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Return to the Promised Land

One family's journey between two countries they love


by Amy Klein

July 26, 2006 | 8:00 pm

"Do you think we're crazy?" Avi Rembaum is sitting with his wife, Sharon, on a couch in his parents' lovely living room in the Pico Robertson area, while their impish, blue-eyed 21-month-old, Ella, runs back and forth between her parents, and her brother Itai, 8, is watching a video in the family room. Ella's other brother, Dani, 5, is out at a sleepover.

The Rembaums don't look crazy. They don't even look like many of the bearded or skirt-wearing flag-waving people being interviewed on television who are moving their families to Israel on group flights sponsored by Nefesh B'Nefesh, the American organization that gives grants to North Americans who want to immigrate to Israel. By the end of the year, Nefesh B'Nefesh will have sponsored 10,000 olim, most of whom are Orthodox.

No, the Rembaums don't look crazy, or militant. Avi, 35, is wearing a green baseball cap and khaki shorts, and Sharon, 38, is wearing cargo pants, a short-sleeved T-shirt and matching tan plastic Crocs, and they look just like any other couple you might see in the parking lot at Pressman Hebrew Academy, a Conservative school their sons attend that is affiliated with Temple Beth Am, where Rabbi Joel E. Rembaum, Avi's father, is the senior rabbi.

But the Rembaums could pass for a typical American family living in Israel, perhaps one from an anglicized neighborhood in Jerusalem or Ra'anana. They look that way because that's what they once were, when the couple met and married 10 years ago. And it's what they were about to become again, just last week, as the family prepared to once again make Israel home.

Last Sunday, while thousands of Los Angeles Jews were rallying in front of the Jewish Federation headquarters to show support for Israel, the Rembaums were showing a different kind of support for the Jewish state: They were on a plane moving there.

After living six years in Israel, and nearly the same amount of time in America, the Rembaums have weighed their options, compared the two countries, debated which lifestyle is better for their children -- and themselves -- and come up with one conclusion: Israel. They hope, they say, this time they'll stay for good.

While this back and forth story sounds unusual, it's not as uncommon as one might think; theirs is a conflict that many Diaspora Jews struggle with -- an inexplicable, heart-wrenching love for and attachment to Israel, versus a pull toward a native country filled with family, friends, better economic opportunities and, especially as of late, better security. This struggle is experienced not only by people who have lived in Israel, but also many who have visited there -- on summer tours or one-year programs or university semesters, or on missions - as well as virtually any child who goes through the Jewish school or camp system, with their strong emphasis on the State of Israel and Zionism. And it's a struggle that is often heightened in times of war.

"The bottom line," Avi's father, Rabbi Joel Rembaum told his wife Fredi when they were discussing how upset they were over Avi and Sharon's departure, "is that when you train your children to be Zionists, somebody's bound to want to live in Israel."

The rabbi of Beth Am tells the same thing to parents who want to send their kids to Pressman: "We tell the people who sent their kids to the school here: 'Expect that your kids are going to be turned on to Judaism -- you may get back a child who is different from the one you sent.'"

It's the same thing with teaching Zionism, he told his wife: "If you're really serious about it, then [someone making aliyah] is bound to happen, and it did." The Rembaum children were trained to be Zionists, attending Jewish day schools, summering at Camp Ramah, growing up in the home of a Conservative rabbi. Joel Rembaum has been the leader of Temple Beth Am for the last 21 years, and Fredi, who is now director of development for the Western Region of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, was director for overseas relations for the Federation for eight years, and has traveled to Israel as often as four times a year.

Zionism stuck particularly with Avi, who moved to Israel at 22 and attended the World Union of Jewish Students, a one-year program in Arad that teaches Hebrew and Jewish studies and helps new immigrants integrate into the Israeli job market. That's where he met and fell in love with his future wife, Sharon Isaac, a new immigrant from London.

"My parents were Israeli, and I grew up in a very Zionist home, and I had a huge family in Israel," Sharon said. "It was always Israel, Israel, Israel. I was always torn."

Sharon's parents had moved to England in 1966, where her father had citizenship, and always planned to go back.

"They got wrapped up in life there," Sharon said. Her parents moved back to Israel after Sharon and her sister did.

In Israel, Avi worked in the booming hi-tech industry, and Sharon worked at the BBC and then became a correspondent and anchor for the local English TV news, a program widely watched by Americans and diplomats and tourists who don't speak Hebrew. They lived mostly in and around Tel Aviv, and tried to make life work there.

But reporting daily on the deteriorating political situation was depressing for Sharon.

"After Baruch Goldstein, everything went downhill," she said, referring to the American Jewish doctor who killed 29 Muslim worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

"I remember the bombings, and I remember the assassination [of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin]. It was relentless, it was every other day; the beeper would go off every morning, so it was very hard to live in it and breathe in it," Sharon said. "Most Israelis have the opportunity to close it out," she said. But she couldn't because she was immersed in it for her work. "Israel is a great place to be a journalist if you're removed from it, if you're [a Brit] working for the BBC, but when you're Israeli, it's different.

The economic situation is what got to Avi.

"We were overwhelmed by our overdraft, we weren't able to make ends meet, and our financial situation was going downhill," Avi said. When his company offered to move the couple and their one child to Boston, they decided to go. "We wanted to come to America. We wanted to have more kids. It made more sense to move here," Sharon said.

There's a figure that new immigrants in Israel throw around to determine whether a person will make it: Seven years. If someone stays seven years, it's likely they'll be there a lifetime. Even Nefesh B'Nefesh's generous gifts are dependent on a family staying three years. That's because people leave. Some for economic reasons, others for security reasons. Some, like Sharon, just want a break.

