Hamiltonians in Israel - Faydra Shapiro

September 2011
by Wendy Schneider

Originally from Toronto, Faydra Shapiro spent many years in Hamilton, initially as a PhD student at McMaster  and later, when she and her Israeli husband, Shaul Katzenstein made Hamilton their home while raising their five children. Shapiro, who teaches Modern Judaism and Jewish-Christian Relations at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, made aliyah with her family in August of 2008.  They live in Mitzpe Netofa, a small community in the lower Galilee. 

You live in Israel and work in Canada. How does that work? 
It's crazy but no crazier than a lot of other commuting stories -  usually not mothers of young children, mind you, but I arrange my teaching schedule such that I can come home  probably every three weeks for a couple of days. It's very difficult but the teaching term is 12 weeks long. Then there's Christmas break, then there's another 12 weeks. And then there's a long summer period. I'm on sabbatical right now  until January and my research is here. There are lots of reasons for me to be back anyway for conferences, for research. Between all of those things it's doable.

Why did you make aliyah?
It seems so obvious that I don't even have the words to answer it. For a much higher quality of life for ourselves, for the children. We're so happy here. In fact I now find it difficult to understand why people aren't making aliyah. It's a little bit strange to me because I didn't have the desire many years ago and now that I'm here, gosh why wouldn't you come here?

Tell me about that the desire. How did it grow and where did it come from?
We came here on a sabbatical with no intention of making aliyah in 2006. We lived in Jerusalem. I was doing my research on evangelical Christian support for Israel, which I'm still working on. Two things really came together that year. The first was that we saw, I especially saw, that it was not only possible for us to do this, it was fantastic. The kids just flourished. Before we spent that year,  it was like, aliyah, Israel, Hebrew, how would we possibly manage? So first we found out that it was more than possibleit was really great. The other thing was that in the course of my research, I spent a lot of time with evangelical Christian supporters of Israel... asking questions, trying to figure out what's up with this whole Christian support for Israel. And over the course of that year inasmuch as I was interviewing them and asking them a bunch of hard questions, many people that I became very friendly with started to ask me equally hard questions like, okay, so you read this in the Torah. What are you still doing living in Canada?


What part of the Torah were they referring to?
That this is the land that God promised to the descendants of Avraham. This is where the whole drama of  the Torah takes place. So if you pray for a rebuilt Jerusalem, if you pray for the ingathering of the exiles and all of this is part of the standard Jewish liturgy, then why wouldn't you take the opportunity to be a part of this? This is such an amazing moment in history. It's like you have this invitation to the greatest party in 2000 years. You have this mind-boggling, really extraordinary opportunity to come as a free person, as a Jew, to live freely in your own land. That sense was really conveyed to me over that year and it was like "Oh right. Click!" And so those two things came together: To realize that it's plausible for us to live here and also to remember a sense of destiny.

Tell me about where you live.
Mitzpe Netofa is a yishuv (community) that was founded about 30 years ago. It's a religious yishuv although it's very broad in its religiousness. I mean everybody is shomer Shabbat and shomer kashrut but there are women who wear pants and don't cover their hair and there's a whole range of what's acceptable. There are people who vote left and people who vote right so it's pretty broad. Ashkenazi, Sepharadi. Very mixed.

How did you come to live here?
When we were here on our year of sabbatical and when it became clear that we really ought to be checking out communities we looked at a number of places. Shaul had a friend who he remembered lived here and we saw that there was some kind of program for olim (new immigrants). We came to check it out for what's called a Shabbat klita. We're definitely happy we chose it. There are about 150 families here. We visited communities in Yehuda and Shomron (Judea and Samaria, also known as the West Bank) and I decided that it was not a healthy environment for myself or for my children, where there was so much tension over time.

Tension between whom?
Between Palestinians and Jews. I couldn't live like that. I couldn't wake up every morning and look and say, "Great. Just over there they hate our guts." Next to us is a huge Arab village wth 10,000 people. We're 600 here and we have decent relationships. This is very important for me to show my kids.

What is your relationship with the Arab village?
It's pretty positive. When we came here I was on maternity leave for two years. I  taught English to the children in the village.

What made you decide to do that?  
It came out of the fact that the karate teacher here is an Arab from the village. It was really sort of experimental the first year and nobody was really sure how it was going to work out but it worked out fabulous. He teaches. His daughter, who wears the hijab, also  teaches. He's an extraordinary teacher, a wonderful man and our kids compete in karate competitions with Jewish and Arab kids. Most important has been for my kids not to grow up thinking that the situation, so to speak, was actually intractable. I wanted them to believe that it is possible, that thereÕs nothing necessarily between Jews and Arabs ... that makes it impossible for them to live next to each other respectfully and decently.


