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Monday, June 26, 2017

Debbie Krug Shohat, her family and their extended family at her sister’s Shabbat Kallah last year (Credit: Debbie Shohat)

A recent reunion of Israeli shlichim and Ukrainians who made aliyah over 17 years ago (Credit: Debbie Shohat)

From: Teaneck, New Jersey. Debbie attended RYNJ from Pre-K through eighth grade, then continued onto Bruriah High School. She was involved in NCSY, JESC, Our Way and Yachad, and attended NCSY Jolt after her senior year.

Gap year at Midreshet Orot in Elkana

Studied education and music at Bar Ilan University

Currently working at B’ikvot, an organization that coordinates and runs educational seminars in Poland

Married to Oriya Shohat, living in Efrat with their children, Maayan (12), Shachar (10), Neta (8) and Ely (5)

When did you first know you wanted to live in Israel? What was your first “real” Israel experience?

When asked the question “When did I first know that I wanted to move to Israel,” there were many pivotal moments I can trace back to that helped crystalize this idea to leave behind all that was familiar and cherished—ultimately, that helped me actualize this dream come true, to continue my life in Israel.

My father, Rabbi Johnny Krug, dean of students at Frisch High School, was diagnosed with cancer when I was 10 years old. It was indeed a trying and challenging period in our lives and, as a child, I remember how strongly the Teaneck community pulled together to support our family.

When he pulled through remission, my parents, in gratitude to God for my father’s health, decided that we would spend his upcoming sabbatical year in Israel. At the age of 16—my junior year in high school—together with my four younger siblings, Rachel, Shy, Charlotte and Shoshana, we picked up and moved to Jerusalem for the year. My father learned and taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, as well as Bar Ilan University, and I attended the Shavei Rachel Ulpana High School in Gush Etzion. It was quite a bold move on my parents’ part, and I am eternally grateful to them for it.

It was during this year that I fell in love. I fell in love with the language of the Torah that was spoken casually in the streets. I fell in love with the 20 girls in my class who laughed at my atrocious Hebrew (failing ninth grade Hebrew class did not help), and patiently taught me how to speak correctly. I fell in love with the fact that the Jewish calendar’s date was posted on banks and post offices. I fell in love with the notion that my feet were walking over the same earth as Avraham Avinu. I fell in love with the freedom to catch a bus and visit the Kotel any time I wanted. I fell in love with the fact that bus drivers, waiters, clerks and shop salesmen would wish me a Shabbat Shalom, or, come the holidays, “Chag Sameach.” I fell in love with Kosher Twix and Cheetos. I fell in love with watching a gathering of 10 men at random spots, like zoos, malls and parks, to daven Mincha. I fell in love with being able to wander in middle of the street on Shabbat. I fell in love with being able to kiss mezuzot at every single doorway. I fell in love with the fact that I always had to try to get a sense of direction to where the Old City was, because it wasn’t always eastward. I fell in love with the boys dressed in green, knowing that I was as safe as I could possibly be thanks to them.

Of course, I had the luxury to fall in love with “that” Israel because there was no necessity to worry about bills, bureaucracy and figuring out how to say certain ingredients in Hebrew. That was my parents’ headache.

The year, of course, came to an end. And like so many who come for their year in Israel, with buckets full of tears I had to come back to America. However, the seed had already been planted and solidified by my friends and Avner the Egged bus driver—“Debbie, one day. One day, you’ll come home.” The best piece of advice I got was from my good friend Dina, who told me to take full advantage of my time in the States—to get involved with as many chesed opportunities as possible, to have a clear vision in my head that my presence in the States was temporary, but to make the most of it while I was there and be as active in the Jewish community as possible.

When you returned to the U.S. after your junior “gap year” in Israel, what had changed?

My senior year brought me back to “real” life. I had to begin contemplating those difficult questions: What do I want to be when I grow up? When, where and how am I going to make this happen? While my heart was in Israel, I knew that in order to go best prepared I needed to succeed in my studies, and therefore had to go to university in the States, to study in my mother tongue. I applied to Stern, to study speech and communication. Together with that, I got involved in the Jewish community as much as possible. Between Bnai Yeshurun NCSY, JESC, Our Way and Yachad, it was more than a busy year for me.

As fate would have it, I was convinced by my NCSY advisers, Divsha and Martin Tollinsky, to apply for JOLT, the NCSY program that traveled to Poland, Ukraine and Israel. After graduating from Bruriah, and before I returned to Israel to learn at Midreshet Orot, I found myself in Kharkov, Ukraine, running a camp for the Jewish children there. It was truly a remarkable experience, and when it came time to say goodbye to the children, again, I was a bucket of tears. I promised the children I would try my best to come back for Pesach.

How was your gap year in Orot? How did it help “cement” your Israel dreams and plans?

