Gali Heffer was tired of Israel. Along with her husband, she’d made up her mind to move to the United States; any state would do. But when they asked around for advice, people got specific: “20852, that’s the Zip code you have to aim for.”
In Maryland, the area is defined by Rockville Pike, which runs through Bethesda to Rockville, the seat of Montgomery County. To many Israelis, it’s defined by its Jewish institutions and shops, including the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington on Montrose Road and Moti’s kosher market on Boiling Brook Parkway, where the shelves are stocked with Israeli candies, 72-packs of Shabbat candles and smoked salmon by the pound.
There is Cafe Shawreen on Rollins Avenue, a kosher restaurant run by a Persian woman, Mina Torabi, offering Shabbat dinner specials with chicken, rice, challah and Israeli salad.
The big draw, though, is a public school, Farmland Elementary.
Its reputation has stretched across the Atlantic Ocean to thread together two far-apart places, bound together by a culture that embraces family and education. Slightly more than 10 percent of Farmland’s roughly 650 students are Israeli. Parents come to the area for temporary positions with the nearby National Institutes of Health or with the Israeli Embassy. Many specifically seek out Farmland, on Old Gate Road, known for its English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program.
When moving, Heffer considered McLean in Northern Virginia, where her husband’s new job is, “but even his boss here and people in Israel said, ‘go for Rockville because of Farmland,’ ” she said.
Once there, many Israelis who move to the area find a community even more close-knit than the one they left behind. Even those who don’t describe themselves as particularly religious still insist it is important to embrace the traditions of home, all of which can be found nearby.
Heffer and her husband moved with their four children in June. Life had gotten expensive in Israel. They found an apartment complex a block off Rockville Pike, Rollins Park, so popular with other Israelis that it is nicknamed “the kibbutz,” after the collective communities back home. Her husband went to work in information security, and her three school-age children started the year at Farmland.
The school also attracts families from other countries, including South Korea and Japan.
“A lot of families transfer back, and new families fill their spaces,” said Principal Mary Bliss, who is accustomed to the constant rotation of families who learn about Farmland through the grapevine. When they come to tour the school, Bliss asks, “Oh, and who are you replacing?”
“It’s difficult for young kids to move,” she said, “we’re pretty successful at making that transition as smooth as possible.” Children who come after the start of the school year are paired with buddies who speak their language. The buddies gives them tours, introduce them to everyone and help explain classroom instructions.
Once a year, the school hosts an International Night. Families set up displays about their home countries and put on a talent show. “We make little passports and the kids go around and get their passports stamped,” said Bliss. “You really see how these children are still honoring their heritage.”
Bliss said the school tries hard to make everyone feel comfortable, but there is the occasional faux pas, such as an event scheduled on one of the lesser-known Jewish holidays. Now she sends around her calendar to the Parent Teacher Association and to a Jewish staff member who is observant to double-check the dates.
Heffer lives down the street from the private Jewish Day School, but she preferred Farmland because she thought it would give her kids a diverse experience while still providing Hebrew-speaking classmates to help them learn English.
Heffer’s youngest child, Roni, sits on the kitchen counter eating strawberries as her mother unloads groceries in their Rollins Park apartment. Roni is about to start day care at a place Heffer learned about from a neighbor, but for now, she sticks close to Mom.
Just as the last box of cereal is stowed, a tiny knock on the door announces Yuval’s arrival. Yuval is in third grade at Farmland. She likes the school better than her old one in Israel. Moments later, her older brother, Amit, a fifth-grader, comes in the door with his highlighter-green bus-patrol belt strapped across his chest and his younger sister, Maayan, a kindergartner, in tow.
Heffer was worried about Amit when they moved. “I was sure there’d be a crisis,” she says. But he took to Farmland, picked up English and volunteered to serve on the bus patrol, helping the kindergartners get on and off the bus and to their classrooms.
In Israel, he was in a class of 41. Here, he has 23 kids in his class. Flipping through school papers, he pulls out his Sparky Tickets, receipts for good behavior that can be traded for prizes. He has 83. Yuval has 114, tucked into a plastic container. “In the first week, we didn’t have a lot of Sparkies,” says Amit, “because we didn’t know the language.” But now, they’re able to participate in class and make new friends with their English skills.
Across from their Rollins Park apartment is a row of brick, single-family homes. “That’s our next goal,” says Heffer. Israelis call the row of houses the “moshav,” a settlement like a kibbutz but with privately owned homes. It’s the next step up for families who plan to stay in the United States.
On most Sunday mornings in Farmland’s all-purpose room, the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Jewish Community Group gathers for three hours of Israeli folk dancing. Lunch tables are pushed against the wall and the edge of a raised stage. People in tennis shoes and T-shirts filter in as Sarah Krosner, the group’s organizer, gets the music going.
Back at the Rollins Park complex, Israelis get together for an annual karaoke night to sing their favorite pop songs. Rosenthal’s sister, Miki Afik-Shifman, is part of a motorcycle club and a bicycling group. She runs several businesses, including an accounting office, which is part of the Israeli business network she leads, IBN-DC.
Afik-Shifman lived in Chicago when she first moved to the United States in 1990. She looked for Israelis, but she says, “I couldn’t find them anywhere, and I need my people next to me.” She returned to Israel briefly to get a bachelor’s degree before settling in Rockville on the recommendation of her brother-in-law, whose kids attended Farmland, or what he called “the Israeli school.” She has four children. Her youngest two children attend Farmland.
She doesn’t consider herself religious, but her older two kids had bar or bat mitzvahs, and the family keeps kosher at home. “Tradition is tradition,” she says.
Heffer’s son, Amit, agrees. Even with his bus-patrol duties and growing English vocabulary, he tells his siblings to speak Hebrew at home, lest they forget it. He says, “In this house, we speak Hebrew,” according to Heffer. He participates in Tzofim, the Israeli equivalent of Scouting, at the JCC, even though he showed little interest in it back in Israel.
Heffer no longer worries about the mother’s dream of her kids fitting in. “We like school,” says Amit. “We don’t want to leave.”