By Hillel Kuttler
Shlomo Strugano steers his white minivan into the driveway on a recent morning after driving his children to school. He gets out and steps toward his five-bedroom, three-bathroom home – it features solid-wood bookshelves, chests and an antique piano – that sits on a quiet street lined with other attractive residences. Hills in the background frame his approach.
The suburban setting and the home’s interior could evoke the Los Angeles neighborhoods where Shlomo, 36, and wife Karen, 34, lived most of their lives before moving to Israel in 2013.
Rather than reside in heavily Anglo-populated suburban communities in Israel’s center, like Beit Shemesh or Modiin, the Struganos and their five children (ages 1½ to 9) live in Karmiel, a town of approximately 50,000 people in the mountains of northern Israel.
The couple couldn’t be happier. They also couldn’t have expected to like the place so much, being that Jerusalem was their intended destination when Aliyah plans began materializing in 2011.
But then Michele Kaplan-Green, the coordinator of the Go North program of Nefesh B’Nefesh who was visiting Los Angeles, delivered a talk about Israel’s north, and the Struganos listened with open minds.
So, on a pilot trip to Israel he took in late 2011, Shlomo rented a car and visited 20 smaller communities across the country, mostly in the north. He went to towns like Tzfat, Katzrin, Maalot, Yavneel, Nahariya and the Krayot near Haifa, along with Moshavim – but Karmiel quickly sold itself.
“In Karmiel, there was this energy,” Shlomo says at the dining room table, sitting next to Karen, who holds their son Yona, 1½. Something else he noticed early on was the cleanliness. “There’s a joke here that when there’s an accident, the first ones to respond are the parks people, to fix the flowerbeds,” he said.
Shlomo spent two Shabbatot – the only two on his pilot trip – in Karmiel to really get a feel for the town. He met the rabbi of the Young Israel of Karmiel synagogue, who took him to visit other shuls and several schools.
While the Struganos consider themselves Haredi (strictly observant) by Los Angeles standards, they define their outlook as more “modern Haredi” in Israel. With strong Jewish schools for their children, an open community, some Americans but not too many and housing affordability, Karmiel met the Struganos’ needs. Local employment opportunities weren’t a factor because Shlomo maintains his Los Angeles-based business as a financial planner and flies back to his hometown every quarter to meet clients. In fact, he continues working Los Angeles business hours in Israel: 7:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. (9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. PST).
A block from their home in the Makosh neighborhood begins the Rabin neighborhood, which Shlomo says has “a nice, young atmosphere” thanks to its ORT Braude College of Engineering. In these two areas, approximately 30 percent of residents are Sabbath observant, of which 10 percent is Haredi; another 10 percent is Druze, he figures.
“We grew up in diverse L.A. I think that that’s healthy for kids. It makes them more tolerant,” Shlomo explains. “In our community, there are about 20 families that are Olim: South American and Russian. In the main shul in Rabin are about 10 Anglo families. You don’t move to Karmiel because you want to blend in with American families.”
The Struganos figure that approximately 50 American families live in all of Karmiel. Even a limited presence is welcome, though. Some families gather in the park for July 4th barbecues. Paintball activities are organized. Sports enthusiasts hailing from the United States successfully lobbied the municipality for floodlights to be kept on late every Saturday night in the park to facilitate their basketball games.
In addition to a community and education offerings that suit them, the Struganos said they appreciate being able to buy their house for what a Jerusalem apartment costs.
Shlomo and Karen speak to their children only in English, believing in the importance of the language in the kids’ future careers. Shlomo grew up in a Hebrew-speaking environment, since both of his parents had emigrated from Israel. Karen benefited from a strong foundation in Hebrew, thanks to attending Jewish day schools.
She continues learning Hebrew from the library books their children read aloud to her. Karen plans later this year to begin teaching English in the Karmiel school system. There’s a big demand for qualified English teachers in the north, she says.
Says Karen: “Speaking English is important, but as far as culture, especially for children, I think the things about being Israeli are also important. In the States, we didn’t go to the park so much. Here, there’s so much greenery, so we have picnics.”