The next chapter of my life brought me back home to Israel, to Midreshet Orot, in Elkana. My love for Israel only matured and grew that year. It was during that year that I was exposed to writings, books and teachers that solidified this relationship between the Land of Israel, the people and God. I had the opportunity to delve into Torah in ways I had never before, which only enhanced the admiration and appreciation I had for this country called Eretz Yisrael, and Am Yisrael.

That year, I did in fact keep my promise and, with a team of eight Americans, traveled to Kharkov to help run Pesach Sedarim for the children of Sumskaya 45. While we were there, I met a 13-year-old kid, Eliyahu, who lived in the dorm in Kharkov because his home was in Poltava, some four hours away from Kharkov, which had no Jewish school. One evening we were up talking, and he asked me if I lived in Israel, to which I responded that I was there for another year. He then excitedly told me that he would see me there because he was making aliyah that year. I echoed that excitement and said, “Wow! You’re making aliyah with your family! That’s great!” He looked at me and said, “No, not with my family. Just me.” I just couldn’t believe it, and told him it was impossible. And when asked why, I gave him “The List.” Language, family, friends, too young, too immature, who-will-buy-you-food, your-parents-will-miss-you, etc. Upon finishing this long list of reasons why it was simply impossible for him to move to Israel, he replied with two very simple words: Az mah? So what? With that, our conversation came to an end, because I had no answer.

After returning to Israel to wrap up the year, on a Tuesday afternoon, sitting on a rock in Elkana overlooking the hills of the Shomron, I found myself thinking about this conversation I had with Eliyahu. The wheels in my head began to turn. I love Israel, I know it is the true home of the Jewish people. I know that the connection between Torah, God and His people is channeled through this land. We are free to live in Israel today. Why am I going back to America—to study at Stern? And as painful as it was, I came to the realization that I wasn’t making the jump because of “The List,” the same list I had been so verbal about in Kharkov, Ukraine, with this 13-year-old. And behind that list was one simple prevention: fear. It was fear of the unknown, being on my own, taking care of all those things I didn’t have to do when I was 16, and managing in Hebrew. Most of all, and probably the biggest obstacle, was the thought of leaving my parents and my precious sisters and brother. However, it was Eliyahu’s two words that opened a window for me: Az mah? So what? If something you know is true, if it’s something you believe in and has the ability to be within your grasp, do whatever you can to make that dream a reality.

I remember getting up from that rock overlooking the Shomron, going back to my dorm, getting on my phone, and calling Bar Ilan University to see if there was even a chance of applying so late in the year. As fate would have it, indeed there was. It was a whirlwind of speaking to my mentors, including Rav Aharon Bina of Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh (whom my father had learned with and taught for when we were in Israel for the year), figuring out how to best approach this very abrupt decision. After all of the homework was complete, I made “the call” to my parents. After some hellos, and “How are you,” came the line, “How would you like to save $17,000?” because at the time, Bar Ilan costed $6,000 yearly tuition. “OK, Debbie, what’s going on?” I described to them exactly what I wanted and why. They raised me to love Israel, and I grew up in a community that supports and loves Israel. I was educated in institutions that support Israel. Our daily prayers are directed toward Israel. Our Torah learning is connected to Israel. I told my parents that I was painfully willing to give up my second year of learning at Orot, and would use that year as an experimental year to see if I could succeed in college, in a foreign language. If I could do it, then I would remain in Israel and take it year by year. If I couldn’t, then at least I could say that I tried and I would come back to the States with no guilt. But I would not declare official aliyah until I successfully completed my studies.

My parents agreed. For any person who congratulates me on making aliyah, I say that they need to congratulate my mother and father. If it were not for the support of my parents, there is no way I would have ever left the States.

How was your experience at Bar Ilan? When did you formally make aliyah?

In May of 2000, I applied to Bar Ilan and was miraculously accepted, majoring in education and minoring in music. I began from scratch, building a new social network. Eliyahu from Kharkov did in fact move to Israel that year, along with dozens of other teenagers from Ukraine. They, the Israeli shlichim from Ukraine, other bold individuals who also made aliyah, and my beloved roommates, became my family. I struggled to understand classes, pay rent, bills, insurance, etc. I made myself known to every professor and voiced the fact that I would need a lot of help. I laughed a lot at my ridiculous grammatical mistakes and many, many misunderstandings. I paid for private tutors to help me through difficult courses, paid for students to translate papers and, yes, there were many tears along the way. There were moments when I did in fact question myself, as to why I was doing this, especially when I got sick and wanted to be in the care of my mother, or when I burned the dinner, or when I had to figure out Shabbat plans when I had no energy to, or when I wanted to chat with my sister but the seven-hour difference got in the way. For every single struggle, I still woke up every morning blessing the fact that I was waking up in the Holy Land, always reminding myself to trust the process.

After completing my final test at Bar Ilan, I marched myself into the Misrad Hapnim in Petach Tikva and demanded from the woman sitting behind the counter to make me an Israeli citizen. It took one month, but, on June 29, 2003, with no fanfare except for the cheers and singing by the staff of Misrad Hapnim in Petach Tikva, I became officially Israeli.

