Sunday, October 03, 2010

Making Aliyah with Teenagers

As I was winding down my recent trip to Israel, a gentleman who lives near my son in Ramat Bet Shemesh approached me. I had actually met him on one of my previous trips. He reads my blog and handed me a book that his wife had just published and asked if I would read it. I gave him no guarantees but said I would try. It is fiction, and I mostly read non-fiction.

But when he told me the subject was making Aliyah with adolescent children and that his wife was a therapist treating clients like these - it piqued my curiosity. I read it over the recent Yomim Tovim. Here is my take.

Into the Whirlwind is written by Tzippora Price and published by Lions' Gate Press. It is endorsed by Rabbi Zev Leff.

It is a slice of life story of two families – close friends from Toronto - who made Aliyah together each with relatively young families - including teenagers. I would describe both families as moderate Charedim - people who clearly had Charedi values but also had productive careers. Mrs. Price goes on to describe the experiences of various members of these families and how they dealt with the adverse situations that resulted from the impact Aliyah had on them.

Both families had male teens - Josh and Avi who were friends. They both could not handle their new Charedi Israeli school environment. And both teens were on a path toward rebellion although at first Josh thought Avi was adapting very well.

Josh’s family was able to overcome their son’s rebellion by finding another school suited to recent American immigrants and added incentives that enabled him to eventually come adapt. Avi’s parents saw that as wimping out. They kept their son in the Charedi system insisting that the way to handle the challenges for their sons to ‘man-up’ learn to adapt to their new culture.

Avi did not fare so well. He ended up rebelling – coming close to going ‘Off the Derech’ (OTD). After describing some of the more agonizing moments this young man went through and confronting the seriousness of Avi’s situation his parents reluctantly agreed to family therapy. The precipitaiting factor was Avi’s younger sister, Devori. She was discovered to have become bulimic.

Long story short - the son could no longer handle it left their parents home to live by the more understanding parents of his freeing Josh. Eventually Avi moved in with relatives in Toronto - in near rebellion against Orthodoxy.

The book has a secondary storyline –Devori’s relationship with Shira, Josh’s sister. That friendship carried over from Toronto - went from being symbiotic to being almost nonexistent - Shira having felt suffocated by it. – That precipitated Devori’s bulimia.

Another secondary storyline was the encounter with Sheryl, the sister of a terror victim. Her brother had been killed in a suicide bombing and left he mother in suicidal state of clinical depression. He father was out of the picture. This destroyed her family. That resulted in Sheryl had going OTD and down a path toward completely and irrevocably destroying her life.

The story came to life for me because of the location, Ramat Bet Shemesh. I could easily picture the areas described in the book. Ramat Bet Shemesh is the author’s home and a natural venue for her novel not only because she lives there, but because of so many native English speakers that end up there.

I enjoyed the book. It was an easy read and informative read. It describes what I have believe to be a familiar scenario for immigrants with adolescent children.

Based on this story alone I would caution against anyone doing that. If one makes Aliyah, one should either do it when their children are very young or wait until their children are adult enough to remain behind. Teenagers are in the unfortunate situation of being forced into something they do not necessarily want to do. When they finally arrive and start living in Israel the fears these teens have are often more than realized by the culture shock and language barriers. The latter being an impediment for success in school.

In the case of both Josh and Avi - high school had been pretty much a breeze in Toronto. But in Israel it became a nightmare. It was an overwhelming burden just to keep up.

It’s kind of sad that the most idealistic among us – those who are willing to sacrifice the comforts of living the American dream and move to a country where just making ends meet can be a struggle are the ones that suffer the most. That very idealism can be their worst enemy. It is often not shared by their children who are happily ignorant of not really possessing their parents’ ideals of Aliyah.

They enjoy life quite nicely as they enter their teens and begin their high school experience along with their peers. When families like this make Aliyah - they in effect force their children into doing something they have no interest in. The shock of the move is often much worse than they ever anticipated. This places their very commitment to Judaism in peril. I doubt that is any amount of preparation sufficient to overcome the dangers to their children will face.

There were a few minor flaws in the book. I felt that it jumped around too much between its characters. It starts out focusing on one family and ends up focusing on an the other. Kind of like a bait and switch. I found the solution for Josh to be a bit too simplistic. Is changing schools the panacea that is implied in this book – even if it is one that caters to English speaking teens? That is the implication made by the author.

I was also disappointed that the Bulimia story was left unresolved.

The Sheryl story seemed to not fit into the general theme of the book. It seemed contrived and inserted with little connection to the problems the book seemed to be dealing with. As though the author somehow wanted to insert terrorism into her story. The Sheryl Story seemed out of place and should have perhaps had its own book.

Ultimately Avi’s story was the most realistic but even there the final chapter seems a little too pat.

But these are truly minor points. Over-all In the Whirlwind is an excellent read written by a professional who deals with these people. I would not be surprised if the characters - though fictional - were composites of her clients/patients. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to get a little bit of insight into the phenomenon of making Aliyah with teenagers. And if you are actually contemplating Aliyah with teenagers, this book is a must.

It can be purchased here.