Sunday, March 26, 2023 -
Print Edition

War doesn’t deter new immigrants to Israel

New olim arrive on Nefesh b'Nefesh's latest flightSOME images and experiences in life become indelible.

For me, one of those moments was six years ago when I traveled along with the chartered Nefesh B’Nefesh aliyah flight, bringing new immigrants to Israel from the US.

Among the hundreds of new immigrants in flight, choosing to make their lives in their homeland of Israel, was a man carrying a Torah scroll. He held it protectively against his chest, with the intimacy and closeness of cradling a sleeping child. This Torah was 300 years old. Not for a second did he let it go.

That Torah lent the already permeated-with-purpose journey an extra dimension of holiness. Watching this man travel to Israel, the Torah his companion for the journey, then together descending the El Al steps into the warm Israeli air, was an indelible moment.

Today, I add an indelible life moment to the reservoir of memory. It was another Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) aliyah flight. Even before any specific details of these people’s aliyah stories came to light (akin to the last flight’s 300 year old Torah scroll), the air was charged with a deep sense of emotion. This time, merely showing up to join the flight was the story. After all, it was war time. Rockets are flying over Israel. And the NBN group all arrived, carrying through with their original aliyah plans.

It was NBN’s 52nd chartered flight to Israel, and it was extraordinarily inspiring! This eagle landed with 338 new American immigrants, among them, amazingly, 108 “lone soldiers,” joining the IDF without any family in Israel.

The youngest newest immigrant on board was a baby just under one-year old; the oldest, Lillian Berman, or as she is now identifying herself, Shayna Leah, 93 years old! As if that were not remarkable enough, Leah Berman is matriarch to three generations who enveloped her throughout the flight — they were making aliyah with her!

Yes, this flight carried four generations of one family journeying to Israel together.

Denver artist Tammy Ellison of Rishona Studios was aboard the flight, bringing not only herself but her art techniques to Israel — techniques that seemed to mirror the qualities of the NBN flight itself.

Her photography, with an Agamesque quality to it, splices three photographic images vertically juxtaposed. Even before scrutinizing the art, the multiple images immediately convey a sense of layering and storytelling. The separate triple images interwoven as one, create one new image, animated with depth by the fragments of the three.

Spliced onto this NBN flight were people from all walks of life. The Jews making aliyah from all across North America all came with different stories. But like Ellison’s photages that bring separate images together as one, this NBN group was all interwoven with a singular purpose: love for Israel.

In Ellison’s words: “That transcends all their individual reasons for how we got here.”

“Praying Through Time” is a photage of three iconic images of Israel.

One is the view from Masada looking to Jerusalem.

The second one is of the Tiferet Yisrael Synagogue in Jerusalem. It was a Haganah stronghold in Israel’s War of Independence. Its pockmarked facade bears the scars and wounds of the bullets from this battle.

The third image is of the upper stones of the Wailing Wall. If you look carefully you can see the notes that people left behind in the recesses of the stones, which had been raised to the upper stones by the nesting birds. These notes stay in the Wall forever (the notes in the lower stones are collected twice a year and buried in the Mount of Olives).

The Wall’s notes carry within them people’s deepest held hopes and dreams. And that’s the heady feeling of this NBN flight. The stuff of individual lifelong dreams coming true. Collectively.

Like the pockmarked shul, there is a feeling that sacrifices have been made to arrive at this day.

In a farewell ceremony before the flight, eyes are wet, as final goodbyes are said among families.

ONCE the official NBN departure ceremony begins, though, the excitement rises.

Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, together with co-founder Tony Gelbart, are the captains of the NBN concept that has changed the course of Jewish history.

NBN has not only increased the number of Americans making aliyah but substantially lowered the percentage of those whose aliyah fails. NBN assisted the new immigrants, making the difficult transition as smooth, healthy and successful as possible.

NBN has completely shifted the community’s entire way of thinking about the idealistic people who choose to go on aliyah.

Since NBN, aliyah has come to be perceived as another Jewish milestone. People wish those making aliyah a Mazal Tov, the same as on the birth of a baby or any other simcha.

