Sunday, February 20, 2005
NORTHEAST magazine – Cover Story
By Lisa Alcalay Klug
I love living in the United States, but another place, halfway around the world, is where I feel most spiritually nourished. Israel is my home. I’ve been there countless times, including three visits in the past six months for my work. If I could, I would board another plane tomorrow. And I am far from alone.
Ever since the forced dispersion of the Jewish people with the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 , the “People of the Book” have longed to return to Zion. During the past few years, thousands of North American Jews have acted on that calling, returning to Israel to claim citizenship in the Jewish state. They are not running away from anything; rather, they are running toward a more meaningful life, a sense of kinship, a greater purpose, an eternal hope.
I have flown to Israel at least a dozen times but never has the atmosphere matched that of the flight I took on Dec. 28, 2004, from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. It was the happiest airplane ride I have ever taken. Happier than a handful of flights filled with tourists going to Club Med or to the Hawaiian Islands. Happier even than my first flight to Israel 20 years ago when I didn’t know what to expect of this country that gave refuge to the survivors among my father’s siblings.
These 202 passengers were “going home,” as many of them told me, to the ancestral home of the Jewish people, whose Law of Return welcomes any person with one Jewish grandparent as a full citizen — the same criterion the Nazis established during World War II to determine targets of the “Final Solution.”
They traveled with their children and spouses, favorite books and photographs. Two sets of sisters made the journey: one pair in their 20s, their future ahead of them; the other in their 90s, with a difficult, triumphant past behind them. A handful of passengers brought pets, including hamsters, a rare hairless dog and a bright green parrot. The cabin of the El Al charter included infants crying from the changes in air pressure, men gathering in prayer toward the rear of the plane, parents reading to their children, young men drinking “l’chaim” shots of whiskey in the rear galley and others fast asleep, exhausted from all the preparations.
The Israeli government is encouraging this latest batch of citizens with complimentary, one-way tickets to Tel Aviv. In addition, thanks to the expedited processing efforts of the in-flight government workers from Israel’s Ministry of the Interior, by the time we landed 10 hours later on an overcast day in Tel Aviv, the immigrants had received the Israeli identity cards that entitle them to a “sal klita,” a basket of benefits meant to ease their absorption into Israeli society. These include tax breaks on shipments of home appliances, mortgages, living stipends, Hebrew language classes and more.
It’s all designed to facilitate “aliyah.” The Hebrew word for ascension, the term refers to a spiritual ascent, a “going up.” In Hebrew, when people move to any other country, they migrate. When they move to Israel, they “ascend.” The same term is used to describe a person ascending to bless the Torah, the five books of Moses, during Sabbath services. Just as we uphold the Torah, so too, do we uphold the importance of returning to Zion. The passengers on this flight are not immigrants, “mehagrim.” No, they are “olim,” ascenders.
Aliyah has always been part of Israel’s history. The 12th-century Spanish Jewish philosopher Maimonides wrote lengthy arguments about whether living in Israel is a commandment; he spent much of his life leading the Cairo Jewish community but is buried in Israel. Nachmanides, from the next century, disagreed with Maimonides. He moved to Israel when he was forced out of Spain, only to find it in ruins.
Ever since the rise of modern Zionism in the late 19th century, Jews have moved to the Holy Land in waves of immigration. From 23,000 in 1880, the Jewish population grew to 2.3 million by 1970, a hundred-fold increase. Since the end of the Six-Day War in 1967, nearly 1.7 million people from around the world have emigrated to Israel, the majority from the former Soviet Union. In the first month and a half of 2005, according to the country’s statistics bureau, more than 1,800 olim have made the move.
As we flew toward Israel, some passengers changed their names mid-flight, from, say, John to its Hebrew equivalent, Yonatan, and from Rebecca to Rivka, so that a Hebrew pronunciation would appear on their new documents. And each, to greater and lesser degrees, was filled with a certain idealism about the move. Some were reuniting with relatives. Some were helping fulfill the collective dream of a thriving Jewish state. All were fulfilling Jeremiah 31:17, “V’shavu banim l’gvulam/And your children will return,” words posted on the airport terminal.
