Mara Benjamin: A Fairy Tale in the Arava

Once upon time, a girl from tropical Florida decided to move to the arid Negev desert of Israel to fulfill her dream of living a Jewish life on a kibbutz with her children. She quit her job, sold her mini-van, rented her home and, with the help of Nefesh B’Nefesh, made Aliyah. She found a great job, met and married her true love, watched her children blossom, and has lived happily ever after…

Really, that is my story. I almost feel guilty saying it, but my life in Israel has surpassed all of my dreams and is like a fairy tale. That said, not everything has been “magic wand” easy, but I was well-prepared for what to expect before I “landed,” so I never had any significant disappointments. My successful Aliyah journey is the result of hard work and good planning before I left the US, realistic expectations, but also a lot of plain old luck.

My choice to live on a kibbutz in the Negev was really just dumb-luck. Up until a month before our Aliyah I was still unsure of where we would live and when I read about a kibbutz in the Arava region of the Negev and felt drawn to it. I made the choice to live in Southern Israel and on that kibbutz “sight unseen.” I’d been to Israel before, but I had never set foot in the Arava. It was either luck or madness, but the decision to take my family to the Negev was the best decision I could have made.

Within the first month of moving to the Arava, I found a job teaching English in a public high school. My job prospects were significantly better than what they might have been anywhere else in Israel because native English speakers, especially teachers, are in short supply in the South. I have been teaching for three years now in a school with colleagues and an administration that is embracing and supportive of me and my career goals. Because of my professional background in mass communication and law I was chosen to open a new major called “Diplomacy and International Communication in English” in the Eilat public high school system. I now teach diplomacy, English and English literature and teach debate and Model UN in English as extracurricular activities at school. I love my job.

Regarding my personal life and that of my kids; all of us are blissfully happy most of the time. My children have never asked to return to the US because they are so happy with their lives here. On the kibbutz they are free to roam and to play unsupervised. They have strong friendships with the other kids and live an enviable social life full of activities like mountain climbing, camping, pita making and even snorkeling in the Red Sea. Their regional school is known for its combination of superior academics and an eco-based educational philosophy. My oldest child, now in 7th grade, studies in a public school program that combines academics and dance—a program most likely found only at a private school in the US, which I never could have afforded.

My kids are now completely bilingual. The little ones (aged 3 and 5 when we arrived) learned Hebrew in a few months in the kindergarten. It took my oldest child (aged 9 when we arrived) about a year to learn Hebrew. Learning Hebrew has proven to be my biggest hurdle. After three years in Israel, I understand, speak, read and write Hebrew at a basic level and can function fairly well in most situations. However, and it is a big “however”, I am still not able to have a meaningful conversation in Hebrew or be in on the jokes. For me, communication has always been my strongest skill and I really hate not being able to express myself or understand everything. I went to Ulpan through “level B” (as that was all that was offered) but I am not satisfied and am improving my Hebrew on my own. I have had to revise my language goal several times since I arrived and have now set “7 years” as my goal for full fluency.

So, three years into our Aliyah journey and we are definitely “living the dream”. We wake in the morning to the song of desert birds and the mournful sounds of the kibbutz cows. After I see my 6-year-old ride off on his bike to the kibbutz kindergarten, and my 8 and 12 year old take the regional bus to school, I start my morning commute–25 minutes from kibbutz to Eilat. As I drive I see the sun reflect off the red and gold Eilat Mountains to the west and the Edomite mountains of Jordan to my east and I am conscious of the wide-openness and the lack of industrial infrastructure that I would see most anywhere else outside of the desert. When I arrive at work I can smell the Red Sea and I am greeted warmly by teachers and students who I have been teaching for the past three years and who call me by my first name. I know that this is supposed to be “the daily grind” that so many detest, but for me, I still feel a sense of gratitude and disbelief that this is my real, fairytale life.