Indeed, upon landing that is precisely what coming to Israel with NBN felt like — being part of a very big simcha.

But before getting to the landing, let’s get back to the pre-game of the farewell ceremony.

Many highly busy and distinguished people lent their presence at the ceremony and some even continued on the flight, in solidarity, support and blessing for this noble decision and voyage.

There was Russell Robinson, CEO of Jewish National Fund, which began over a century ago to repurchase land in Israel so that one day Jews could return there. He spoke of the strength of the future in Israel “be-yachad,” together.

There was the Israeli ambassador to the UN, Ron Proser, who spoke of standing tall and proud as a nation state of Jews. He especially turned to the lone soldiers, emphasizing that they are never alone, that Israel is worth fighting for and, even more important, worth living for! His message: There are more immigrants coming to Israel than rockets flying over Israel.

The words of these and others reflected the pride of the aliyah-bound crowd.

RABBI Fass got a rousing applause when he started off with a hearty “Good Afternoon!” Throughout his short talk spontaneous outbursts of applause and woohoos continued, especially when the group of 108 new chayalim soldiers were acknowledged for their courageous choice.

Rabbi Fass said that despite this being the 52nd NBN flight, it doesn’t get any less emotional.

He looked around the room and saw so many aliyah stories coming true, and even mentioned various families by name.

He thanked families and friends for their emotional support of those making aliyah. He spoke of the miracle of it all . . . how our grandparents and great-grandparents couldn’t imagine simply deciding that they wanted to go to Israel, then proceeding to JFK El Al terminal 4 and, voila, they’d be Israeli citizens.

He emphasized how there was not one cancellation from this group — a group who had time throughout a war to reconsider their decision, and not one did. Poignantly, to the contrary! Some of the lone soldiers came in asking for the flight to be moved up so they could enlist soon as possible.

He continued with a blessing, “ve-tolicheinu komemiyut le-artzeinu,” you are landing in Israel upright, choosing to come to Israel instead of running away from something and coming broken. That is something to pause, to take in the emotions of what that means.

A representative of US Friends of Tsofim-Israel Scouts, whose program many of the new IDF soldiers had come through, addressed these young volunteers in a way that highlighted how young they really were. “Please call your parents,” he said. “It means so much to them; a call, not just on whatsapp.”

One family, the Maryles’ from North Woodmere, New York, came outfitted in t- shirts playing on current events: “Aliyah is my protective edge.”

ONCE airborne the atmosphere on the plane was abuzz with excitement.

No detail went unnoticed, from custom NBN coloring books and crayon boxes for children, to stickers proudly displaying “oleh chadash, new immigrant.”

It was a party on the plane, a stoical experience — remember there were almost 100 teens and early 20-somethings aboard.

Meanwhile, the front of the plane was transformed into an airborne NBN office. Ascending the flight was a group of Americans; descending the flight would be new Israelis. Between takeoff and landing NBN staff worked furiously to process all the documentation of all 338 passengers.

Make no mistake, with all the emotion and inspiration, this NBN flight is also an extremely sophisticated and efficient operation.

By the time each passenger lands, he and she, without ever stepping into a government office, will have te’udat oleh and te’udot zehut Israeli identification cards.

These are essential for an immigrant to open a bank account and to conduct countless other transactions. These enable the new immigrants to receive absorption benefits and their health insurance cards.

Upon hearing this information, one person quipped: “Do you also do bris milas on board?” Turns out, over the years, many simchas have been been celebrated aboard NBN flights, from engagements to sheva brachot.

PART of the paper work includes name changes. Many people who embark on this journey take the opportunity to solidify their Jewish-Israeli identity and begin going by their Hebrew names.

Take Ethan Padnos from Cincinnati. Raised in the Conservative movement as a Zionist Jew, he was in Israel for the first time four years ago, when he knew he would make aliyah one day. Two years later on a second visit he found himself at Mt Herzl military cemetery at Michael Levin’s grave, the lone soldier killed in the Lebanon War. Inspired, at that moment Padnos pledged that he would return as soon as he could to join the IDF.