When teenagers visit Israel, they often purchase a poster by celebrated Israeli political cartoonist Michel Kichka, himself an immigrant from Belgium, called “My Flight to Israel.” The scene shows a frenetic plane cabin brimming with passengers of all ages: older folks, babies, yentas, bubbes, teenagers, hippies, frazzled parents, Hasidic Jews and secular ones, and nearly every other kind of passenger. Our flight, packed to capacity, was this poster come to life.
Kids played in the aisles. Twenty-something guys leaned over seat backs, flirting with pretty girls. Parents changed diapers or fed their children who played with pets. In between watching films, reading, eating and listening to music, many people were introducing themselves, asking, “What city are you moving to? What will you do when you get there? Do you speak Hebrew? Why are you moving?”
“The energy is crazy,” said Carol Heller, an old friend from Vallejo, Calif., who was making aliyah to reunite with her mother and daughter. “It’s exuberant. It’s exciting. It’s leibedich,” she said, using a Yiddish term that means both lively and happy.
Nearly everyone seemed wired except for Eliezer Katz, who slept long and when he wasn’t sleeping, seemed almost blase about this new stage in life. Katz, who moved to Israel when he was 3 from his native Czechoslovakia, has childhood friends in Israel and insisted that he was looking forward to “coming home.” Katz had remained in the Holy Land through his mid-20s when he moved to Fairfield, Conn., with his young Israeli bride. She died of cancer nine years ago. Fit and handsome, resembling a shorter Tom Selleck, with a thick head of hair and moustache, Katz doesn’t look 60-something. He didn’t feel quite himself either.
Katz said he felt surprisingly little emotion about the move. “I know there is a lot involved, but I don’t feel good and I don’t feel bad. I feel neutral. I was just here two weeks ago,” he said, to celebrate his mother’s birthday. “I thought I would feel something, but I just feel neutral.”
Noah Eisenberg, an acquaintance of mine from New York City, was at the other end of the emotional spectrum. “We’re making history,” he told me as we approached our gate. Eisenberg, 38, has spent the last year studying classical Jewish texts at a yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has followed a common trajectory: yeshiva to aliyah. And he was thrilled to be making the move.
Although I am only an observer on this flight, I share their excitement. At times during my interviewing, I get so overwhelmed hearing the inspiring stories of my fellow passengers that I have to collect myself. After we reach a cruising altitude, Carol finds me. “You have got to hear this story,” she said, and leads me back a few rows to meet Isaac Oziel.
Oziel’s father, a renowned cantor in Morocco, received an invitation in 1954 to meet Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. The statesman offered him a plot of land and a personal invitation to make aliyah, but the older Oziel died before he could live his dream of moving to the Holy Land, leaving his wife to care for their 12 children. Fifty years later, Isaac is carrying out the dream. He made the flight with his wife, Nina, and their six children ranging in age from 6 to 24. “If I am not living out my dream,” Isaac said, “at least I am living out my father’s.” And yet Isaac appears to be living out his own dream as well. In Israel, he said, he has the sense of belonging. “In Canada, I went to high-level executive positions and felt my kippa (skull cap) hindered my ability to get a job,” Oziel said. “In Israel, you’re accepted. If you wear a kippa, it’s not part of the equation. It’s based on your experience and who you are.”
Near the front of the plane, the oldest passengers sat holding hands for nearly the entire flight. During World War II, Irme Simon promised her mother she would care for her younger sister, Hilde. When they were liberated in 1945, a frail Irme pushed an even weaker Hilde out of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in a wheelbarrow to a neighboring village, where they both recovered. Nearly 60 years after the war’s end, Irme Haas, 97, is leading Hilde Meyer, 94, on another journey. Each twice widowed and childless, they are pious women who wear gray wigs. They always lived near each other in the United States. Now, they are spending their remaining years as roommates at a Jerusalem assisted-care facility called Beit Bart, where several of their friends have retired.
In the airspace over Dublin, I found Eliezer’s son, Shlomo Katz, awake. A shy 20-something whose jeans and sweater fit his behind-the-scenes work in corporate computer systems, Shlomo drank a ginger ale as we discussed his plans to find an information technology job in Israel. Meanwhile his father, Eliezer, slept stretched across three empty seats in the row behind us.