What's the big difference between raising children in Israel and raising them in Hamilton?   
What's great for the kids - part of it, I'm sure, is Israel and part of it is living in a small yishuv. If you want to have an observant Jewish life in North America, you have to live in a city .... That's where all Jewish life is. It wasn't always that way but it is now. Here you have an orthodox shul, a mikvah, all the religious institutions that you need out in the country so my kids can grow up, really in nature, which I love - without compromising their Jewish lives. And it's very wholesome and natural for them so that their Judaism is very integrated. It's not this very far off place called Israel. You're very much part of things here. Nature is right on our doorstep. So to feel the cycle of the chagim (holidays), to understand the symbolism of the Tanach (the bible), it's right there in front of you when figs are growing next to you as you walk to your gan (kindergarten). Everything is so present.


How old are your children and who takes care of them when they're not in school? 
Ten, nine, just turned eight, about to be six and three. We're fortunate in that Shaul and I both, by and large, work from home so usually somebody can take care of things. There are also afternoon programs. Some parents make arrangements with another parent. Also kids stay by themselves much earlier here than they do in Canada. So I would leave my big three alone in the afternoon, without any question or concern, for two hours for sure.

Did living in Hamilton have any influence on your decision to make aliyah?
Yes. Absolutely. I heard a lot of people in Hamilton say, "Well, aliyah, Israel. I would love to do that, but I can't,"  or "We can't do that, but good for you," or  "What a dream. I have that dream too."  That kind of talk... to hear so many people with the same dream think that it's such a wonderful idea and wish they could. Well, my job is to figure out how to take control of the situation. That's my dream for myself and for my family. And it's up to me to figure out how to make that happen. 

So is life here like one big adventure?
That's a beautiful way of putting it. It really is. It is in no sense easy. It's not easy at all. It's tremendously rewarding but it's not easy.

In what way is it not easy?
Oh my gosh, from the simple to the most complicated. You get lost in a city and it's so much more difficult for you to navigate your way out, not because the city is more complicated, which it is, but the fact that it takes you twice as long to read the signs. The fact that you're going grocery shopping and the carts don't push straight. I mean simple things ... looking for work, dealing with schools and the kids.

So what are the rewards?
You know I like to say, "Effort in. Meaning out." You don't get meaning without effort - not from martial arts, not from religion, not from your family. You can't just open up your hands and say, "Give me meaning." It requires effort, it requires discipline; it requires sacrifice. It's the same thing in Israel. So we see much more meaning in our Jewish lives here. In Hamilton, for example, we would go to all that effort in building a succah. All the hammering and preparing and the decorating. And very rarely were we able to sit in it. We would stand inside and watch the rain pour down and ruin all our efforts and eat inside. And for us it turned into such a metaphor. Because here you build a succah and you sit in it all of Succot.  One of the rewards is watching our children grow up very normal and natural in their Jewishness so nobody says, "Elisheva? What kind of weirdo ethnic name is that?" It's a small thing. It never bothered me in Canada of course. That's multiculturalism. But what does it mean for a child to grow up where their name is known, where their name is recognized, versus where their name is strange? 

Do you have a message you'd like to relay to Jewish Hamiltonians?
I guess that I would encourage people. The biggest thing for us, with aliyah, was the day I stopped being afraid. We were living in Jerusalem and one morning I woke up and I realized that I was not going to starve to death and that if I wanted certain things for myself and my children it was up to me to arrange things a certain way. And if that means commuting then that's what it means. But that I could choose the kind of life that I wanted to lead. Was it going to be easy? Of course not. But none of the big things in my life - having five children, a PhD, a marriage, a career - anything from which you derive deep satisfaction - are easy things, right? But if that's what you want I would say, "Go and get it." You'll make sacrifices. There'll be challenges, but it seems to me that life is too short. I didn't want to be coming to visit my grandchildren in Israel from Hamilton. I wanted to be here with my kids so that they grow up here.  They're already fully Israeli. Everyone worries "how will the kids handle it?" The kids managed just fine. The challenges are for the grown ups.  But it's such a blessing to watch these guys. To watch them chatter away in Hebrew. 

Do you worry about Israel being under any kind of existential threat?
It's not that I think it won't happen but I don't worry about it. I feel, not because of the existential threat, but even with the existential threat so much more alive here. That everything that I do is towards something. I'm not just existing. I'm not just enjoying. Everything here is meaningful, towards something, be that for my kids, be that to help Israel, be that for the final redemption. Everything here is imbued with significance. Maybe the existential threat adds to that, but it certainly doesn't take away from it. I don't worry more for my life here. I feel that my life is so much more.