Meet Merav Fima, a bright-eyed 22-year-old who found her way back to Israel last summer with Nefesh B'Nefesh, and most recently, to Jerusalem, after a 20-year hiatus in Montreal.
"I never really felt at home in Montreal," says Fima, born in Kfar Saba to Israeli parents who left the Holy Land for Canada to pursue doctoral degrees and ended up staying.
"I never really adapted to the cold weather and missed the warmth and friendliness of the Israelis."
At first glance, Fima easily blends in among native Israelis; her Turkish and Moroccan features recall imagined depictions of biblical characters. But upon closer inspection, her sweet innocence and incessant smile hint at her foreign upbringing.
This naiveté, however, may have already begun to harden since her arrival in Israel just one year ago. "I have a much more realistic perspective on things, realizing not all Israelis are kind, landlords are corrupt and self-interested, bureaucratic procedures aren't very efficient," she says. "Some things have lost the aura of novelty."
At the same time, she says, those challenges reap great rewards. "Anything achieved is 10 times better than usual because it takes so much effort."
For Fima, aliya has been the realization of a lifelong dream that began during her brief stint here between the ages of three and five (when she was two months old she left with her parents for Montreal for a three-year shlihut and they returned to Canada again when she was five).
When her parents told her they would be leaving Israel, recalls Fima, she "wasn't thrilled, but I think I was mostly worried about missing my favorite TV shows!"
"When it got cold I really missed playing outdoors or going to the beach as I used to in Israel," she continues. "And I missed having my grandparents and cousins around."
Removed from Israel, the country became for her "something exotic, and yet real, the place where I had left many friends and family members, the site of so many memories, a very vibrant place where all that music I was hearing was being made, where all the history and biblical stories I was reading had happened."
But mostly, she explains, Israel had become a reference point for home. "I don't think a single week went by when I didn't think to myself, 'I want to go home' and realized I was yearning to return to Israel."
At 15, a visit to Israel whetted her appetite for aliya, when Fima represented Canada at the International Bible Contest. "It was one of the best experiences of my life," she smiles, "and it must have been the first time I seriously considered making aliya.
"Each dignitary we met encouraged us to return to Israel and to permanently settle here. I also made many friends, among them Israelis, which made it easier to make aliya on my own, knowing so many people here and feeling part of a group," she explains.
Upon her return to Montreal, "I tried to extend the experience by pretending I was still in Israel," recalls Fima. "I actually kept my watch on Israeli time for about two months afterward and constantly thought about everything we had done during the Bible contest and spent so much time online emailing my new friends - instead of catching up on trigonometry!
"I couldn't wait to come back to Israel."
She got a chance three years later as a Hasbara Fellow, a two-week Israel advocacy program for college students. As a result of the experience, "I became a lot more involved with Hillel and pro-Israel student journals dealing with the situation in the Middle East upon my return to [college in] Montreal."
Aliya contemplation turned into conviction a year later during a year abroad at Hebrew University. "I had a wonderful year, so enriching academically, artistically and spiritually," she says.
"I volunteered as a research intern at the Israel Museum and was involved with different activities at Beit Hillel, like participating in the musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, doing a creative writing workshop based on midrash, participating in literary encounters with Israeli writers, going on many field trips and shabbatonim... I also got a membership at the Jerusalem Theater and saw at least a dozen plays throughout the year."
With her decision made, Fima began her aliya process almost immediately after returning to Montreal. As for her parents, "they knew I'd be happier here, but it was hard for them because I'm an only child and we are very close."
Several months later, after graduating college, Fima landed with hundreds of other new olim at Ben-Gurion Airport. "I remember shivering as we sang Hatikva and realizing I was finally here," she says. "Also, just as I got off the plane someone in front of me dropped to his knees to kiss the ground - it was quite amazing."
Her first year was spent in Givat Shmuel, steps away from Bar-Ilan University, where she was enrolled in the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing. With a less intensive course load on entering her second year in the master's program, Fima is finally able to live in Jerusalem - a move, she says, she has been greatly anticipating.
"In Givat Shmuel I didn't feel like I was in Israel; I felt like I was sitting in any other suburb anywhere else in the world - there was nothing particularly Israeli about it," she says.
On the other hand, "Jerusalem is so unique and every step I take feels like I am in Israel, leading a life deeply grounded in Jewish history," she continues. "I look forward to re-experiencing the emotional uplift I feel whenever I'm there."
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