By Alan Rosenbaum (as it appeared in the Jerusalem Post)
"I think I should add another chapter to my book entitled ‘How to do a book launch during a pandemic,” chuckles Jodi Samuels. Her recently released memoir, Chutzpah, Wisdom and Wine – The Journey of an Unstoppable Woman, was officially launched in early July, as the numbers of those infected in Israel began to rise again. Yet Samuels, as is her wont, took it in stride.
“We live in a world in which we say ‘Live, love Israel,’” she says. “Everything is always perfect – and life is not perfect.”
In 2014, life for Samuels, full-time mother, businesswoman and entrepreneur, was close to ideal. Living in New York with her husband, Gavin, and their three children, Meron, Temira and Caila, Samuels was an energetic and active member of the Jewish community, hosting innumerable guests in their Upper West Side home every Shabbat, and planning events for Jewish International Connection New York, the organization that she founded, which provides a Jewish home away from home for people new to New York. Though Caila, their youngest child, was born with Down syndrome, Jodi had worked hard to ensure that she was receiving all available assistance for her development.
Samuels, who grew up in Johannesburg, says that she and her husband had always planned to move to Israel, but somewhere along the way she had lost her Zionist idealism. “I became a princess in Manhattan, and I was quite happy there. I was really doing my part for the Jewish people, and I had a purpose being in New York, and I could justify staying there.”
In the summer of 2014, Samuels and her family visited Israel, and everything changed. “Hamas was my aliyah emissary,” she chuckles. Samuels was inspired by what she witnessed, both before and during Operation Protective Edge, Israel’s 2014 military operation in the Gaza Strip.
She recalls watching a soccer match on a big-screen TV on Ben-Yehuda Street, together with a boisterous, noisy crowd of Israelis. When a message flashed on the screen that the army had found the bodies of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-Ad Shaer, and Eyal Yifrah, the three boys who had been abducted by Hamas that June, the crowd went from raucous celebration to stunned silence.
“I saw people’s priorities, and it really impacted me,” she says.
Gavin had tired of Manhattan and wanted to move to the suburbs. Jodi, who says that “suburbs terrify me,” suggested that they move to Israel for a year to try it out. “We went back to New York, put our kids back in school, and I said to my husband, ‘If we are going to do it, we have to do it now’ because my youngest has special needs, and someone said to me to move when she can go to kindergarten in Israel and learn Hebrew.”
Within four days, they were approved for aliyah – complete with passports and visas – and two weeks later, they landed in Israel, moving to a furnished apartment in Jerusalem.
“That was the beginning and end of the love affair of Israel for me,” says Jodi dryly. “Visiting here and living here is like the difference between dating and marriage. It’s a whole different experience.”
Living in New York, Samuels was well connected, respected, and a doer. “If [Prime Minister] Netanyahu was in New York for a breakfast meeting, and leaders were invited, I would be invited to that kind of breakfast. And then I came to Israel, and in Israel I’m ‘Jodi who?’ I really struggled with the fact that I was a nobody.”
Samuels knew little Hebrew, and relying on her children to translate everything was difficult for her. “I left my husband hysterical messages every day, and I felt angry at him because he was working for Teva, coming in and out of Israel. His life was exactly the same, and I felt like I gave up everything. I couldn’t find anything to like about Israel.” Samuels says that their first year in Israel was the most difficult year of their marriage.
When the school year ended, Samuels was adamant about returning to the United States. She had paid the children’s school fees in New York to reserve their spots for the coming school year, but to her chagrin, she was the only one who wanted to return to New York. “My husband was happy and idealistic, and he loved everything he saw here. My kids had drunk the Kool-Aid, and when I’d think about it – I sent them to Jewish day schools, and they said ‘Israel, Israel, Israel,’ and they were doing what they had been taught.” Jodi grudgingly agreed to a second year, but by the end of the second year, she acknowledged defeat. “The kids were already Israeli, and they said, ‘You can go back alone.’”
Jodi made an arrangement with her husband that she would fly to New York every four or five weeks. She kept her organization in New York and found that returning there each month restored her feelings of competence and self-confidence. “I said to myself, ‘You’re okay. You’re not completely helpless.”
THE GREATEST difficulty that they have encountered in their aliyah has been the level of services that Caila has received.
