Living the American Dream in the West Bank

Hanging Out with Israel’s Illegal Homesteaders

By Kiera Feldman, Photos by Gillian Laub


Allison Levine Speiser and Baruch Speiser (top photo)
Allison Levine Speiser and Baruch Speiser both voted for Barack Obama in November 2008. The following August, they packed up their three kids and moved from Highland Park, New Jersey, to the West Bank settlement of Mitzpe Yericho. Two of their three children were adopted through the New Jersey foster-care system. “We don’t all fit in a box,” Allison, a former environmental-NGO worker and schoolteacher, explains. Mitzpe Yericho’s population consists of Jews from all over the world, which was a big draw for Allison and Baruch. “We wanted to live in a place where there would be kids who looked like my kids, families that looked like my family,” Allison says.

Baruch, a software engineer, was practical about joining a settlement: It was cheaper and easier to find the right kind of suburbia—“rural-ish but not rural”—and, importantly, Allison was gung-ho. She was adamant that the family only move to the West Bank, not anywhere within Israel proper. Both are religious Zionists, but Allison was the one who most wanted “to make a stand,” as she puts it. “My wife is very much a free spirit,” Baruch says. He laughs about Allison’s fantasy of living in a trailer outpost. “She has this romantic image in her mind of pioneering the land.” Last June marked the 45th anniversary of the Six-Day War. “They lost,” Allison says, her central New Jersey twang rising. “We won. Get over it.”

Joe and Aviva Offenbacher
One by one, Joe and Aviva Offenbacher’s relatives moved to Israel, until the time came when they were the only ones left behind in the upscale, heavily Modern Orthodox town of Teaneck, New Jersey. Their options: Either move into Joe’s parents’ empty apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan or “move farther east,” as Joe puts it. In 2004, they sold their messenger-service company on 16th Street and joined Joe’s sister’s family in Hashmonaim. With some start-up help from the Israeli government, Joe began importing and distributing Slurpee machines around the Promised Land, where the beverages are sold as Freezees for trademark reasons. Joe now works with local police to patrol the settlement. “It’s scary,” Aviva says of the weekly demonstrations on the other side of the Separation Barrier in Nil’in. “I see Palestinian flags waving in my backyard.” 

Aviva and Isaac Nagel
When Aviva and Isaac Nagel gave birth to their first daughter eight years ago, they named her Aliyah. It was their own little inside joke: They always hoped “to make aliyah”—to immigrate to Israel—and having “made Aliyah” would remind them. As Zionist Modern Orthodox Jews, life in Israel promised the opportunity, as Isaac puts it, to fulfill “a specific mission as a people to bring God down onto earth.” In August 2010, they left their home in West Orange, New Jersey, for the West Bank settlement of Ariel, a city of 18,000 people that is built on 31 percent private Palestinian land, according to Peace Now, an NGO in Tel Aviv. Compared with the other cities Aviva and Isaac considered within Israel proper, Ariel, flush with government subsidies to encourage settlement, was a place where they could afford a house with a big yard. 

Isaac works as a psychiatrist and sees patients via videoconference, telecommuting from 6 PM to 2 AM (9 AM to 5 PM CST) to an office in Milwaukee, a city he’s never set foot in. With the kids at school, Isaac and Aviva spend their days sitting in cafés or at Ariel’s country club, which was built with donations from American Jews.

Aviva settled in the West Bank for financial reasons, but she generally supports settlers with ideological motivations. “If the hilltops become totally covered by Arabs, there’s no Jewish presence,” Aviva says. 

Words by Kiera Feldman and photos by Gillian Laub.

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