Israel has been her classroom, her field of work . . . her destination where life has taken her. “This is a story I could never have imagined for myself,” says Amy Gross Nachon, 31, now living the life of a busy suburban mom just outside of Tel Aviv.
Asked about her personal journey from Farmington Hills to Israel and her decision to make aliyah seven years ago, Amy recounts the summer of 2002 at Tamarack Camps where she worked as a specialty counselor. “I would say that was the summer I caught the bug to go to Israel. That was the summer of the second intifada. There were bombings in Israel every day and Federation reached out to more than 300 Israeli teens and brought them to Michigan for a Tamarack summer camping experience we all would never forget.”
Having made so many Israeli friends that first summer, Amy yearned to visit Israel and found her first opportunity with a Hillel Taglit-Birthright trip while attending Michigan State University. With a B.A. in English from MSU – and an undecided career path after graduation in 2005 – Amy returned to Israel as a graduate fellow in a study-abroad program at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Back in the States in 2006, Amy jumped at the opportunity to take a job in Miami with Young Judaea as an Israel Programs Recruiter. Two years later, Young Judaea brought her back to Israel, where she made aliyah.
Following her heart
Reflecting on her career decisions — working for programs in Israel, visiting and traveling the country since her early 20’s and now making her home and raising a family there — Amy observes, “The move to Israel was a process that took years to get to. Young Judaea was the driving force that led me to Israel, and I took the job with them because I wanted to see where life in Israel would take me.”
It was the summer before she made aliyah when Amy’s job would take her to Camp Kimama, an “American-style Jewish camping program” where she would meet its director and her husband-to-be, Avishay Nachon. “Beshert” is the word she uses to describe meeting Avishay. She had come to the camp to speak to his international campers about spending their Gap Year in Israel. “We just knew we were meant for each other. There were so many similarities between us. Even though we had completely different backgrounds, we had common ground.” Married in 2010, Amy and Avishay are the proud parents of Ori, born in October 2013.
“Tel Aviv is one of the most exciting cities in the world, full of young people, energy and creativity. There is never a dull moment here,” says Amy. “Just the other day I was standing in line at Cofix (a new coffeeshop where everything costs 5 shekels and I heard at least five different languages. Tel Aviv is the global Jewish city and my friends come from all different parts of the world. I love that! Living here certainly has its challenges. I forget that I am living amidst a major conflict until moments of terror snap me back into reality.”
Transitions: From professional to family life
After six years with Young Judaea and shortly before Ori was born, Amy took a job with a company called Kenes Tours, organizing conferences and exhibitions. She took a year off with the baby, and has since returned to work as a Programming and Recruitment Coordinator with Aardvark Israel Gap Year and Study Abroad Program. “In Israel, being a stay-at-home mom isn’t really an option. I have to work. We have an apartment, close enough to Tel Aviv to enjoy city living, in a quiet neighborhood filled with young couples, lots of kids and families. And I love where I send Ori to gan (preschool), just two streets over from where we live. He loves it. And I love seeing him fit in so easily with the other children. He’s just started to talk . . . both in Hebrew and English. It will be interesting to see how that develops.”
Describing her command of Hebrew, Amy admits, “Back in the day, I was a Hebrew school drop-out. I didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah. My Hebrew is not amazing, but I get by. I started learning Hebrew at MSU and I’ve taken many classes since. I was 21, when I finally celebrated my Bat Mitzvah at Tamarack with a little help from my friend and tutor, Eli Rockowitz.”
In the age of Facebook and Skype, home is truly a state of mind, where family and friends readily can connect and keep in touch. Even so, now that Amy has a family of her own, she remains acutely aware of the 6,000 miles between Tel Aviv and Farmington Hills where her parents, Bonnie and Ken Gross, and family live. In spite of the distance, or perhaps because of it, Amy is as committed as ever to identifying herself as a Detroiter in Israel and to building community connections through the Detroit Federation.
“I remember watching Detroiters gather to play kickball in Chicago and in other cities and I was jealous that we didn’t have something like that for expat Detroiters in Israel,” says Amy.
And here’s where the friendships that were first forged at Tamarack came back into play. Among the counselors in that first group of Israelis who came to Michigan in 2002, Yoav Raban as remained a close friend of Amy’s. Through the years, Yoav also has come to be a familiar face in the Federation family, returning to the community first as a shaliach (emissary) and currently as Federation’s Young Adult Outreach and Engagement Coordinator in Israel. Together, Amy and Yoav started organizing meetings among the few Detroiters they knew. Three years ago, they hosted their first event, a traditional Thanksgiving dinner at Amy’s home. This year, the event drew more than 40 people.
“We have a great support system for people living here and searching for that sense of home in Israel,” says Amy. “We have students in study abroad and grad programs, lone soldiers who have made aliyah, young couples with children, people from Michigan we never would have known were it not for our Detroiters in Israel network.”
Looking back, looking forward
Looking back on the summer he met Amy at Tamarack, Yoav recalls how Amy stood out as a leader and how meaningful the connection with her Israeli campers was for her. “Through the years, our professional careers also have crossed paths. When I moved back to Israel in 2011 and initiated the Federation’s “Detroiters in Israel” program, Amy was the first person I called. I was looking for a young committed lay leader to help me build up the program. I was lucky to have Amy in Israel at that point in time; I knew I would be able to rely on her strong leadership qualities and on her passion and strong connection to our Detroit Jewish community.
Detroiters is Israel is fully backed by the Federation with the goal to connect young Detroiters who are either on a long-term program or living in Israel, and to provide a bridge between Detroit’s Partnership Region in the Central Galilee and their community back home. According to Amy, “It’s not enough to come here once on a mission, check Israel off the bucket list and never come back. Birthright missions certainly have changed the game, and Detroit Birthrighters are now more commonly revisiting and forming connections.”
As for celebrating Thanksgiving, Israel-style, it’s become a fairly traditional affair, though turkeys are a rarity and must be ordered from the butcher almost a week in advance. Ready-made pumpkin pies are even more elusive. “After calling every bakery in the neighborhood to locate one, I’m pretty sure the only way to find a pumpkin pie is Israel is to make one yourself. So we opted for a carrot cake this year.”