Early on, when they were living in New York, the Samuels decided to mainstream their daughter into the regular educational system. Mainstreaming a Down syndrome child in Israel is far different from in New York, says Jodi. “We gave up an incredible basket of services that was given free to us as New York City residents.” In New York, Caily had a case manager, and there was someone at her school who managed the programs. All the necessary materials that she required were delivered to their home. She was also provided with professionally trained “shadows” who helped her daily in school.
In Israel, says Jodi, “I walked into a country that’s a bit like ‘You get what you get and don’t be upset.’”
Unlike their experiences in the US, the entire responsibility of mainstreaming Caila was on Jodi’s shoulders. “Instead of being the soccer mom, you become the ‘special needs schlepping mother.’ My daughter had 22 different therapies, private tutors, things after school each week, all on my shoulders to plan, prepare, and organize, and follow up.”
Jodi explains that in Israel, mainstreaming is less common, partially because parents can put their children in numerous special educational programs. She notes that while, by law, parents can choose to place their children in the mainstream setting, there is no budget that accompanies the child. “There’s no structure, no resources, no plan and no system. In order to do inclusion, you need to be at a high socioeconomic level so you can pay out of pocket for extra services, have flexible work hours or not be a working mother, have to believe in inclusion, and have a high-functioning child. There are very few families who do it by the time you put all the pieces together.”
She has fought many battles to help meet Caila’s needs. “The schools hate you when you are ‘Momma Grizzly,’” she laughs. “The first few years, they hated us, but now they understand that I have the best interest of my child at heart.”
Jodi reports that Caila speaks Hebrew and English fluently, but has struggled socially. “The social part has been hard for her, but the academic part has been harder for me.”
AS LATE as February of this year, she would have returned to New York “on the first flight out,” had her family agreed to move back. Yet, she continues, “I like to say that if Hamas was my aliyah emissary, COVID-19 helped me see the good in Israel.” The pandemic, together with the sweep of world events and the spread of antisemitism around the globe, has forced her to take a second look at the benefits of her life here.
Once her son received his preliminary draft notice, she realized that their move had, for all practical purposes, become permanent. “Up until then, I thought I could put the car in reverse. I realized he is not coming back. That’s when I realized that I am living here. It also was a source of pride for me as well when I think back to the families that were annihilated in Lithuania – they wouldn’t have believed that we have our sovereign state.” Almost six years after making aliyah, Meron, their eldest, will be entering a hesder yeshiva in the fall, daughter Temira will begin 11th grade at the Midrashiya High School for Girls, popularly known as Hartman’s, and Caila will be in sixth grade, in an inclusion program. Gavin, her husband, still loves Israel – “he’s much more idealistic than me” – and works for a Swiss pharmaceutical company.
When they first moved to Israel, Jodi says, she complained each day about living in Israel. Now, she jokes, “I tell him I hate this place only once or twice a month instead of every day.”
Although she still cannot speak Hebrew fluently, her command of Hebrew has improved incrementally, and she can now read WhatsApp messages in Hebrew and can get the gist of most conversations.
She admits that while it may have taken her a while to recognize some of the positives of living in Israel, she now realizes that children growing up in Israel are raised with a different, more meaningful set of values. “Kids here feel they are part of something greater. They see that they have a purpose and a meaning, and they want to give, and they understand their value in the world. They are not just spokes in a wheel, but part of a future. That, for me, is profound to see.” She adds that Israeli teenagers have a sense of resilience that she feels is absent from most teens in the US.
Culturally, it has been a difficult adjustment, but she acknowledges that, living in Israel, she has met idealistic, “unbelievable” people. “People who want to change the world often come to Israel. They don’t come because the place is perfect. They come here to contribute to it.”
Chutzpah, Wisdom and Wine is both a personal story, in which Jodi Samuels traces her life from her Johannesburg childhood to her current life in Israel, and an open, honest – and occasionally critical – look at organized Jewish communal life.
The two main concepts of her book are that life doesn’t have to be perfect in order to be wonderful, and that people need to deal with the hand they’ve been dealt in their lives.
“In spite of my frustrations and my other wishes and dreams,” she says, “I’ve always been very practical in realizing that this is my reality, dealing with it and becoming the best person I can, and making my life matter – no matter what.”
Chutzpah, Wisdom and Wine is available on Amazon and jodisvoice.com