Act of Faith : A Jewish Family, Drawn Irresistibly to Israel, Gives Up Comforts of Homes in Orange County

Times Staff Writer

Richard and Ellen Jaffe, Orthodox Jews and Zionists, believe God gave Israel to them, their ancestors and their descendants. But that is not why they left their homes in Irvine and Laguna Beach, sold Richard's prosperous medical practice in Santa Ana and moved with their four children to Jerusalem.

They believe that if Jews like themselves do not live on the land, it will be lost to Arabs who want it back. But that is not the whole reason either.

At the root of their decision to resettle in the beleaguered nation was an undeniable feeling that Israel is, and always has been, home.

"As soon as you get off the plane, you feel it. . . . This is ours," said Richard, 43. Both his and Ellen's grandparents had immigrated to the United States from Eastern Europe, but Richard said he long felt that the United States was only the last of a series of places of exile from the Holy Land that began in AD 70 when the Romans dispersed the Jews. Besides, he said, "it's hard to be Jewish in a non-Jewish place."

The Jaffes are among 2,500 Americans immigrating to Israel each year, about 40% of whom are "making aliyah ," a Hebrew term meaning "going up" or settling in Israel for religious reasons. Aliyah represents the spiritual and geographical ascent in biblical times of Jews who were required to go up a mountain to the temple three times a year.

Even for those who are not religious, the term aliyah is still used, according to Gerald Bubis, professor of Jewish communal studies at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. "The ideological premise behind Zionism is that with the Jews being dispersed and land taken away, they were unfulfilled and incomplete human beings. With the restoration of the land, it would follow that they would be whole and complete and they would go back to the land."

Under this premise, the very act of moving becomes an ideological act, he said. While most Jews don't live by the ideology, they still honor those who do, he said.

Conversely, people who leave Israel are considered to go down or yored , he said.

In addition to an official policy of Israel urging Jews from around the world to relocate there, the daily prayers of religious Jews also include the words: "Return in mercy to Jerusalem your city and dwell therein as you have promised."

And despite the current unrest between Israelis and Palestinians, American immigration to Israel remains a constant 2,300 to 2,500 a year, according to Alan Karpas, director of the Israel Aliyah Center, sponsored by the World Zionist Organization. This year, immigrants from Southern California and Nevada to Israel rose 10% to 185, he said.

In 1986, 14,000 people left Israel while only 10,142 immigrated to the country, according to the Israel Ministry of Immigration. Last year, however, the flow reversed, and 13,727 people, including 2,191 Americans, arrived and only 9,000 left. So far this year, Israel has received 5,988 immigrants including 829 from the United States and Canada.

But within two years, 40% of American immigrants become so discouraged by language problems, drastic cuts in their standard of living, or feelings of insecurity, they return to the United States, said David Kurtz, director of the Aliyah Demonstration Project, an experimental program of the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles and the Jewish Agency to encourage U.S. Jews to make aliyah .

"Nobody claims it's easy to live in Israel, certainly not materially," Kurtz said.

Jews "making aliyah now are making a strong statement" not only in support of Zionism but also for the security and well-being of the state of Israel, said Chelle Friedman, director of community and public relations of the Jewish Federation of Orange County.

Four years ago, the Jaffes' life included a 3,000-square-foot house with a $2,000-a-month house payment in Irvine, another house in Laguna Beach, a Porsche 911 SC and an extremely advantageous tax position.

"Being visible, walking around as a Jew in Orange County is a hard thing to do," Richard said.

"Kids were heavy into swastikas at that time in Irvine. If we walked to synagogue with our hats on, kids rode by and called us Jews." (He said that happened in 1981, but it calmed down later.) "We were shocked."

The Jaffes sent their children to Hebrew Academy. Their lives were religious but basically apolitical.

They moved to a country of hot, dusty summers, forests, deserts and hills, to a Mediterranean village on the ridge, what Richard calls "an archeological garden" with evidence of 3,000 years of civilization.

Coming from a county with only 75,000 Jews, or .0375% of the 2 million population, they are now in a nation of 4.5 million, of which 3.5 million are Jews. For the vast majority, there is no Christmas, and the new year begins on Rosh Hashana in September.

They have lived in cramped quarters with one bathroom for the whole family. For transportation, they take buses or Richard's used Fiat. Their children attend religious schools for free.

They no longer live on credit--and they pay roughly 50% of their income for taxes, as opposed to about 10% they paid in the United States.

Politics and history are part of their life now--from the school they chose for their children, to the location of their new home in Jerusalem's Jewish quarter where two blocks away in the Arab quarter, Richard said, "24,000 Palestinians want us out of here."

Recently, from the roof of their home, they watched a skirmish (what he called a "well-planned media show") on the ancient holy site of both Jews and Muslims, the Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock.

"This is the Middle East and this is a rough place," he said. "I mean, it's hardball." The Palestinians, he said, "want it all. And they're honest enough to not tell you a lie.

"When they have the power they take it; when we have the power, we take it. . . .

"What do you do when you meet nice people who (represent only 10% of the Palestinian population) and the other 90% want to kill you?

"You have to move against the entire population."

The Jaffes had no premeditated plans to move to Israel.