In an earlier phone interview, Shlomo, who underwent surgery for a brain tumor as a child, told me he doesn’t expect to be required to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Given his health history, he expects to receive an exemption. (Usually, an immigrant of his age would serve at least a few months of basic training to prepare for periodic reserve duty through midlife.)
Somewhere over the Mediterranean, about an hour before landing, I finally found Eliezer awake. In the few minutes before descent, we sat together talking, while Shlomo leaned over us from the aisle. Eliezer had previously explained to me by phone that they would start out in a hotel near his 90-year-old mother’s home in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa. Wherever Shlomo gets a job will determine where they live. Eliezer will continue working as a self-employed electrician. Unlike Isaac Oziel, Eliezer was very matter-of-fact about his plans.
Noah Eisenberg was right. Our flight did make history. The 2004 count of North American immigrants to Israel reached 2,860, the highest in 20 years.
Those numbers have been fueled by the efforts of Nefesh B’Nefesh (Soul with Soul), a private organization that receives most of its funding from Jewish philanthropists in the United States. A small percentage comes from Christian donors, many of them evangelists who believe in the spiritual significance of Jews returning to Zion. The organization works with the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental agency that facilitates Jewish immigration to Israel. It has helped settle 5,000 immigrants since its launch in 2002 by helping to cut the red tape of obtaining citizenship and driver’s licenses, finding jobs, schools and Hebrew language programs, opening bank accounts and other details of setting up life in a new country. Of the 1,520 newcomers it helped who arrived in 2002-2003, 93 percent of families have at least one employed spouse, 99 percent remain in Israel, 55 children have been born and 11 immigrants have married. Several thousand more are expected in the next few years.
The program’s success is largely due to the efforts of Nefesh B’Nefesh founders Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart, president and CEO of CPM Worldwide Group, a Florida-based investment company with holdings in Israel and the U.S. Together, they have attracted several other philanthropists to fund their efforts.
Both were on this most recent charter flight. I asked Gelbart what motivated him to donate more than $1 million to help underwrite Nefesh. “I’m trying to build a strong economy, political and moral bridges between America and Israel,” he said. “President Bush, who I strongly support, says we have to build a strong democracy in the Middle East. What’s the democracy I know in the Middle East? That’s Israel,” said Gelbart, whose father escaped Poland in 1939, emigrated to Cuba and arrived in the United States before Fidel Castro came to power. “We live in a dangerous world. It’s dangerous to be in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, over Pennsylvania. After 9/11, a lot of people felt if they were afraid to move to Israel, that fear is being wiped away. … We don’t care if you’re Ashkenazi or Sephardi, right or left, religious or not. If you’re Jewish and you have the desire, we’re going to help you.”
Some olim are motivated by solidarity, especially since the most recent Palestinian uprising began. Toronto research physician Josh Kruger, 33, officially made aliyah this past summer, but flew again from New York Dec. 28 to accompany his physician wife, Tamara, 30, and their sons, Adin, 3, and Ariel, 4. They are now living in Modiin, a city between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. “We have been and are still very proud Canadians,” Kruger said mid-flight. “We see the Jewish homeland going through a hard time and so we are becoming Israeli citizens with the hope that we’ll be able to contribute to Israeli society. Like any parent, I have my concerns, but I’m more worried about the security of Israel … The best thing we can do as Jews is to make a contribution to the Jewish homeland.”
Will I do the same? With many visits over the years, I have become increasingly attached to the country. I, too, wanted to announce the prayer recited upon landing in Israel: “Blessed are you Gd, Ruler of the universe, Who has kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this moment.” For Jewish believers, living in Israel is the fulfillment of daily prayers calling for the gathering of the exiles and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Many Jews request they be buried in Israel. In traditional Jewish burials outside Israel, a handful of dirt from Israel is placed over the deceased’s eyes before the coffin is closed. Even for the less religious, the phrase, “Next year in Jerusalem,” the closing line of the annual Passover seder, has deep resonance.
