Three years ago I thought I had a great life. I had just started my own business, wrapped up an un-messy divorce, and bought a house in a terrific community with an excellent public school system that my son would attend. I was implementing my blueprint for life as a single dad with an amazing kid. As a guy who likes to control situations and outcomes, everything was right on track, and I couldn’t have been more pleased. Looking back on it now, I can’t believe all that I was actually missing.
Everything changed in June of 2012 when my sister, Zimra, and her four children (then aged 4, 10, 12, and 14) arrived in America from Israel for what was to be a year-long adventure. Although it was a sacrifice for Zimra’s husband David to stay behind in Israel, they both agreed this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for their children. In America they would perfect their English and get to know my sister’s side of the family much better. On paper this seemed like a simple plan, but it turned out to be a three-year journey that ultimately had an enormous impact on everyone involved and perhaps changed the trajectory of all our lives.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Zimra and I didn’t have the best relationship. Even though we shared a home—and sometimes a room—we were never close. Looking back, I can’t really explain it other than we were just very different people. We didn’t hate each other; we just didn’t particularly like each other.
As adults, we went our separate ways—she moved to Israel and I settled in the San Francisco Bay Area. Outside of a few visits over the span of 20 years, we were nearly estranged—this time not by choice but by distance and the demands of daily life. We both had busy lives in different time zones; beyond “likes” on social media, keeping up was nearly impossible.
But on that chilly San Francisco night in June when I picked up my sister and her kids, our lives were instantly changed. In that moment at the airport, I felt new responsibilities. I was no longer just a single dad, but also an uncle to four courageous kids getting off of a plane, not knowing what was waiting for them on the other side.
My role wasn’t to replace their dad, but rather augment his efforts by acting as the conduit to our side of the family and this strange place we call America. Often my sister and I would brainstorm ways to help each child adjust and thrive. This would often happen during our weekly get-togethers every Friday at breakfast. We would delve into teachers, friendships, coaches, illnesses, and everyday household dramas that clog the brains of engaged parents. It was helpful for my sister to have someone to bounce ideas off of. Likewise, it was invaluable to me to have access to such an experienced parent—especially one who was never judgmental. So when my kid made a scene, she would remind me that it was never a reflection on me but rather just what kids do. We finally understood each other and appreciated our shared history. We were finally close—both literally and figuratively.
But it didn’t stop there. My son now had cousins—a large, instant family that he was an important member of. Quickly, the kids acted more like siblings than cousins. Even though he’s always thrived as an only child, it was gratifying to see him adapt and grow as an active member of a larger team—our extended family
And as for me, for the first time in my life I had the opportunity to be an active uncle, a role I took on with fervor. I took as many opportunities as I could to be apart of my nephews’ and niece’s lives within my own capacities of being a single dad and entrepreneur. Whether it was being there for surgeries, bar mitzvahs, MLB playoff games, teaching them about real football, or watching them excel in competitive soccer and wheelchair basketball, these became treasured moments that I will remember forever.
Of course it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns—there were plenty of “Arrested Development”-type moments, typically occurring at Shabbat dinners or birthday celebrations, but even these added a fine texture to this beautiful mosaic we created together.
In just a few days, Zimra and her children will be returning to their life in Israel. My son and I are distraught—it feels like a piece of us is leaving. Sammy doesn’t remember a time without his cousins nearby so I am a little concerned about his transition back to being an only child. All the FaceTime calls won’t truly substitute for the real face time he will be missing.
In the end, I’ve learned a great deal from my sister and her family, and we will miss them dearly. But I know, no matter where our families live from now on, we will never be far apart again.