An area couple who has touched hundreds of children's lives will set one last example as they leave for their new home in Jerusalem next week.
Rabbi Todd Zeff, longtime director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, his wife, Aliza, a 13-year-veteran teacher at the Perelman Jewish Day School, and their three young children are taking a leap of faith as they make aliyah with no family and no jobs awaiting them.
"I would never move to Ohio without a job," Todd Zeff, 39, acknowledged. "But I wouldn't be as excited about Ohio as I would be about Jerusalem."
The Zeffs are among 14 local Jews heading for a new life in Israel on an Aug. 13 charter flight from New York organized by Nefesh B'Nefesh.
The agency has facilitated aliyah, immigration to Israel, for more than 30,000 people from America, Canada and the United Kingdom over the past decade.
Aliza Zeff, 36, said they always felt compelled to return to the Jewish state. Her husband spent his junior year of college at Hebrew University. They returned together as an engaged couple for another year in 1998-1999; he did his mandatory year at the Conservative seminary during rabbinical school while she studied at the Pardes Institute. They even discussed taking a sabbatical there before having kids.
"I felt like if we're going and we're intending to make a difference there and find careers where we're taken seriously and can really give everything we want to give, why not make it permanent?" Aliza Zeff asked rhetorically.
More importantly, they said, it seemed like the perfect timing for their children — Maya, 8, Joey, 5, and Asher, 2.
"If they were older and more rooted with friends and activities, it would be so much harder to justify pulling them out of their routine," said Aliza Zeff.
At this stage, she said, they'll hopefully grow up not only learning Hebrew but feeling connected to their homeland and the Jewish community on a broader level. They'll be learning Torah, Jewish history and Israeli culture — all the things that define the way they live their daily lives here — but "they'll feel more a part of a collective experience" by learning them in Israel, she said.
Even when it comes to studying Hebrew texts, here in the United States, so much effort goes into just figuring out what it means, Todd Zeff said. If their children become fluent in Hebrew, the "focus is grappling with the ideas inherent in the text. The depth is unparalleled there."
Aside from how the kids get acclimated, there's also the small matter of how they're going to support themselves financially. Todd Zeff said he didn't think his wife would have much trouble finding a job because there's always a need for good English teachers there.
"It's harder as a Conservative rabbi," he said, adding that he's been interviewing for educational administrative jobs but doesn't have anything confirmed yet.
In preparation for the big move, the couple sold their house in Wynnewood in June and put everything that wouldn't go overseas into storage before heading up to camp. They leave for Israel straight from Ramah. "It's been quite an honor to provide this experience for all these kids every summer," Todd Zeff said. "I don't know if I'll find another job that has such a deep impact on so many kids."
Leaving Ramah will be bittersweet for both of them. While Todd Zeff has been at the helm, Aliza also served the past four summers as the assistant director for Ramah's weeklong Tikvah camp for families with children who have disabilities.
The rest of the year, however, she was focused on the fifth graders who came through her classroom at Perelman's Stern Center in Wynnewood.
Principal Wendy Smith said she gets teary-eyed when she thinks of not having Aliza Zeff around anymore.
"She eats, sleeps and breathes her Judaism in such a beautiful way," Smith said, calling Zeff an articulate master teacher who just "gets kids."
Smith noted that Zeff had also created a curriculum about Jewish folk tales and rewritten their reproductive health unit to include Jewish teachings.
Zeff won't be the only Perelman staff member leaving for Israel. Head of school Jay Leiberman also announced plans to make aliyah after the coming school year to become an associate director of KIVUNIM, a Jerusalem-based experiential learning program for teens and teachers.
Maybe she'll join them, too, joked Smith, who is not Jewish. While Smith has been working at Perelman for 20 years, she said she never had time to visit the country; but she's vowed to go soon now that the Zeffs will be there.
At least the Zeffs will see some familiar faces on their journey. They're booked on the same flight as several young adults who attended Ramah or participated in the Conservative youth movement, which couldn't make them more proud. At least five are from this area.
In Israel, Todd Zeff said his priorities will be helping the kids adjust to school, brushing up on his Hebrew and sampling the more than 40 kosher restaurants within walking distance of their apartment, a boon compared to their options here.
"I don't know if it's going to work," he said. "But I don't want to go through life regretting the fact that I didn't try."