Israel is layered with meaning for me as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. It is, of course, the only consistent refuge for Jewish people worldwide, and that experience has never been far from my family. My father, a survivor of the Czestochowa Ghetto and Buchenwald concentration camp, had a sister and brother who fled Europe during the 1930s as the Nazis rose to power. They joined groups of optimistic Jews through Youth Aliyah, a movement to resettle young people into Israel’s idealistic kibbutzim, or collective farms. They faced great adversity in a young, poor country and went on to fight in the Haganah, the precursor to the Israel Defense Forces, and to marry and raise children. After all they experienced, including the loss of their parents and two siblings in Poland, they watched their children put on army uniforms and go to war when Israel’s survival was threatened.
One treasured son, my first cousin Avram Klug, a tank commander, died in the battle for the Golan Heights in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, leaving behind a 6-month-old daughter, Maya. When I think of Maya, and the father she never knew, or of Dori, the fiance of my first cousin, Iris, who was killed during military service in Lebanon, I know in a very personal way that living in Israel may require paying the greatest price.
And yet, more and more I want to make my home there. The philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel recognized that Jerusalem possesses the typical houses, buses, even the sewage of other cities. And yet, he wrote, “ … she is more than a city among cities; she is a city full of vision, a city with an extrasensory dimension. Her fascination is not in her age. She is a dwelling place, not a collection of monuments, shrines … Jerusalem is more than a place in space or a memorial of glories of the past. Jerusalem is a prelude, anticipation of days to come.”
When I stand in Jerusalem, whether I am at the Western Wall or simply on a friend’s balcony, I feel my prayers resonate in a way that’s impossible elsewhere. Something new is accessed within me. Perhaps it is as the Talmud explains: When anyone prays in Jerusalem, the gate to heaven is wide open.
Our sages taught that all energy flows from heaven into the world in Jerusalem, and from there into the rest of the world. Indeed, there is a palpable energy in Israel. One simply feels more alive. And despite the many challenges of the political situation and the very common difficulty of making a living, I feel drawn to its remarkable, complex beauty. “Ten measures of beauty descended on the world,” the Talmud records. “Nine were taken by Jerusalem and one by the rest of the world.”
Even if peace were to come tomorrow — and though the prospects are often doubtful, I pray that it does — and even if I had already secured a terrific job, moving to Israel would require heartbreaking goodbyes to my parents, my siblings and their families. As increasing numbers of American Jews move to Israel — several thousand more are expected to travel on multiple Nefesh B’Nefesh flights this summer — this tension between “this home and that home” has become much more common.
That sentiment is so strong among some American Jews that it attracts them as soon as they are of legal age. Jesse Rosenblit, 21, grew up in West Hartford. Three days after his graduation from the Hebrew High School of New England, he moved to Israel, completing an intensive Hebrew language course and joining the Israel Defense Forces. He recently completed two years of service and signed on for an officer’s course in “Shimshon,” his unit named for the biblical judge and warrior, Samson, who fought in the area near Gaza.
When Jesse graduates as a second lieutenant on Wednesday, his father, Mark, 50, a real estate lawyer in West Hartford, plans to be there to witness the occasion, and so will his brothers, fraternal twins Michael and David, 19, who moved to Israel with Nefesh B’Nefesh last year and will enter the army in the coming months. Mark will be there to walk the twins to the induction center, just as he did for Jesse.
“The Israeli army is the great leveler in Israeli society,” Mark Rosenblit wrote me in an e-mail after I returned to the U.S. “In short, it is a transformative experience, and I want to honor my sons by being there when they finally join their brothers and sisters in safeguarding our people in their ancestral homeland.”
Mark and his wife Harriet, also 50, don’t have any immediate plans to move to Israel, although in the late 1990s they purchased a second home, a modest three-bedroom apartment, so “our children would have a place to live,” Harriet said. She works as the Hebrew High School’s office manager and plans to retire in June to spend more time with her sons. She’ll continue to travel back and forth, to care for her aging mother and in-laws in the U.S.
The Rosenblits aren’t surprised their children have made the move. “We’ve been taking them to Israel their whole lives,” Harriet says. And in the 11th grade, each boy also spent a semester studying in Israel. “They loved it and they wanted to make aliyah. You can’t stop your children from living their dream. You just can’t.”
