David and Lori Melman, former Santa Ana residents, look out their window to see a mountaintop covered with scrub oak and bay
leaves that could be mistaken for coastal California foothills. The idyllic country lifestyle and its neighborhood feeling is what lured them to Har Halutz, a Galilee community established by the Reform movement, in 1985. "When I compare life in the U.S. to life in Israel, Israel always wins," Lori says.
Both Melmans had spent time in Israel as children. David was there for the 1973 Yom Kippur War and returned to attend Tel Aviv University. Lori grew up in a home that emphasized Zionist values. After meeting at UCLA, the Melmans made aliyah and joined the first group of 70 families in Har Halutz and never looked back.
Spending time in Israel as a child and an ability to cope with practical considerations appear to be important for Americans to make the transition to the Israeli lifestyle. While technology simplifies how olim (Israeli immigrants) stay in touch with their U.S. families, adjustments -- such as learning one's way around the supermarket, health-care system and bureaucracy -- are very real.
In 1986, Michael Taslitz and Liora Asa, who grew up in Fullerton, started out in Haifa before moving to Har Halutz. "Average olim call California frequently, read California newspapers on the Internet and follow their favorite baseball teams," Michael says. "We don't have to leave everything behind and remake ourselves, but there are strong relationships among Israelis. Everything is a few degrees of separation from you. Issues affect you locally and nationally."
Liora, daughter of Elaine and Haim Asa, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Tikvah, spent summers in Israel as a child but "came open-minded, wanting to have an international experience and seeing where it would lead us," she explains. "We had no preconceived notions. Then we found jobs, a great place to live, friends and a sense of community. We felt that Israel was a positive -- and economical -- place to raise a family."
Language was the biggest challenge for Michael, who says he is "hard-wired for English." As a technical writer, he speaks English at work but is making progress at learning Hebrew. Liora is a consultant for a social services agency. They have two daughters, Meital and Liza, and are expecting their third child in November.
"Acclimating to Israel is a natural process that has built on itself," Liora says. "You have to do this in your own way, in your own time."
Liora's sister and brother-in-law, Aviva and Daniel Zahavi-Asa, live in the religious community of Efrat, five miles south of Bethlehem in the West Bank area known as Gush Etzion. Although both are the children of Reform rabbis, they underwent an evolution toward traditional Judaism. Married in 1984, they moved to Israel in 1997, "because this is home, it's where a Jew belongs," Aviva says. Daniel is "ecstatically happy to see how the kids -- Liel, 11, Gavriella, 7 and Eliav, 2 1/2 -- are blossoming," although the first year was hard.
The Palestinian situation has totally changed people's lives, according to Aviva. "People have to consider whether going to the supermarket or the shopping mall is worth risking their lives, but some people don't even think about it." The couple's car is equipped with bulletproof vests and the children ride in bulletproof buses. Daily life in Har Halutz is fairly safe, according to Liora, though "people are choosing to stay home."
Despite the conflict, economic downturn and distance from family, Liora believes the percentage of olim returning to the United States has not changed. Aviva doubts that someone would leave due to the Palestinian situation, but thinks it could be a deciding factor given the poor economy, too.
"We're very clear on why we're here, so that makes it possible to stay in spite of any difficulties," Aviva says.