chidush on the masechet they were learning, a dvar Torah on the parsha, and many times before we even finished discussing a certain commentary on the parsha I had already finished putting their details into the computer and they were free to go. I remember some amazing experiences of what was supposed to be five minutes of questions and answers turning into an hour-long conversation and an invitation to the chasid’s apartment for a barbecue. I remember comparing daily learning schedules with a young bachur from Vizhnitz who just could not believe we learned the shita mekubetzet. This showed me how, despite our differences, we are truly one people.

After a few months in this position I was switched the IDF rabbinate and served as a mashak dat, a “mini-rav” who is responsible for soldiers’ religious needs on base. Speaking with fellow chayalim and participating in IDF religious programming gave me a chance to be part of very special stories. Recently, our department hosted a week-long summary course for soldiers from around the army who fell from combat due to medical issues, and were reassigned as kashrut workers due to them being religious Jews. On the first day of the course, one of my fellow commanders approached me and said he had a soldier who’s a new immigrant from New Jersey, and even though he had gone through a Hebrew course in Michve Alon (the army’s basic training base for new immigrants) he was having a lot of trouble with Hebrew and was clearly not understanding all of the material. He asked me if I could take him twice a day and go over all of the material and presentations and classes in English with him and help him get through the course. I happily agreed.

It turns out that the soldier had a little bit more of an interesting story than being a new immigrant from New Jersey. I understood after teaching him for a bit that he wasn’t really understanding many phrases I was using even in English. So I stopped and asked him about himself a bit and found out this soldier’s full story.

He was not from New Jersey. He was an 18-year-old boy born to a religious Christian family on the North Island of New Zealand. His family read the New Testament together quite often, and many times there were questions and doubts that arose, which they would try to resolve by “going to the roots” and reading the Old Testament. After a while of this happening they decided to explore the Old Testament, and Judaism as a whole. They contacted the rabbi of the closest synagogue (just a mere 240 kilometers/150 miles away in Auckland), and started learning a bit about Judaism from this Chabad rabbi. They learned more and more about Judaism as a family, and, after a while, their father decided to visit Israel. He returned telling his family that this Judaism was “the real deal” and that he wanted to convert. They all decided that they agreed with him, and started making trips to the Chabad in Auckland to study for conversion. They then decided that to become fully religious Jews they would need to live in the land of the Jews, and started the process of conversion through the Israeli Rabbinate by making many trips back and forth from New Zealand to Israel via two 12-hour flights through South Korea. This soldier, along with his parents, brother and two married sisters and brothers-in-law, converted and made aliyah three years ago, deciding to live in the Land of the Bible (Judea and Samaria) and in the yishuv of Carmel in the Southern Hebron Hills. His sisters now live in Barkan (Shomron) and Mitzpe Yair (Southern Hebron Hills).

And so, in my final full week of active service in the army I taught the laws of kosher to a life-long home-schooled former religious Christian New Zealander, now turned religious Jewish new Israeli immigrant Hebron Hills “settler,” and graduated him as a product of the Israeli army rabbinate.

Only in Israel. Only in God’s army.

Why did you decide to sign up for shlichut abroad?

I decided to go on shlichut next year because I believe that a person with real values acts upon their values and doesn’t just “believe” in them. My values are Torah and Eretz Yisrael as one, together, and I hope to bring this with me and spread those values to as many people as I can for the rest of my whole life. I always see myself as being on some type of shlichut, whether it’s a religious hesder soldier in the army, in Melbourne, Australia, next year running informal education in schools and programming in the community, or even just on the bus, speaking to a charedi or chiloni Israeli and showing him that there are fully religious people who value Torah and Eretz Yisrael and are normal and relatable. I hope to continue this in whatever I do and wherever I find myself in life, bringing Jews closer to Torah and Eretz Yisrael, always trying to make a Kiddush Hashem in whatever I do.

What is your favorite “only in Israel” story?

A few weeks ago, after an all-night learning mishmar at Yeshivat HaKotel, I took the first bus of the morning in all of Jerusalem, the 5:01 a.m. bus #1 from the Kotel to the Tachana Merkazit, and I met a tzadik. The driver, whose name is Dudu Cohen, is an incredible person, and here’s why:

Every morning, many very elderly ladies finish saying Tehillim at the Kotel and walk across the Kotel Plaza with their walkers to the bus stop. Dudu knows them all by name, positions the bus perfectly to make it easy for them to get on, gets up out of his seat to help them himself and greets them with a big smile and jokes. He also makes sure that “his regulars” are on the bus before he leaves, even if they can’t make it to the stop in time. As we drove through the empty early morning streets of Jerusalem, Dudu waved and shouted out the window a “boker tov” to everyone we passed, wishing them well, each person by their name.

I asked Dudu how he knew everyone. He answered that he had driven this bus for a very long time, and the same people come every single morning for years and years, rain or shine. He also mentioned that he left driving a few years ago, when his pension set in. I asked him how it could be that he was still working if he’s already retired. This is when I realized how much of an amazing person Dudu is. He said that after he left driving he got calls from those same elderly ladies every day, begging him to come back because the new bus driver didn’t help them, wasn’t accommodating to them and didn’t make extra stops near their houses to provide them with a shorter walking distance.

So, a few years after he retired, Dudu wakes up every morning at 4 a.m., drives this one bus at 5:01, goes to davening at sunrise and continues on with his retired life.

“I do it for them,” he told me. “Hopefully, Hashem will give me strength to help them for many more years.”

Dudu, the hidden tzadik, the driver of the earliest bus line in Yerushalayim.

Mi k’amcha Yisrael, goy echad ba’aretz (Who is like your nation Yisrael, one nation in the land).

The story got tons of shares and responses on Facebook, was shared on HaPoel HaMizrachi’s website and was written up on Yom Ha’atzmaut by the Jerusalem Post on its annual “(number corresponding to the number of years Israel has existed) reasons to love Israel” list.

Do you have any advice to our readers who may be considering aliyah in the future?

My father always says that aliyah is like a pool on a summer’s day.

It’s really hot outside. But there’s a pool awaiting you in the backyard with refreshing, cool water. Some of your friends are already swimming in the water, enjoying. They are telling you to jump in, telling you that you’ll really enjoy the water. But the adjustment to the water is cold. So you slowly lower your feet and legs in and sit on the side watching your friends swimming. After quite a while of sitting on the side you see how much fun they’re having so you do it. You jump in. At first, the water is really, really cold. But after a few minutes, the water feels great, you wonder why you were sitting on the side for so long and you become the one telling your friends sitting on the side with his legs in the water to jump in.

My family was the kid sitting on the side of the pool with his legs in the water. We were in chutz la’aretz but saw there was something better. However, we were too scared of the cold water—the adjustment. So, every so often, we dipped our legs in and came to Israel on a trip. But then we saw all the other families we knew that had made aliyah having an amazing time in the water. So we decided to go for it. We jumped in. At first, the water was cold. It was a bit hard to get accustomed to living in Israeli society. But now, after a short adjustment time, we enjoy it immensely and wonder why we sat on the side of the pool watching our friends having so much fun for so many years. Now we are the ones in the water, encouraging our friends to get in the pool.

So do it. Jump in. I bet you’ll enjoy the water.

By Tzvi Silver/JLNJ Israel