And yet, Harriet admits, “It was not an easy decision for them. I am very proud of their choices. I didn’t try to stop them.” Although she cries each time she says goodbye, she hides her emotions. When she took the twins to the airport last summer, she says, “I didn’t want my feelings to cloud their choices … They moved to the land of our people. It’s our country. It’s our land. I know that my children felt an obligation as Jews to move to Israel and help defend our borders.” In fact, after Jesse completes his army service, in August 2006, he plans to move to a West Bank settlement “if they still exist,” he told me during a phone interview in Israel when he was en route to his army base. “I believe these parts of Israel belong to the Jewish people and I want to build and defend and live in them and learn what makes these people give their all to what they believe in.”
When our plane arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport, we were welcomed with fanfare. Newspaper and television photographers anticipated our descent down a long line of stairs and some of the immigrants knelt to kiss the ground. Uniformed soldiers lined our path. Giant shofars, an ancient instrument made of ram’s horn and used in high-holiday rituals, proclaimed our arrival. The familiar blue-and-white of Israel’s flag waved in every direction. And in the massive airplane hangar that beckoned passengers to a welcome ceremony, a band played Israeli and Jewish tunes. The wild abandon and circle dancing that typifies Jewish weddings and bar mitzvahs broke out into a tremendous party.
After the celebration concluded, we took shuttles to the terminal and continued on through passport control to baggage claim. As we hunted for our belongings, Nina Oziel and I hugged and kissed each other goodbye, wishing each other well. I took a few more pictures.
I turned to push my luggage cart toward customs. Suddenly, Eliezer Katz appeared and grabbed my arm. “Lisa,” he said. He had tears in his eyes. “Once we got here, I did have a reaction. I didn’t feel neutral anymore. I fell apart. I’m still crying.”
Freelance writer Lisa Alcalay Klug, a native Californian, contributes articles to The New York Times, Jerusalem Post and other publications.
North America’s Aliyah Engine
By Lisa Alcalay Klug
When Daniel Rebuck made aliya last December, his decision dovetailed with an unexpected emptiness. “I’ve lost all the things I’ve built up,” said Rebuck, 36, a native of England who was living in New Orleans when he lost his job after Hurricane Katrina last summer. “And I said to myself, ‘Blimey, what have I wanted to do the last few years? Israel.’”
Rebuck, who considers himself more spiritual than religious, said he suddenly “realized we don’t need what we think we need. And that was one of the reasons I didn’t go to Israel before. Things were going well for me financially. I saw so many people who lost everything, literally everything. I came out not so bad. It’s an opportunity for me to start a whole new life.”
Unlike Rebuck, Amanda Niskar, 34, had long planned to move to Israel. A single Conservative woman from Atlanta, she is a registered nurse with a doctorate in public health who worked at the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Niskar settled with her mother in Ramat Gan in September 2005. Her professional destination: the Israel Center for Disease Control in the Ministry of Health. The euphoria she felt on the flight over has remained with her. “I want to use this position to bring my two countries together,” she said several months after her arrival. “I want to show the scientists in the U.S. the Israel that I see, not the one on TV.”
For Tuvia Grossman, making aliya was a life-affirming act. Now 25, Grossman had been studying at an Orthodox yeshiva five years ago when he survived a horrific terror attack. On his way to pray at the Western Wall, he was pulled out of a taxi, beaten severely and stabbed in the leg. Miraculously, he found the strength to run away, ultimately finding refuge among Israeli soldiers. He lost so much blood doctors didn’t think he would survive.
Despite the attack, he was still in love with Israel. He allowed his parents to take him back to his native Chicago to recover on one condition: that they permit him to return. He has never washed the tzitzit he wore the day of the attack, and this past Yom Kippur, the one day a year he wears them, he put them on again in Jerusalem, not long after he made aliya. “I just feel as Jews there is no reason for us to be outside of Israel,” Grossman said.
