For many young families in Kew Gardens Hills, Yair and Chana Leah Matan were the engines that moved the community. Their involvement in Kehilas Ishei Yisrael established that synagogue as a place for serious davening and exciting events. Likewise, when its rabbi and membership joined the Young Israel of Queens Valley in 2017, they worked on the transition that made the younger members feel welcome at their new shul.
“I used to live around the corner from Shalom Schwartz, and we talked on our walks home,” Yair Matan said. He said to me that if I can do it better, I should get involved.” When Schwartz made aliyah in 2017, Matan succeeded him as president of Ishei Yisrael.
The couple works in finance, owns their home, and it didn’t seem like they would be leaving Queens for the suburbs as many of their peers have done. Instead, this week they made a much bigger life-changing move: aliyah in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It was as if someone was pushing us to get out,” he said. “COVID-19 was part of our decision. It’s the way that the mayor and governor support Black Lives Matter rallies, which do not practice social distancing, but they enforce it at Jewish funerals.”
As with many American olim, the Matans have thought of returning to the Jewish homeland for a long time, but were not sure if their children would fit in a different culture, learning a new language. “We thought of doing it down the road when our children would grow up; for the kids it was better to stick around,” he said.
At the same time, they already had a strong connection to Israel. Yair was born there and served in its military before immigrating to New York to attend college. But his parents and most of his relatives live in Israel and the Matans visited them every year. On the advice of Rabbi Shmuel Marcus, the mara d’asra of the Young Israel of Queens Valley, such visits helped the children acclimate to Israel and see it as a home, rather than as a foreign land.
While Yair speaks fluent Hebrew, he speaks English at home. In retrospect, he said that it was a “disservice” to his wife and four children that he did not teach them enough Hebrew. “They understand it better than they speak. They will go to Ulpan,” he said.
Their choice of a community in Israel rested on whether they regarded themselves as Israeli or as American olim. “Yair did not want to live in Ramat Beit Shemesh,” Chana Leah said. “But he has been living in America since 2001. He is an American, and Ramat Beit Shemesh is a good place to transition.” It is also the home of Avery Strickoff, a friend of the Matans, who made aliyah from Kew Gardens Hills last year. “All the concerns that we had then went away,” she said.
“We have many friends and family in Israel, and they’ve reached out to us on helping with the transition. Yair’s family has an apartment waiting for us where we will quarantine for 14 days,” she said. “Many of our close friends are also doing their aliyah paperwork. Hashem sent us a message. It is time to move.”
The Queens Jewish Link and the Young Israel of Queens Valley wish the Matans much success on their aliyah to Israel.
By Sergey Kadinsky