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Moving Back to Move Forward

Joel’s parents were native Israelis who left Israel over twenty years ago and met and fell in love in Florida. When Joel was nine, his secular parents became involved with Chabad, and the whole family quickly became strictly observant. Within a couple of years, Joel’s mother moved toward the Breslov movement and then later became part of a non-Chasidic community. Joel’s father remained committed to Chabad.

Joel moved schools several times during this unsettled period. Because he was both sporty and very tall for his age, he quickly became the star basketball player on every new team that he tried out for, and that and his sunny personality helped him make friends easily. Although he was now being brought up in a highly religious household, he wore it lightly- and outside school, used his sports skills and natural charm to make friends with kids from all backgrounds.

Joel’s parents had always spoken English exclusively in the home. His father had had a very traumatic experience while serving in the IDF, which prompted his decision as a young man to leave Israel and everything he’d grown up with behind forever, including the Hebrew language. Joel’s mother didn’t feel the same way at all, but out of love for her husband agreed to immerse their children in Florida’s laid-back culture. Even when they brought Jewish observance into the household, Israel was never featured.

However, when Joel was 14, his grandmother developed a serious progressive illness and his mother became desperate to move back to Israel to be close to her and help out. Sacrificing his own wishes, Joel’s father agreed to return to Israel permanently with the entire family.

Joel was used to transitions, but he wasn’t used to feeling unable to speak and to feeling so completely foreign. He tried to use basketball as a bridge as he had always done before, but this time, it wasn’t enough. He also tried to call his old friends back in Florida, but between the time difference and the fact that these friendships were based on shooting hoops and skateboarding, not chatting, it just didn’t work.

Meantime, Joel’s mother was having a really hard time processing her mother’s illness. She also felt guilty about the effect that their return to Israel was having on her husband, whose old demons had almost instantly resurfaced and who was now deeply unhappy. Within a few months of their return, Joel’s father announced that he was no longer interested in leading an observant lifestyle at all. Joel’s sisters, who were trying to settle into their ultra-orthodox school were distraught and said that if anyone found out it would have major repercussions for them in school and their new social circles. Joel’s mother defended her husband. She didn’t agree at all with his new religious choices, but she understood how fragile he was and wanted to protect him. There were bitter arguments every night and Joel felt caught in the middle of it all.

After all the religious changes in the household, Joel was left highly confused about his Jewish identity and torn between his different family members. Even though he understood why they had come to Israel, he secretly felt like his parents were selfish for uprooting them all and resented them for it. A year went by and Joel was still silent at school and looked permanently miserable. His homeroom teacher suggested to his mother that they get in touch with Kav L’Noar.

It took Joel a while to admit to the Kav L’Noar therapist how he was feeling. “You’re going to think I’m a horrible person.” he finally said. “My grandmother is sick and I should be happy that we have the chance to help her, but all I can think about is how angry I am about being stuck on the other side of the world from my friends. I’m so lonely without them. But I shouldn’t even be saying this. I must sound like such a brat.” The therapist replied, “To me, you sound like someone who is grieving a major loss and who is not even allowing himself to feel sad.” Joel was surprised. “I thought you’d be on my mom’s side. She gets annoyed when I say things are tough here. She thinks my friends in Florida weren’t good for me anyway. She always thinks she knows what’s best for me and she’s not interested in how I feel about it.”

Joel and his therapist spent the next few months processing Joel’s new reality. From his tense relationship with his parents to the move to Israel and loss of his social status and sense of self, the therapist encouraged Joel to face it all honestly and without shame, and helped him move towards acceptance. The therapist also guided Joel towards strategies to help him feel more connected with his family and to boost his social confidence, as well as to think of new activities to try that he might enjoy and might help him feel more secure in himself.

After six months, Joel felt ready to say goodbye to the therapist. He still misses his old life in Florida, but he feels much more settled in Israel than he expected. He is starting to make friends and is gradually building a new sense of identity.

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