As different as they are, what Rebuck, Niskar and Grossman share is that they all made aliya under the auspices of Nefesh B’Nefesh, a nonprofit organization whose aim is assisting North Americans to move to Israel. The group’s name, known in the vernacular simply as Nefesh, translates as soul with soul.
Participants receive complimentary one-way tickets from John F. Kennedy Airport in New York to Tel Aviv, part of an incentive that in 2005 brought 3,200 people to Israel. According to Nefesh officials, a few hundred others make aliya on their own but seek out Nefesh’s services in Israel. Since 2004, its collaboration with the quasi-governmental Jewish Agency has been “virtually organic,” said Nefesh spokesperson Renana Levine.
Although the number of flights varies each year, most occur during the summer, with usually at least one in the winter. With 15 flights so far, Nefesh has helped settle approximately 7,000 American and Canadian Jews since its launch in 2002. Several thousand more are expected in coming years.
Ever since the rise of modern Zionism in the late 1800’s, Jews have immigrated to Israel in waves. From 23,000 in 1880, the Jewish population grew a hundredfold to 2.3 million in 1970. And nearly 1.7 million people have moved to Israel, the majority from the former Soviet Union, since the Six-Day War in 1967. Aliya declined from the start of the second intifada in 2000 to about 1,500 to 2,000 each year.
As the Jewish population of Israel (about 5 million) approaches that of the United States (5.2 to 5.8 million), many olim recognize the significance of their move. “We’re making history,” said Noah Eisenberg, a 30-something Orthodox New Yorker who came with Nefesh in late 2004, following a common yeshiva-to-aliya trajectory.
Demand has grown so much that Nefesh now operates two offices, one in Jerusalem and one in New York (866-425-4924), with a total of 40 employees. The program’s success is largely due to the efforts of cofounders Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart, president and chief executive officer of CPM Worldwide Group, a Florida-based investment company with holdings in Israel and the United States. Together, they have attracted several other philanthropists to fund their efforts.
I’m trying to build a strong economy [and] political and moral bridges between America and Israel,” explained Gelbart. “President Bush…says we have to build a strong democracy in the Middle East. What’s the democracy I know in the Middle East? That’s Israel. We don’t care if you’re Ashkenazi or Sefardi, right or left, religious or not. If you’re Jewish and you have the desire, we’re going to help you.”
Fass, executive director of Nefesh, moved to Israel on the premier flight in 2002. He conceived of the idea after his 14-year-old cousin was murdered with other children in a 2001 Hamas suicide bombing. “One goal of Nefesh,” he says, “is to inspire every North American Jew to ask the question: Is aliya a good fit for me and my family?”
Fass, in many ways the face of Nefesh, is the first contact for applicants, determining their eligibility for assistance. The cost of pilot trips, a new home, acquiring or shipping household appliances and furnishings and the income lost during the process often discourages young families from making the move. Nefesh estimates a family of six will require $21,920. The money is essentially a loan that turns into a grant if recipients stay in Israel for more than three years. Singles receive approximately $5,000 to $7,000; families, between $15,000 and $22,000.
In addition to grants, Nefesh also helps reduce the red tape of obtaining citizenship, a driver’s license and a temporary passport; finding jobs, schools and Hebrew-language programs; and other details of setting up life in a new country.
On board, the extensive application process continues with workers from Israel’s Ministry of the Interior. After the plane reaches a cruising altitude, officials circulate through the aisles, processing forms for Israeli identity cards. By the time they arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport, the newcomers have already submitted much of the paperwork that entitles them to a “sal klita,” the basket of benefits designed to ease absorption. These include tax breaks on shipments of home appliances, mortgages and living stipends.
Demographics vary from flight to flight, but about 70 percent of participants identify themselves as Orthodox. Many anticipate Israel’s affordable Jewish education.
Anecdotal evidence also suggests a large number of recent college graduates making aliya have participated in Birthright Israel, the program that offers a free trip to Israel for American Jews under 26. Michelle Hannon, 27, made aliya in 2004, two years after spending time in Israel. A former receptionist at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington in Rockville, Maryland, Hannon was going through a “metamorphosis” when she was on Birthright. During another five-month stay in 2003, she felt she “could make a life there.” About half the 202 passengers on her flight were young singles, many of them proud Birthright graduates.