Rather, their move occurred gradually over a period of several months following an initial visit to found a podiatry clinic.

"We just let it happen," Richard said. "If I had to make a conscious decision to sell my practice, my house and move to Israel, I'd never do it; it's too difficult."

With one podiatry practice in Santa Ana and another in Laguna Beach, Richard had become "more successful than I'd ever hoped to be. To tell you the truth, it got kind of boring. After a while, it was making money and spending money."

He had also turned 40. But he denies that a mid-life crisis inspired him to go to Israel four years ago and found the clinic at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem where he also pioneered foot surgery in the country. Later he started another clinic at Shaar Zedek Hospital and opened a practice.

He volunteers his services at the clinics (for Arabs and Jews alike, he noted) because Israel cannot afford to adequately pay its doctors, he said. In Israel, he said, good orthopedic surgeons make $4 an hour.

Ellen and their children came over the first two summers. Richard also spent summers and 80% of his time in Israel. By the second summer, they decided to make it permanent. "This was bigger than logic and everything else," Ellen said.

Until joining the family in April of this year, Richard spent four years commuting, spending two weeks in Orange County and eight weeks in Jerusalem,.

"We had a strong ideology that allowed us to go in that direction," he said. "No. 1 was putting the future of our children first. They're better off being in a place where they're part of the culture."

The Jaffes worried particularly that the rate of intermarriage among Jews approached 50% in California. "It's a tremendous tragedy for people who kept a pure line for 3,000 years."

Intermarriage represents a "spiritual holocaust," he said. "They're alive but losing the Jewishness handed down to them so many generations. It's important to save themselves, their children and offspring and to help support (Israel) so we'll have a Jewish state. When the chips are down, it's the only place for a Jew to go."

With proceeds from the sale of his practice, they did not need to take advantage of most benefits offered immigrants by the Israeli government and were able to buy two apartments they are putting together into a 2,000-square-foot flat in a high-rent district in the Old City.

Despite the unrest and increased police patrols, they feel safer in Jerusalem than in Orange County, they said.

Compared with a "free floating" anxiety they felt in Orange County over kidnapings or freeway shootings, their fears now are over known enemies--the political terrorists.

When someone drops a bag in the street, their children know that they must not to pick it up. If no one claims the package, a bomb squad is called.

The Jaffes have no friends among Jerusalem's Arabs, many of whom are working as laborers despite university educations, Ellen said.

Richard said one Palestinian worker in their home told him, "We're doing a nice job because we're going to take it back some day."

"What do we tell the kids about the Arabs?" Ellen repeated. "We tell them there's nothing wrong with Arabs; God made them too, they're people."

But she said Israelis treat their children with an eye to their future security. "You have in your mind they're going to go and fight for us. . . .

"I see little boys playing in the street. I think they'll be the soldiers and defend us." As Israeli citizens (with dual American citizenship), their children Ari, 14; Sarah, 12; Deenah, 9, and Hinda, 7, will be expected to serve in the military.

In Israel, all citizens 18 years and older must serve in the military unless they are exempt for religious reasons or disabilities. Women serve for two years and men for three, according to Israeli officials.

Deenah said she wants to be a soldier when she grows up because she wants "to help Israel." Ari said he worries not for his own safety as a soldier but for the safety of Israel.

Richard would prefer that his daughters enter a religious unit for women only rather than signing up with the Army where girls and boys are mixed together in "high pressure" situations. They also can fulfill their service by working in shops or teaching in development towns.

He likes the idea that Israeli youngsters grow up protected and relatively naive but come out of the military "full 100% adults." In California, he said, "I had the impression that kids grew up fast but stayed teen-agers until they were about my age."

Kurtz said several studies showed that olim --those making aliyah --are unprepared for what they will meet in Israel: the different language, cultural patterns of communication and behavior.

"Many people need to bone up on Hebrew or learn it from scratch," he said. "Many American Jews think most other places are American except for whatever language is local.

"In general, the security situation there is stressful, regardless of anybody's politics. Israel's a small country. That anxiety about security gets personalized. At any one time, you probably know somebody who's in the army."

Californians particularly feel confined by smaller spaces and the tendency of Israelis to sit and stand closer and touch one another more frequently without saying, "Excuse me," Kurtz said.

Finally, professional status is not as revered in Israel, he said. "When they find out the status level they attained in America isn't as important in Israel, then they feel somewhat at a loss."

So far, in less than two years, the Aliyah Project of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation Council has attracted 399 people to its seminars. Of those, 57 adults and 22 children went through counseling and immigrated to Israel. None, he said, has returned.

What the Jaffes like most about Israel is a "tremendous feeling of community." In his walks around Jerusalem, Richard said, he has ongoing conversations with five individuals he meets continually. In Irvine, he said, "there was no one outside. People were mostly driving someplace.

"What I was looking for was wisdom, and interplay of thought. I wasn't getting that in California."

Making money was hard for Richard to give up.

"I liked making money. Money is not respected here.

"If you come and contribute, people love you for that. How often do you see people do things for America? Here people sacrifice to build a Jewish state."

Now, he says, "I feel I'll be remembered for something. In America, I don't know if I'd be remembered for anything."

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