At just after 7 a.m. on Aug. 17, their 10-hour ordeal of a flight finally concluded, 233 weary soon-to-be new citizens of Israel staggered off the El Al charter. They couldn’t possibly have imagined what they were in for next.
TEL AVIV — At just after 7 a.m. on Aug. 17, their 10-hour ordeal of a flight finally concluded, 233 weary soon-to-be new citizens of Israel staggered off the El Al charter.
They couldn’t possibly have imagined what they were in for next.
As they walked down the makeshift steps to the Ben Gurion Airport tarmac, they were met by a phalanx of photographers, each trying to capture the moment.
After posing for pictures — including a group shot of the 75 young men and women who will be joining the Israel Defense Forces in three months following a crash indoctrination course — they boarded buses and proceeded to a hangar set aside for the occasion.
Then it became even more surreal.
As the buses approached the hangar, the music picked up and the celebration began. Loved ones, friends and basically anyone who wanted to come out at 7 a.m. to greet people they felt an immediate kinship to were there to greet them. To hug them. To wave signs with individual and family names. To wave Israeli flags.
These olim weren’t just anybody, you see.
These boys, girls, men and women ranging in ages from 3-and-a-half weeks to 85 years old were telling them and the rest of the world, “This is where I want to be.”
“I don’t have a car in Israel, and I don’t know who my doctor is, but I think making aliyah might’ve been the easiest decision I’ve ever made,” said 20-year-old Maddy Schonberger of Bala Cynwyd, one of three suburban Philadelphians joining the IDF, along with 23-year-old Lawrence Berk-owitz of Merion Station and 22-year-old Batya Weiss of Wynnewood. “I have never been more sure of something.
“You hear about people following their dreams — which means not necessarily conforming and going to college for two years. It was one of those moments where I said to myself, ‘If I know what I want to be doing, why aren’t I doing it?’”
So she’s taken the plunge, just like the others.
And they’ve all done so thanks to Nefesh B’Nefesh, the group that coordinates flights bringing hordes of like-minded Americans and a few Canadians to the Jewish state each year.
What began as a startup out of a garage 14 years ago has evolved into an organization that provides invaluable service to those considering such a weighty decision. From the moment they inquire about making aliyah, through the mounds of paperwork that have to be filled out prior to arrival and then the constant follow-up once they settle into their new home, NBN is there with advice, support and a sympathetic ear.
“We were trying to reinvent the failing mechanism of immigration,” explained Doreet Freedman, NBN’s vice president of partnership and development and one of five charter members who has been around for what has reached 55 flights encompassing more than 50,000 new Israelis. “When we started off, of the 1,500 to 2,000 a year who made aliyah, about 60 percent returned to America.
“Since NBN started, we’ve doubled aliyot, and the retention rate is over 90 percent. That is our greatest testament. People are coming, and we’re helping them to stay,” she said, noting that the project’s partners include Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
You can debate the numbers, since it’s hard to get 9 out of 10 people to agree on anything. But don’t try telling the 233 people serenaded with love by some 1,800 adoring fans that morning — among them Israel President Reuven Rivlin — they’re being displayed as an opportunity for the Jewish homeland to show off its appeal.
“I really wanted to enlist when I was 18, but it wasn’t the right time — for many reasons,” said Weiss, a recent grad from Yeshiva University who attended Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia for high school. “I told my parents, ‘I’ll go to college first and get a degree, and if I still want to go after that, I’ll go.’
“Now that’s where I’m at. I majored in mathematical economics in college, but there’s a lot of options in the army, so I’m not sure what I’d like to do. If I could incorporate math, there’s a lot of teaching opportunities. I could also teach in the air force. Who knows?
“I don’t know what my life’s going to be. The biggest things I’m giving up are my friends and family. Not really giving up. I just won’t be there.”
At least Berkowitz will be close to his 26-year-old sister, Aliza, who lives in Beersheba. Not that he’ll get to see much of her right away; the IDF immediately puts some young men like him into a pre-training regimen on a kibbutz to prepare them for their induction.
“I’m with a program called [Tzofim] Garin Tzabar,” said Berkowitz, a recent University of Maryland graduate with a degree in psychology. “For people interested in joining the army with a collected mindset to live in Israel, they put us in a kibbutz to live.
“My garin had already met four times since January. I graduated early from college and had some time off to do some thinking before entering the working world.
“I decided I didn’t want to enter it. I wanted to do something. I was debating joining the American army. My family said, ‘Maybe you should consider the Israeli army?’ I thought about it, and with current events happening like they’ve been and things getting worse, it became clear to me my services would be more useful to them there than home.”
Berkowitz plans to go into a combat unit, like most young men. Weiss and Schonberger, though, say they’ll likely try something else, which should at least ease their parents’ worst fears.
“It’s because there aren’t as many roles for women, and what they do have isn’t as exciting as the other roles,” explained Schonberger, whose love of Judaism and Israel came about through the 13 years she spent at Camp Pinemere in the Poconos. “It’s not like they’re saying we can’t do it.
“Women are still going into combat. There’s nothing stopping them. Maybe we come up with it ourselves.”
“Typically, the boys in Garin Tzabar are going into combat,” Weiss added.
“It’s not as expected I’d go into combat. I could if I wanted, but there are other jobs just as valued.”
Whatever they choose, however their time in the military is served, they’re all just as valued to President Rivlin and the rest of their new countrymen.
“For nearly 2,000 years, the Jewish people have known exile,” a boisterous Rivlin told the group, which included 24 families, 78 children and representatives of 22 states. “For you, dear new olim, that exile that began then ends today.
“Welcome to Israel. Welcome to Zion. Welcome home.”
It remains be seen whether those making aliyah are truly “home” or will eventually return back to the States. But on this day for young idealists like Maddy Schonberger, Batya Weiss and Lawrence Berkowitz, there was no doubt.
“It starts the same way for everyone,” said Schonberger, who made her first trip to Israel at 15 and has come back regularly since then. “It’s a little romanticized, and you’re just filled with a blind love because there’s an oasis in the Middle East just for Jewish people.
“When you leave America you’re giving up the predictable, a plan. When you go to Israel I don’t think you can have a plan anymore. You have to roll with the punches. But I don’t need to make that decision right now.”
No, all she — all any of them need do — is just live their lives. Today it’s in Israel, the latest of 50,000 to make that commitment since Nefesh B’Nefesh was created in 2002.
As for tomorrow, well, that will just have to take care of itself,
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