When Natalie Silverlieb told her mother that she was moving to Vanuatu, her mother’s first response was “Vanu-what?” followed by, “Why?”
Silverlieb’s family and friends — as well as her husband, who did not join her on the 10-month trip — were puzzled as to why the New Jersey native would uproot her life in Tel Aviv to live in a remote island nation in the South Pacific. (On her recent return home to Tel Aviv, she had to travel for three days through five countries, covering 10,000 miles.)
Fewer than a dozen Israelis live in Vanuatu, but Silverlieb moved there a year ago to become a local director for the humanitarian aid agency IsraAID. She now oversees a large-scale water infrastructure development project funded by the World Bank.
In the time she’s been stationed in Vanuatu, Silverlieb has had to adjust to living in a developing nation, as well as its volcanic rumblings and cyclones.
Her mother, a world away in Montville, N.J., worries about her, but that’s nothing new. Her mother worried when Silverlieb made aliyah to Israel in 2012, when she spent time at a Jewish camp on a small Turkish island in the middle of the Bosphorus, and when she volunteered for six months in an Indian orphanage.
The ultimate adventurer, Silverlieb has always been audacious and relentless in following her passions. She was an actress for most of her life, pursuing her dream all the way to the Great White Way. After more auditions than she could count, she made it to Broadway as the female lead understudy for Disney’s “Tarzan.”
“I literally thought I’d die an old lady backstage in my dressing room,” Silverlieb said of her commitment to being a professional actress.
But in 2007, after “Tarzan” closed, Silverlieb’s brother, Sam, persuaded her to go on a Birthright Israel trip, which proved transformative. When she returned to New York and got back on the audition trail, her life didn’t make much sense anymore. It was time for a new dream.
Trusting her intuition and her heart, Silverlieb moved to Israel, where she quickly began to understand some of the reasons why she was drawn to the Jewish state. For her, tikkun olam (repairing the world) was a flag to rally behind. She sought a way to combine her performance background with her budding commitment to social justice.
Silverlieb has had to adjust to living in a developing nation, as well as its volcanic rumblings and cyclones.
After completing her master’s degree in international community development at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Silverlieb started to focus on international development. She supported Jewish communities in such places as Bulgaria, Greece and India through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and started working in the field with IsraAID after the 2016 Canadian wildfires in Fort McMurray, Alberta.
“I feel like I got really lucky,” she said. “I’ve always admired IsraAID’s work.”
A few months later, with two suitcases in hand, she was on her way to Vanuatu.
Silverlieb said she is inspired and humbled to “put my values into action through a Jewish and Israeli lens.”
She may be an international development professional by trade, but by nature she’s a true diplomat, proud to be an “ambassador” representing Israel and Jews in one of the most remote locales on the planet.
The people of Vanuatu put Israel on a pedestal, she said. “They’ve studied the Bible. They know it’s the Holy Land.”
For now, Silverlieb has signed on to continue her work in Vanuatu, despite being homesick for Israel every day — “the food, the culture, the little Hebrew I can speak, the holidays — you know, it’s just your home.”
In February, when she returns to Vanuatu, her husband will join her.
Then, maybe, her mother might worry a little bit less.