As long as I live, I can never be on too many Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) aliyah flights from America to Israel. The experience of such a flight is pure magic. Jewish magic. Experiencing magic is addictive.
I am still basking in the afterglow of the emotional and spiritual impact of the NBN Charter flight last week.
In a technologically advanced age, when authentic inspiration is sought, readers, I can tell you right now, I have found it: NBN’s charter flight to Israel.
You might wonder, immigration? An airplane flight? What’s so special or magical about that? Well, let me tell you. NBN, knows how to do just that: create Jewish magic.
Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that shepherds the process for potential immigrants to Israel, providing guidance from the very first moment of the process until the very last — and everything in-between, including supporting new immigrants once in Israel.
But it’s NBN’s summer tradition of charter flight carrying the hundreds of new olim, immigrants to Israel, that gets me every time.
For 10 hours, airborne, as the plane soars across the world through the changing cloud formations, a group of hundreds of American Jews are in a process of transformation. As Rabbi Yehoshua Fass emphasizes, these passengers board this unique flight as Americans, yet will deplane as the newest wave of Israelis. For 10 hours in mid-air, this random congregation of Jews — old and young, observant and non-observant, Sephardi and Ashkenazi — are interwoven as one.
This mosaic of Jews, united by one purpose — the dream of aliyah, of ascent to the land of Israel — have chosen to leave their American lives behind, and journey in the footsteps of Abraham to the land of Israel. Lech Lecha.
For 10 hours, the NBN flight is transformed into its own microcosm of Am Yisrael, the Jewish people, elevated by common purpose: to plant roots and future generations in the land of Israel.
To my right sits a twenty-something professional from the Upper West Side of Manhattan. To my left — a fresh yeshiva graduate who will devote her time to National Service at Bikur Cholim hospital in central Jerusalem. Across the aisle is a group of youngsters, recent high school graduates, who are becoming Lone Soldiers, joining the Israel Defense Forces even though they have no family in Israel. There were 40 future IDF soldiers aboard!
Behind me sat an elderly man who has been dreaming of aliyah for 40 years. A few seats over sat another older Jew, Rabbi Alvin Reinstein, who together with his wife Esther are making aliyah for themselves — and for a Sefer Torah, a pre-WW II Sefer Torah rescued from Poland. To witness Rabbi Reinstein descend the steps of the El Al flight into the warm Israeli air, clutching to his chest this Sefer Torah that somehow survived, was truly the stuff of Jewish legends.
This powerful feeling, being part of the NBN flight, part of the process of a long held Jewish dream unfolding in your midst, airborne, is palpable. “On the wings of eagles.”
For 10 hours aboard the NBN flight you can almost feel the span of Jewish history frozen in time. You can almost feel the past dreams and longing for the land of Israel reverberating; you can almost feel ancestors’ tears and their pain of filled unfulfilled dreams. All this somehow compressed in time and place upon an NBN flight that is bringing the long cherished dream of so many to safe harbor, to Israel.
And so, riding as a passenger on an NBN charter flight is double in its power and inspiration, for it is both a transformation and a culmination. It is a culmination for each of these individuals and families, whose dream of aliyah to Israel is coming to fruition; the flight is also the wings of so many who came before us, whose dreams, prayers and tears longing so deeply for Israel may — or may not — have brought them to Israel.
Last week’s NBN charter flight was its 63rd flight! It bore NBN’s 75,000th new immigrant. Including a two-month old newborn — altogether, 99 children.
Each NBN flight has its own unique story and character. The last time I accompanied a flight, it was soaring through missile-studded skies, in a time of war. This time, the flight was NBN’s first since COVID.
The feeling that the skies had reopened not just for tourism but for moving to Israel was a heady one. NBN’s summer tradition of charter flights had resumed.
I can remember the feeling of the initial COVID lockdown, how isolated from Israel and my people I felt. In our modern history before COVID, Israel was always only an airplane ride away. Suddenly, in our blessed generation of modern day Israel, Israel wasn’t reachable at all.
It made you re-think. If you are on a lockdown, where is your true place as a Jew in the world? It made you think about aliyah doubly hard.
And now, here was the first post-COVID aliyah NBN flight. These passengers had made their decision.
Now, just as we we understand all too well the mathematical reality of how a single COVID infection can ripple out, similarly and inversely, on this historic NBN post-COVID flight the power of each of the 99 children aboard can ripple out, growing their branches and families in Israel.
The flight is a lot of fun for the youth who are on the cusp of becoming Lone Soldiers. Their joy is infectious. Their Jewish pride, striking. They spread a huge Israeli flag across the exit area of the plane for the photo backdrop. Picture after picture of them in various formations is snapped. When the exit area is not serving as the photo booth, it is a social lounge as these future IDF soldiers slap one another on the back, help out families out. They can be heard laughing and chatting endlessly into the night. The adventure of their life is about to begin.
It’s all compressed into the energy of this NBN flight.
This NBN flight is akin to the ultimate Jewish simcha vibe. It’s like the joy of Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, weddings and births all rolled into one. It’s the sense of coming of age Jewishly, of Jewish dreams fulfilled still to be fulfilled.
The El Al pilot of this special flight was Alon Pereg. Founding visionaries of NBN, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart, whose forged partnership is the remarkable origin story of NBN, were the spiritual captains and pilots. Their driving spirit and idealism are what color the character of the NBN flight. These two men, who carried NBN from an ephemeral dream to today’s efficient and thriving reality of the oiled machine of NBN is, are akin to modern day Ezra and Nechemia, the two Biblical figures of ancient times who brought Jews to Israel form exile.
The moment this special flight lands, the pent-up emotions explode. In the spirit and pure unfiltered wonder of a child, a little boy sitting behind me expressed what so many were feeling when he repeatedly cried out with glee, “I’m excited! I’m excited!” It was seeing the normally restrained parent, the grown-ups, break down emotionally, tears streaming down their faces as they crossed into Israel and were greeted with unbridled joy and live music belting out the Biblical words, “ve-shavu vanim li-gevulam, and your children shall return to their border.”
NBN operates not only in the air, but more importantly on the ground, in Israel. This organization is much more than a one-time magical charter flight. Recently, NBN moved to a new, gorgeous campus in central Jerusalem, just across from the bridge that links to the Israeli Supreme Court.
NBN partners with the Israeli government in processing new Jewish immigrants, be they from America or anywhere else in the world. NBN cuts down on the bureaucracy. It has the manpower and sophistication to aid Jews from all over the world, even in times of emergency, or perhaps especially in times of emergency.
When the Ukraine War emergency refugee crisis hit a few months ago, NBN rose to the call of history. NBN processed 2,000 Ukrainian refugees within three days.
Now, the NBN campus is not only for olim. The modern office building is interspersed with and surrounded by adjacent open Jerusalem stone courtyards and balconies, replete with gorgeous greenery, flora and even an orchard vibe, as kumquat trees dot the landscaping. Bridges connect different parts of the campus. The sense of indoor and outdoor light is contiguous in this architectural gem that now houses NBN.
The sense of past and present merge on the NBN campus, as the modern architecture and 180º angles have ancient archaeological finds from Temple times nestled in its corners and throughout the campus.
This NBN flight soaring toward Israel. New bridges on the modern NBN campus. Refugees finding their way back. These all tell a tale as old as time. It’s the story of Am Yisrael, of the Jewish people, back in their homeland, once again.
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