Others, like Rabbi Irwin Albert, 78, who made aliya with his wife, Joy, in fall 2005 after serving as a pulpit rabbi for 52 years in New York, are entering retirement. Some who became religious later in life or converted decided to make their life in Israel. “It’s home,” said Eliyahu Fuller, formerly of Waterbury, Connecticut, whose wife wasn’t interested in converting but whose children did and are now living religious lives in Israel. “If you want something, you go for it.”
In their diversity, the arrivals fulfill the prophesy of Jeremiah 31:17, “V’shavu banim l’gvulam/ And your children will return to their borders,” the verse posted on the old terminal at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport, where the olim disembark.
Nefesh advertises flight arrivals in The Jerusalem Post, inviting the public to greet the new immigrants at exuberant ceremonies. The terminal lends itself well to the logistics of a reception. Photographers snap photos of passengers descending a long line of stairs as soldiers cheer and wave Israeli flags. Shofars are sounded and signs announce an “Aliya Revolution.” The wild abandon of circle dancing usually reserved for weddings breaks out. Once the crowd settles into their seats, there are greetings from dignitaries.
“You will witness in your lifetime a monumental shift, not seen since biblical times and the days of the Second Temple: The majority of Jews will live in the Jewish state,” Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told one group of arrivals. “For half a century, the survival and the future of Israel depended on aliya. In the next half-century, however, the survival and future of the Jewish people will depend on the State of Israel.”
The real test of Nefesh’s mission comes, of course, long after the passport stamp. The greatest challenge is finding work, a support system and a sense of belonging. Toward that end, Nefesh offers seminars and workshops throughout the country on job-searching strategies, employee rights and benefits and how to live on an Israeli salary. There are also outings for families, an annual singles barbecue, Super Bowl parties and a variety of other events.
Still, many immigrants describe a first year filled with difficulties and adjustments. Shlomo Katz, 25, earned a master’s degree in computer science before moving to Haifa from Fairfield, Connecticut, with his widowed father more than a year ago. Originally, he felt very supported by Nefesh. But a year later, a job still hasn’t come through. “I’m not happy about it,” he said. “Luckily, I have enough to live on with savings from the U.S. and by living with my dad.”
Katz recently enrolled in a yearlong software engineering course to enhance his qualifications for a “high-level job.” In the meantime, his father, Eliezer Katz, commutes to the States periodically to supplement his income as an electrician. The higher wages in America make brief stays there at the home of friends worthwhile. It’s not what the Katzes dreamed of, but for now it’s manageable; they don’t plan on leaving.
For other olim, once the ad- justments of the first year pass, life gets easier. Deena and Aaron Singer, both 33, who made aliya from New York in July 2003 with Naama Shira, 5, and Ahuva, 3, experienced months of upheaval. Each had to return to the States to help care for ill family members.
“I was nervous about leaving family, finding jobs, all the typical aliya fears,” said Deena. Life has calmed down considerably since then. Aaron has settled into a sales position at the Shalem Center, a post-Zionist think tank, and Deena works as a behavorial consultant with autistic children. After two years in an Orthodox absorption center, the Singers moved to a “mixed” moshav near Gush Etzion.
Despite the problems, the formula seems to be working. As of January 2005, 99 percent of Nefesh participants have remained in Israel; 94 percent of families have at least one employed spouse; 110 babies have been born; and 36 immigrants have married, including two couples who met on Nefesh flights.
Daniel Rebuck doesn’t expect things will be easy, but he remains hopeful. A former professional soccer player, he would like to find a position coaching, as he did in New Orleans. “I’ve been to Israel six times and I always feel very much at home,” he said. “With the hurricane, I looked at my life and I thought, ‘If I don’t do it now, I never will.’”
Nefesh Immigrants Cite Smoother Aliyah
BY LISA ALCALAY KLUG
PUBLISHED ON APRIL 27, 2006
When Fairfax resident Yasmine Noury boarded an El Al flight late last year, she joined the growing ranks of North American Jews who immigrated to Israel in 2005.
Check back here soon for Lisa’s coverage of aliyah in the Canadian Jewish News.