How did you meet your husband?

Sukkot of that year, my sister came to Israel to visit and happened to be sitting in the living room of Rav Aharon Bina. In walked this guy who had come to help make lulavim for the Netiv Aryeh students, and, immediately, my sister knew I was going to end up with this Israeli from Kedumim in the Shomron. Indeed, seven months later, Oriya and I got married. After six years of living in a country without my parents, I married into the Shohat family and overnight was blessed with two more parents and five more siblings. Rav Bina, who was an instrumental mentor in helping me actualize my dream of moving to Israel, served as Mesader Kiddushin, conducting the wedding. Comically, one of the first gifts that I bought for both me and Oriya was an electronic Hebrew-English dictionary. Our household functions in two languages, which of course has its challenges, but suffice to say has its good share of laughter.

Where do you and your family live now?

We currently live in Efrat and are parents to four beautiful children: Maayan (12), Shachar (10), Neta (8) and Ely (5). We live in a community that shares my same passion for Eretz Yisrael, Torat Yisrael and Am Yisrael that brought us together. We live in a community that during times of war empties out, as many men are in reserves, including Oriya. When this happens, the community kicks in to care for one another. We live in a community where volunteers bring cookies and cakes to the Pina Chama, a free kiosk for the soldiers who secure our area. We live in a community that hosts hundreds of yeshiva students every year. We live in a community that has gone through turbulent times over that past few years, yet remains strong. I could not be more proud of where we live and what the community stands for.

We live in a community that overlooks the hills of Beit Lechem. With excitement, I remember when my son brought me to the playground behind his kindergarten, and he pointed to those hills and said proudly, “Mama Rachel is buried right there.”

It is quite literally a dream come true to look at a child who knows where our matriarch is buried. It is the same matriarch whose destiny was to be buried in Beit Lechem and not alongside her love, Jacob. Her fate was to cry for her children as they were marched into the Diaspora after the destruction of the Temple. And as the prophet Jeremiah proclaimed, Rachel will continue to cry until her children come back to the borders of the Land of Israel. How lucky we are to be back, looking over her burial place, as Rachel sits silent, no longer crying.

Where do you currently work?

I currently work for B’ikvot, which coordinates and runs educational seminars in Poland. For the past nine years, I have been fortunate to be part of the staff of the Heritage Yeshiva Seminar. The students discover and learn about the rich Jewish life of Poland and analyze its demise during the Shoah. I am the granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors. Every time I go to Poland it is overwhelming to learn in detail about the destruction, and awe-inspiring to learn about the strength and determination of those who survived. There are so many “if-only” questions that emerge. If only there was an army to protect us, if only there was a place for us to go.

Every time I return to Israel, I come back with a renewed sense of pride and passion for our people. How fortunate we are to live in a time when we can freely come to the land of our ancestors and be a part of its renewal and rebuilding after 2,000 years in the Diaspora. Israel still goes through many struggles, and I continue to remind myself to trust the process during those times of trials and tribulations. However, I could not see myself being anywhere else in the world. It would be a real sense of FOMO.

Living with an Israeli husband in an Anglo-Israeli community so different from where you grew up, where do you find yourself in the mix? How has your family in America handled your move?

Home. It has a multitude of different meanings. The one that most resonates with me is “relating to a place where one lives.” This year I will have officially been living in Israel longer than I had been in the States. Yet, every time I travel to Teaneck, I can’t help but call it “home.” It’s the place that every time I see the “Welcome to Teaneck” sign at the Belle Avenue exit, pass by the familiar streets of Queen Anne, Cedar Lane and the baseball fields at Votee Park, my heart fills with a sense of warmth and fond memories. Upon driving down West Englewood, my head always turns to the left while passing my beloved shul, Rinat Yisrael, where I spent my childhood sitting in the front with my grandmother, Marion Krug, z”l, and tried my best to listen to Rabbi Adler’s drashot.

My mother calls me “her Joshua.” Someone had to make the jump. In my family, I was the first one. Eight years after I decided to live in Israel, my youngest sister, Shoshana, made aliyah, and this July, Charlotte, together with her family, will be making aliyah as well.

Since that decision 18 years ago to move to Israel, my family grew. There are brothers- and sisters-in-law, 11 nieces and nephews, and my parents are grandparents, with grandchildren spread out over the world. There were and still are definite, painful sacrifices that come hand in hand with uprooting myself from my home in Teaneck. And yet, this is what had to be done to establish that very same word, “home,” in Israel. I wanted to come home and raise my family at home. Yet, not a day goes by that I am not full of hakarat hatov, a sense of utter appreciation, for being raised in a family and a community that helped shape and cultivate this desire to make the impossible, possible—and to be part of Jeremiah’s prophecy—v’shavu banim l’gvulam. Rachel’s children are returning to their borders.

By Tzvi Silver/JLNJ Israel