Liraz Zohar grew up in a haredi family in Israel. Wanting to experience other ways to live, she came to Washington two years ago to become an au pair. And now, thanks to a glowing nomination from her host family, Zohar, 26, received the Au Pair of the Year Award from Au Pair in America.
What did you think when you won Au Pair of the Year award?
First of all, I was embarrassed and I had the feeling that I didn’t deserve it. Day to day I don’t really feel like I do all these things, but when I read what my host wrote [in the submission], I realized the impact I had. I like to be thanked but to win something for the stuff I do was really crazy to me.
What was it like growing up in an Israeli haredi family?
I went to boarding school for six years and when you’re inside the haredi community, you don’t really understand the right and the wrong and if things are OK or not. It’s just what you’re taught. Eventually, I decided that I wanted to study interior design and there was no haredi option for that. I went home and I was in mentally bad shape. During that year, I came to the realization that the haredi lifestyle was not for me. It was really scary leaving everything.
How did you decide to become an au pair?
I started to think about it when I was 19 during this year that I was depressed. My best friend at the time wanted to do it and I thought I would be interested in it as well. It took me five years to shape myself to be prepared enough. I had to get my driver’s license and spend more time with kids so that I would be ready to apply.
How has your practice of Judaism changed since you came to the United States?
It’s so different. I’m not keeping Shabbat and kosher anymore. I wear whatever I want and I have tattoos and earrings, so it’s really different. Before the pandemic, I would go with my host family to a synagogue once in a while and every Friday night we do Kiddush and challah and we celebrate holidays. I like it that way compared to home where I was forced to do everything and I didn’t like it.
What are some things that you miss about Israel?
Family and the food. I definitely miss my nieces and nephews. For food, the basic things like vegetables are much more tasty in Israel. I also miss the warmth in Israel that you can hug everyone and ask everyone questions and you don’t feel weird about it. People are more open in Israel.
What are your future plans?
I’m going back to my old job as a kindergarten teacher for at least a year. They let me do everything with the kids. I am planning on going back to school and living alone. My plan is as soon as I get back to Israel to apply for a tourist visa for America right away.
What do you keep with you from your haredi upbringing and what can we learn from that lifestyle?
First of all, I don’t want people to think that being a haredi is a bad thing. It’s just not for me. If people choose that and they think it’s the best thing for them, go for it. I don’t want them to think it’s the worst thing to be a haredi.
I do appreciate that haredi people really respect their parents, so I really respect my parents even though they don’t think the same as me. Also, there’s just an overall culture of respect toward other people, even if they don’t have the same opinion or way of thinking as you.