"I wanted to be somewhere that I didn't have to think about it for awhile. But our intention when we left was always to go back."

That's another thing about new immigrants who leave Israel. Most plan on coming back. Some have a monetary goal, others set a time goal: the three-year plan, the five-year plan, the 10-year plan.

"We didn't have a plan," Sharon said. But they knew it was the right thing to do.

"When we left, at the airport, I turned to you and felt like someone [leaving] Europe in World War II," Avi said, addressing his wife. "It felt like the time was right."

Indeed, only seven months after the Rembaums moved back to America, in the beginning of 2000, the second intifada broke out. The next four years were a tough time for Jews in Israel; they shut themselves in, avoiding the threat of crowded places like malls, the movie theaters, restaurants and cafes, for fear of terror attacks.

Avi and Sharon really liked Boston.

"It was amazing; it was an incredible community," Sharon said.

But Avi's company shut down after a year and a half, so they decided to come to Los Angeles.

"It was a bit too cold, and we wanted our kids to have grandparents," Sharon said. "If we would have stayed in Boston, we might have stayed [in America.]" Sharon wasn't crazy about Los Angeles at first.

"When I first moved here, I vehemently hated it. I couldn't stand the fake boobs, the plastic-ness."

But then she got involved with Pressman school and the Beth Am community, and she started working at KCRW, as a producer of "To the Point," the call-in news show hosted by Warren Olney. "That was when I started to really like L.A.; I saw a very different side of it," she said.

Avi, who describes himself as the "optimist" in the family, didn't have problems with Los Angeles, perhaps because his family and childhood friends were here. But, he said, "Israel's always been on my mind."

There is a moment, for some people -- one particular Eureka moment -- that they can point to as an impetus for any decision, and especially for the decision to move to Israel. For Sharon, it was when her father died a year ago, and she was sitting shiva in Israel. "It was a very emotional time for me," she said. Her sister, who lives in the north of Israel, said to her, "Sharon, do you want to grow old in the city of Los Angeles?

"Oh God, no," Sharon replied, repeating the emphasis as she retold the story. "I didn't want to live forever here, and I wanted to live my life there," Sharon said now, explaining her vehemence.

"I am a better person there," she said, choking back tears.

As she spoke, Avi took her hand in his. For him, it's always been what he calls a "gestalt" thing.

"I am the happiest person when I'm there," he said. "I'm most confident as a person when I'm there."

For both of them, though, it was also about their children.

"It was about the life we want our kids to love, the freedom to be children. It seems hard to raise sane, Jewish children in L.A.," Sharon said. "It's very expensive here. You have to pay through the nose. In Israel it's a no-brainer [because school is free]. You don't have to work on chag. Here you get two weeks of vacation, if that, a year, and you have to take it off on the holidays." After spending Passover in Israel, they seriously began to consider moving back. But this time they weren't going to be undone by the economic realities of Israel.

"We had three criteria: Sell our house for more money, buy a house for a lot less money and get a well-paying job," Avi said.

They expected this would take them some time -- months, maybe even a year. "We did all those things in two weeks," he said. Less than a month ago, they bought their tickets to Israel.

Ironically, it was Sharon, the non-native, who had a harder time leaving Los Angeles.

"It was very hard for me to leave. Even though we never said we wanted to stay here forever, I could have stayed," she said. But "in many ways, it was now or never."

But Sharon wasn't the only one having a hard time leaving.

"I feel sad that they're leaving," said Fredi, her mother-in-law, in what was surely an understatement. "It's going to be a big hole in our lives."

Avi jumped in: "I reminded [my mother] that she dragged two kids to Israel in the middle of the Yom Kippur war, so she has no right to say anything." There is a strong parallel. In 1973, Rabbi Rembaum and his wife took a sabbatical in Israel -- arriving there on the eighth day of the Yom Kippur war, when Ariel Sharon was leading the campaign to cross the Suez canal.

"When our El Al flight came to Israel we were accompanied by Phantoms," Fredi recalled.

"As long as Israel is letting us in, we'll go," Rabbi Rembaum said at the time. Those words have come back as a strong reminder that each family has to choose its own way, the rabbi said, "We have no moral grounds on which to tell them they shouldn't go."

And besides, even though he'll miss them, "I'm proud of them. I'm a Zionist." As the family talked about this landmark decision, about moving to Israel, no one really mentioned the current military actions going on, the fact that Israel is fighting in Lebanon, that Katyushas are being fired on the Northern cities, and the country might soon be in a state of war.

"I'm less distressed about the situation they're going back to than about losing them on a daily basis," Fredi said.

When the fighting started, Sharon said, "We looked at each other and said, 'Are we doing the wrong things for our kids? Are we taking them into a potentially difficult situation?' The only thing we always think about is our children."

But they're moving to Ra'anana, at the center of the country, where the rockets don't hit. And they've already sold their house, shipped their stuff and enrolled the kids in school.

"In some ways it makes us want to go more," Sharon said about the situation. Avi added: "It's happening now, but it could have happened three months from now, and we'll be living there. It's just the way that living in Israel is."

Why, then, was Sharon crying? Was it because of the war, leaving Los Angeles and her family or moving to Israel?

"I just got emotional thinking about Israel and all the amazing things," she said. "I love the fact on Friday at 3, 4, 5 in the afternoon it's quiet, and you start to smell chicken soup, and the country just relaxes," she said. "I love the unity that we see when times are bad: It's the only county in the world that opens its arms and says, 'Come.'"

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