Rochelle Zelcer talked with Aviva Zacks about her early experiences of Zionism when growing up, when she visited Israel for the first time and what she misses about living in Detroit.
Q: What were your early experiences of Zionism when you were growing up?
Rochelle Zelcer: Growing up, I went to Akiva Hebrew Day School [now Farber]w and then I went to Hillel Day School, which were very Zionistic places in terms of education, the teachers and the overall messaging from the schools. I also went to Tamarack Camp, which is also very Zionistic.
My parents are from the former Soviet Union, and I grew up with an underlying value system that first, we are Jews, and then we are other things.
Q How old were you when you visited Israel for the first time?
RZ: The first time I came, I was 18 and came on Birthright. From that time, I said, “This is it. This is the place for me. This place is amazing.” Every winter break and summer break that I had going forward, I would go back to Israel. I went on any trip I could get on.
If I couldn’t get on a trip, I would just go to Israel for the summer. One summer, I went to Nishmat, which is a seminary in Jerusalem, for the summer, and I was no longer a tourist. I was really getting the taste of Israeli culture and olim who were coming to live in Israel. This was where I wanted to raise my kids, and this was where I wanted to be.
But I had to go back and finish my psychology degree at the University of Texas. The day after I finished, I had a ticket to go back to Israel. I didn’t even stay for graduation. I found an internship working with psychologists.
I assumed that I would get a second degree here in psychology and continue in that field, but that didn’t work out for various reasons. I had to prove it to myself and my parents that I could make it here and that I could create a life. So, I worked three jobs, including the internship. Then my brother got engaged, so I went back to Dallas. My parents asked me to move to New York for six months. I think they were hoping I would meet a New Yorker that would refuse to leave New York.
A month after I moved to New York, I met my husband. I told him I would only go out with him if we were going to make aliyah. He agreed and eventually we got engaged. The next day, I told him we needed to go to the aliyah office and register. I’m very fortunate and grateful that my husband, Barry, had a flexible job that allowed us to pursue this dream.
Q: Where did you live?
RZ:: I had a friend who was going away for the summer. So, she lent us her apartment. Then we moved a few times, and we have been living in Ramat Beit Shemesh for eight years.
Q: Tell me about your kids.
RZ: We have five boys, so that is pretty messy. It’s a beautiful jungle.
Q: What do you miss about living in Detroit?
RZ: I miss Detroit like crazy. I loved the winter. I loved the snow. It was such a big part of my childhood — having a huge yard and being able to go outside and play in the snow for hours and hours and shoveling the snow. I also love the way that people are so very real. I miss all the memories that I built there.
Q: What message do you have for anyone who’s reading this interview back in Detroit?
RZ: I see the beauty of Israel, but I also see the challenges; and I see them in a very, very distinct way. I hope that people won’t allow those challenges to become a deterrent for them when they want to make aliyah. There’s no shame in being an American in Israel. You can be who you are. That’s the beauty of Israel. When my parents came to the U.S., they wanted to assimilate because they felt that was important for us as children, but Israel is the melting pot of Jews from all over the world.