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When a personal aliyah becomes a personal mission

CM 14/09/2021

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When Shirah Liben married Menachem Ozery she could never have imagined that there would be over 1,800 people at her wedding, which was held on a basketball court in the Yemenite community of Givat Ye’arim.
“In 1976, it was so unusual for an American newcomer to marry a Yemenite Israeli that Israel’s Ministry of Tourism sent groups of people to the wedding,” she laughs. “My father went to the New York Public Library to learn about Yemenites before attending.”
Ozery grew up in a Zionist home in Valley Stream, New York. A teen trip when she was 16 sparked her interest in Israel. A junior year abroad in 1971 on the Hebrew University’s one-year program cemented her love for the country. And working as a counselor for a teen summer program in 1973 was the catalyst for her aliyah.

“After that summer I took a job running extracurricular activities for the Conservative synagogue. I wanted to introduce American students to the fascinating different cultures in Israel and when I went looking for a Yemenite community to host the kids, I met Menachem,” says Ozery.
She had already earned a degree in English literature and a teaching certificate from Hobart William Smith College in New York before making aliyah. But during the Yom Kippur War, while volunteering in Beersheba and Jerusalem, she realized that there was a lack of trained social workers in Israel.
“I did an accelerated social work program at Hebrew University and for the next 15 years I worked in this field,” she says. “Much of my work was focused on helping youth-at-risk.”
Alongside this work, Ozery and Menachem were some of the original founders of Moshav Kfar Ruth in the Ayalon Valley. They grew flowers for export to Europe and a variety of fruits and vegetables. It was the ideal place to raise their three sons, Boaz, Ofer and Alon.
In 1990, Ozery was appointed Jewish Agency aliyah emissary in Miami and the family lived there for three years. This was followed by her appointment as Director of the Mevaseret Zion Absorption Center upon their return.
Her life has been closely intertwined with some of Israel’s most historic aliyah events. She helped to absorb more than 1,000 new immigrants from over 24 countries and was witness to the arrival of Jews from Syria, the former Soviet Union (FSU), Ethiopia and Yugoslavia, when the Jewish community was rescued under fire during the country’s civil war.
“The absorption of the aliyah from Yugoslavia also included the aliyah of the Muslim Righteous Gentile, Zayneba Hardaga Suzic,” says Ozery. “To this day, I am close friends with her daughter Sara Pechanec.”
Ozery’s rich career path took her from heading aliyah from English-speaking countries outside of North America to Director of Jewish Agency Missions. It was in this position that she traveled to Jewish communities throughout the world with major Jewish Federation donors.
HER TRAVELS spanned the countries of the FSU, including Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan where Jewish communities were miraculously revived, the mountainous regions in Ethiopia to help bring the Ethiopian Jews to Israel, Argentina and France. She vividly remembers traveling on aliyah flights from the FSU and Ethiopia and witnessing the overwhelming joy of the new immigrants as they returned to their homeland. And she reflects on her initiation of a memorial ceremony in the Waleka (Gondar) cemetery for the Beta Israel Jews who perished in Sudan on their way to Israel.
She is proud of the program she developed, Faces of Aliyah, in which she trained young adult new immigrants to travel abroad and share their stories with Jewish communities throughout North America.
“This program introduced different cultures into the Jewish conversation,” she says. “It not only created understanding but it gave these young newcomers a feeling of confidence in who they were and where they came from.”
Some of these young people are now noted personalities and leaders in Israeli society, including Members of Knesset, local municipal leaders, hi-tech innovators and social activists.
Following a second term as an emissary to the Midwest, based in Chicago – where she helped facilitate the aliyah of over 1,000 people – Ozery continued to work in the field of donor relations and then decided to retire.
She notes with pride that three generations of her family have been involved in Zionist and Israel-Diaspora Affairs. Her mother, Zipporah Liben, who made aliyah in the 1980s was a sought-after speaker of the UJA’s Speakers Bureau, Ozery, and her son Boaz, who is the Executive Director of Friends of Ofanim, an organization that works to raise funds for STEM education in Israel’s periphery through mobile classrooms and labs.
Retiring did not slow Ozery down. She continues to advise nonprofits, but she also undertook a new project to revise a story that she had written when she was 12 years old and turn it into a children’s book.
“I wrote and illustrated this story as an English class assignment,” explains Ozery. “Fifty years later I found my handwritten ‘manuscript’ in my attic and the message of reciprocal sensitivity and reaching out to help others still resonates with me today.”
She painstakingly revised the story for her grandchildren, with the help of Ziva Spector who translated it into Hebrew and illustrator Hana Madar who adapted Ozery’s original collages.
The rhyming story takes place in the Land of Higglebee, an imaginary jungle in which her father would weave a fantasy of bedtime stories for his children. Entitled Toby and Sam, it is written in Hebrew from one side and English from the other side and has recently been published by Ozery. She has already been approached to translate the book to Arabic.
“I feel that this book is a reflection of my deepest life values and my life path: Driving cultural inclusion, mutual respect and understanding, sensitivity to people in need and cultivating one’s strength to support others,” she says.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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