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#Meet_the_Oleh Sophie Knop

From Southfield, Michigan

Currently lives in Alon

Aliyah date: December 2016

The Israeli army is the last place you would find a typical Orthodox girl from Southfield, Michigan, but for Sophie Knopf it changed her life. Like many other Orthodox American girls, Sophie came to learn in a midrasha (Post-high school Women’s Torah Learning Program) with a plan; she was going to learn in Israel for one year and then move to New York to study at Stern College.

Three months into her time in Israel she decided to make aliyah.

Two weeks later, she was an Israeli citizen.

Sophie made aliyah because she wanted to live in the Jewish homeland. In retrospect, it might have been for other reasons too, “Then I had a list of all these idealistic reasons,” Sophie said, “but now, I think I just wanted a change and I just feel more at home here.”

Oleh Sophie Knop hiking on a mountain

After aliyah she assumed she would do Sherut Leumi (National Service), an alternative to the army, because that’s what most religious girls in Israel do. But after one year at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a school that is very pro-drafting for religious girls, she decided to go to the army. “They give so much support on how to navigate the army as a religious girl. If you’re interested it's an option,” Sophie explained. “They encourage us so women can be integrated into society the way religious men are.”

For Sophie that’s indeed what helped her integrate into Israel, “I got an intro to Israeli culture that only the army can give you. It got me out of my American bubble and helped me see just how diverse Israel is. My best friend in the army was a girl from Netanya who never met a religious person in her life - until me.”

But it wasn’t simple to get in. Sophie had to fight to get drafted. “Drafting is a 3-4 year process for Israelis, but I wanted to draft right away,” Sophie said. “They gave me a draft date of 3 years later and I was like, ‘No way, I’m going this year.’ ” She went to the army recruitment office every day to convince them to let her in, until they finally said yes. She stayed one more year at the Midreshet Lindenbaum and then drafted in January 2018.

The fight to get in was hard, but the service was more trying. “I was in a constant state of fear,” Sophie said, “my commander was so nice but I would shake every time he spoke to me.” Her fear was not unfounded. One time they woke up her unit in the middle of the night to do a war drill. She had to sleep with her gun and was on the top bunk. They walked into her bunk, covered in face paint and yelling that there’s a war. Sophie was so startled that she just walked right off the top of her bunk bed and fell face down on the floor. She was too scared to even check if she was okay and jumped up and ran outside.

Oleh Sophie Knop trying on glasses at a store with a friend in their IDF uniforms

At the beginning of her service, her Hebrew wasn’t that strong so she often had no idea what was happening. “I just nodded and smiled a lot because I didn't know what anyone was saying. I think people thought I was nuts. Also, because I always had a good accent, people didn't realize I was American.”

She was the only religious person and American in her course, so it was hard for her to adjust socially. It didn’t help that she was constantly threatened to be kicked out of the course every time she didn't understand what they were saying (which happened often).

Sophie can’t talk much about her job other than that she was in a closed room 12 hours a day and had to be available 24/7 for the two years she was enlisted. “My job was an emergency job, so I was always waiting for an emergency that never happened,” Sophie said, “but it helped me figure out what kind of job I want after the army.”

Although it was really intense, she doesn’t regret it for a second - especially since she met her husband there. They were on the same base and met on the way to minha (afternoon prayers). It sweetened the intense army experience, although it took some time for them to connect. “The first time I met him he thought I was really mean, but really I just didn't know what he was saying! I looked ridiculous because I was cold, super bundled up, and wearing black leggings with my skirt (not something people did). He tried to make a joke about my leggings but I didn't understand what he said so I just smiled and nodded.”

Thankfully, they cleared up the misunderstanding, but the journey wasn’t over.

They wanted to get married in June 2020, but they pushed it off for two months because they thought the Covid situation would subside and it would be easier for them to have the wedding they wanted. Two months later, the situation hadn’t changed so they decided to just get married, but it still wasn’t that simple. Sophie’s parents flew in from the States but had to quarantine for two weeks so they couldn’t help with the planning. Not only that, they don’t speak Hebrew so Sophie was ordering food for them every night.

Because of the constant regulation changes, they still didn’t know where they were getting married a week before their wedding date, the same week that they moved to their new home.

But this is Israel, so things came together in the most divinely inspired way.

“We were taking a walk in the yishuv we just moved to and we ran into someone who told us to talk to the event planner who lives on the yishuv. We knocked on his door and he just said, ‘Come in, I know exactly what to do - I’ll take care of it.’ And so our neighbor planned our wedding and the woman down the street did the flowers.”

They got married on a Friday morning on one of the hottest days of the year, with just their families present. Sophie’s husband has 11 siblings so they had more than 20 people from just both of their immediate families.

Oleh Sophie Knop on the back of her husband during their wedding photoshoot

It was a whirlwind experience and certainly not the one either Sophie or her husband expected. “I don’t think I realized I got married because it's the complete opposite of everything a wedding is supposed to be,” Sophie said. “I had a Zoom in the morning with all my bridesmaids. I heard other people saying their Corona wedding was amazing and it was amazing for what it was but for a regular wedding it wasn't!”

Among other things, being in a relationship with an Israeli helped Sophie understand Israelis better. “I can now empathize with Israelis about the frustrations they have with Israel and I've become more open and accepting.” She also really likes the communication style in Israel. “I really like the not politeness of Israelis. You can get places really fast in conversations. It's fast-paced and honest, I feel like it really fits me well.” She has even become a little Israeli without even realizing it. “I'm more laid back and relaxed even though often when I’m talking to my husband in Hebrew my parents think that I’m arguing, when we were just having a great conversation.”

Even though she went through the army and is married to an Israeli, Sophie still feels like living in Israel is a big adjustment. “There are cultural differences and you have to acknowledge them if you want to have a productive life.” It’s been an intense journey, but Sophie has one skill she’s especially proud of. “I’m really good at yelling in Hebrew,” she said, “That I can brag about. My friend lost her teudat zehut on the train and she called me at midnight and said, ‘I need you to yell at someone.’ So I did.”

Sophie’s Advice:

1) Stay super organized with the bureaucracy when you make aliyah. I didn't pay attention to anything I had to do and I’m still dealing with the ramifications of that.

2) If you want to open up a business, go for it, but get a great accountant. It’s a very different system.

3) Don't be afraid of Israelis and trying new things. Throw yourself into new things and get out of Jerusalem (ie. your comfort zone and American bubble).

4) If you want to go to the army, go for it. Fight for it! Don't give up on what you want and also be prepared to roll with the punches.

5) When you make aliyah, you don't think of it as a big deal because you've been to Israel on vacation. But you have to give yourself the space to realize it's a foreign country. Take a minute to acknowledge the fact that you're an immigrant. It took me a while to remember that this is not America part two. When I get frustrated I have to just remember that it's just a different place.

6) Most importantly, go eat brunch! Restaurants in Israel have the best brunches!

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