Now he is 19, on this flight, making good on that personal promise to himself, and wanting to embrace his Hebrew name, Eitan.

He has since met Miichael Levin’s mother, who inspired him and strengthened him in his decision to come to Israel and serve the Jewish people.

Chanan Narvy of LA already goes by his Hebrew name. When asked why he is coming on NBN to Israel as a lone soldier he says: “Because all Israeli families are serving the country and sending their boys. Just because I wasn’t born in the country, who am I to not give to the society?”

Emily Mendelsohn says, “The Jewish people can’t wait for others, can’t rely on others for help. We have only one state.”

Shelli Shackner, also a lone soldier, talks of the vulnerability. “It’s scary. But I knew I would regret not doing it. Being nervous is not a reason not to go.”

At one point in the flight I visit Tammy Ellison. I want to see her photage, “Remember.” She is busy, though, as throughout this flight she is taking pictures of NBN moments in flight, creating a new photage of the experience, called “Tapestry.” A tapestry of moments captured to layer the story of another NBN flight journey back home.

By now, it’s night time. The plane is pretty dark and quiet. Most passengers are sleeping. But one person is awake, with the overhead bulb shining on her, bathing her in light. It’s Leah Berman, the 93-year-old; she can’t sleep. She is too excited. Her mother was born in Palestine. Leah was raised on stories of the land and she can’t believe she is finally coming home.

Leah’s mother remembers her journey by sea from Palestine to America, hearing the German submarines. Now, almost a century later in 2014, via air travel, Leah is coming full circle, returning.

HERE I am on an NBN flight, again like in Ellison’s layered photages, a flight back home layered with so very many people and stories and emotions.

At one point in the conversation Leah Berman is hard pressed for a word. She says: “What can I say? Old age is beginning to creep up on me.” Later when her great granddaughter Ayelet is brought over to visit with her, Leah turns to me apologetically, “she’s a little bewildered. The flight is hard for a little girl.” I will say, Leah certainly does make it look easy for a 93-year old!

Ellison returns. I see “Remember.” Three iconic views of Jerusalem in her signature geometric sensibility of vertical fragments interwoven, this one bathed in a golden aura. A sunset over the Kotel Plaza on Chanukah, and a view of the Jerusalem skyline from a promenade. Across the top, all three images are hyphenated by blocks of color. Despite the hyphenation across the vertical columns, the images unite, reassembled in the mind. If you look across the images and track the horizon line, the Kotel becomes the dominant image. You see it as a whole. It captures a yearning.

Like more and more stories that I learn of on this flight.

Naomi Maryles’s eldest daughter just became Bat Mitzvah. The Maryles family, especially Bini Mayle, the driving force behind the dream, has been talking about going on aliyah since their eldest daughter’s birth. Over the years there were times when the dream was shelved. But then this past January it was renewed, and somehow this time things accelerated and fell into place pretty quickly.

When the Maryles’s sat their children down to tell them of the decision, one of them quipped, “it’s about time.”

To which Naomi Mayle adds for others thinking of aliyah, “we spoke about aliyah their whole lives. It was something they were aware of and apart of. Speak to your children about this dream, this desire. Include them and make them a part of it, so it is part of the consciousness of your family.”

I said something about her children being troopers, upon which Naomi cuts in, “they are more than troopers. They are inspiring. They have inspired me in their calm response and desire to go.”

She continues candidly, “The truth is, the hardest adjustment is for me. In a way I am doing this for my children. This is a gift I am giving them, so their generation will be Israeli and their descendants will grow up Israeli without needing to go through the transition I will be making. For them it will be natural. America will be their past.”

LATER yet I get to talking with the passenger sitting in front of me, Yishai-Joel Burstein.

Turns out he is not making aliyah. So what is he doing on the flight? “I’ll tell you”, he says, “or at least I will tell you my understanding of the story, as I am not sure myself of all the details.

