Making aliyah was a 10-month process that began long before the pandemic.
Upon their permanent arrival to Israel as this summer ended, Mark and Badonna Berkman, formerly of Oak Park, added a new Hebrew word to their vocabulary: bedood.
The coronavirus bedood, or lockdown, was not the start of an aliyah the Berkmans may have chosen when they discussed the idea of becoming Israelis as far back as their first dates while in their 20s. The Modern Orthodox couple spent the decades of their marriage keeping the aliyah dream alive while raising a family of four children in an Oak Park four-bedroom colonial.
Mark, 59, worked for 30 years as an assistant prosecuting attorney for Genesee and Oakland counties. The students in Detroit’s Jewish day schools knew Badonna, 63, for years as a JARC School Inclusion special needs teacher. Now that three of their grown children are living in Israel, the Berkmans in 2019 knew the time was right to make aliyah a reality.
Studying in a Tzfat seminary in the late 1970s and early ’80s sparked Badonna’s yearning to make aliyah. She remembered sharing living quarters with other young Detroit women, including Chabad’s Jewish Ferndale co-director, Chana Finman.
“I have Aish HaTorah to thank for instilling my love for Jewish learning and a desire to live in Israel,” Badonna said. “I’ve spent 40 years trying to get back to living there for good.”
Beyond the emotional and spiritual pull of Israel, the Berkmans knew they’d have to work out the practical logistics such as supporting themselves and acclimating to a new language, smaller living quarters and a hotter climate.
Making aliyah was a 10-month process that began long before the pandemic. The couple worked with the nonprofit organization Nefesh B’Nefesh to help with all the logistics. When all arrangements had been finalized, the Oak Park house sold and their most essential belongings packed into a 20-foot shipping container, it was time for the Berkmans to say a departing shalom to America and book their one-way flight to Israel by late summer.
The Berkmans adhered to the strict guidelines set by the Israeli Ministry of Health before, during and after flying. Unlike pre-pandemic Nefesh B’Nefesh aliyah arrivals, there were no large crowds at Ben Gurion Airport to greet them. But as the wheels touched down in Israel, the Berkmans, along with 60 olim, or immigrant, families, still clapped and shed tears of joy.
“The first moments of aliyah were not what we dreamed of, but still, there were no dry eyes on that plane when it landed,” Mark said.
Learning the Language
The pandemic continues to unexpectedly shape these first few months of being Israelis. They hope to eventually work in their professions, but for now, they are getting to know their mostly French olim neighbors, keeping in touch with friends and family over social media apps, and taking on the biggest cultural change — learning a new language. While staying put in their Ranana apartment — found by their oldest son Avraham, 32, before their arrival — they take online ulpan classes nine hours each week.
Fulfilling the dream to live in Israel may be spiritually moving, but there remains a steep language barrier in navigating life’s practicalities such as buying a car, setting up bank accounts, figuring out electric bills and figuring out parking space mobile apps. They are ever grateful for their children who are helping them in all things Hebrew.
The Berkmans looked forward to spending their first High Holiday season with their children and grandchildren. In September, shortly after their arrival and 14-day required quarantine, there were joyous outdoor reunions with their three children and two grandchildren.
But just as the Jewish New Year began, the Israeli government enforced a mandatory shutdown. There were no large family meals in a sukkah or travels around the country, but since moving to Israel, they are grateful for finally being near their children and grandchildren and the “little miracles” that seem to happen daily. This includes procuring schach — or roof material for a sukkah — from a group of religious men who they randomly passed while cutting down some branches in the neighborhood.
“Where else in the world can you have a conversation about needing schach and a stranger will know exactly what you mean, even with a bit of a language barrier,” exclaimed Mark. “Being in Israel, a Jewish person no longer has to explain themselves. The familiarity of it all makes you feel like you are surrounded by one large extended family.”