“I am the parent of a Givati soldier. My son is in the Givati Reconnaissance battalion. About one-and-a half weeks ago three soldiers from Givati Reconnaissance were killed when Hamas broke the ceasefire.

“My son and his team were in that area, right there. As you may have heard, they thought Hadar (Goldin) zichrono li-vracha was kidnapped. In a split second decision, an officer ran into the tunnel to chase after him and try to rescue him. The rest is now history. This officer decided to host a se’udat hoda’ah, a meal of gratitude, for the entire team and their parents.

“My son is a chayal boded, a lone soldier, and Eitan, this officer who had run into the tunnel, wanted the parents of the soldiers to be there as well.

“I get a call on Tisha b’Av from one of the soldiers that I was invited on a free flight for this occasion. Yarden, a friend of my son Ariel had called explaining that travel points on El Al were donated for the return flight by the director of marketing of Mercantile Bank to bring me and two other parents in, and that NBN was collaborating with the lone soldier program to bring us in. So here I am. On my way to surprise my son at this intimate gathering of soldiers grateful to be alive, while acknowledging with the families the bravery of their comrades.”

I asked him about his reaction to the deaths of the soldiers from his son’s unit. How does he feel as the parent of a lone soldier?

He shares how throughout the war he was following the news closely. He figured out somehow from the news of the soldiers killed that Friday that they were from his son’s unit. Then he got a call. He was already nervous. Then he saw the Israeli number of his son’s “adopted family” in Israel. His heart stopped. . . . the caller was saying, “Ariel b’seder, he’s OK.”

He was flooded with relief.

Joel Burstein emphasizes that he is 100% behind his son Ariel and, as it turns out, his oldest son Koby, also a lone soldier.

And on this NBN flight, Burstein is traveling with his third son Oren, now joining the IDF as a lone soldier.

So three of his four sons are in the IDF.

The story of Israel right now are these soldiers, Burstein says. They are The Story.

THE momentous flight was drawing to a close. The seat belt sign came on. The countdown began, the plane touched down, cheers and singing erupted, and now the aliyah is just beginning.

In olive colored t-shirts the lone soldiers left the plane in one group. As I descended the steps into the warm air, I could see dignitaries lined up to greet this special planeload of people making aliyah in wartime.

Once I was down, taking notes of a passenger coming down with guitars strapped to his and his family members backs, I look up briefly, suddenly looking into a very familiar face. I am standing shoulder to shoulder with Natan Sharansky. I quickly ask him for his reaction.

“I am very excited. Everyday more olim [immigrants] than rockets are coming.”

Which was the theme of NBN reception awaiting the new olim. With flags flying, soldiers there to welcome new ones, and live music, the Shalom Aleichem was electrifying. For a moment I forgot about the rockets, until we were told that in case of a siren where to run to.

Rabbi Fass shared a story characterizing the Israeli spirit in these days. He said his son went to visit wounded soldiers a few weeks ago when he noticed the hospital guards standing in reverse position, seemingly checking those leaving the hospital instead of entering. The young boys asked the guards about that. Their reply was that their job was to stop soldiers from leaving the hospital. Wounded soldiers so badly wanted to rejoin their units and continue fighting that they literally had to be stopped at the door.

Rabbi Fass applied this to the new immigrants. “Nobody expected anything from them. they could have sat on the sidelines in quiet and comfort . . . nobody expected you to come. You didn’t have to join, but you, just like those soldiers, understood the commitment and love of this land and its future.”

The ceremony, replete with a live welcome from pianist Rami Kleinstein, concluded with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s remarks:

“When Israel is being attacked and you young Jews come to Israel, you tell our enemies that they will never succeed in bending our spirit or driving us away. You are coming to stand up for our future.”

Slowly, the crowd broke up. Now everyone was rushing. Matters of luggage and paperwork, taxis and passports needed to be taken care of.

Like the notes in the recesses of the Kotel stones, somewhere in the recesses of all these Jewish souls new stories are starting to be written at this very moment.

Making new Israeli memories.

That will become indelible.

Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

    Leave a Reply