Aleeza Ben Shalom understands that this is going to sound a little bit out there. But there’s simply no way around it: The pandemic, in spite of all its horrors, helped bring “a gift from God” to her family.
“If there was no pandemic,” said Ben Shalom, “we wouldn’t be making aliyah.”
Ben Shalom, 43, has felt pulled toward the Holy Land since she visited as a teenager. In spite of some detours and missed turns, she’ll finally arrive in Pardes Hanna for good in early February, where she and her husband, along with three of their children and their puppy, will reunite with their two oldest, sent as a sort of advance party.
Making aliyah during the pandemic has some cosmetic differences from the typical journey. There’s no cheering section to greet you when you arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport, and your first two weeks, if not more, will be spent holed up in your new home. But the end result is the same.
For Ben Shalom, the United States has become a sort of desert — she no longer believes it’s the right place for Jews. As much as she’ll miss her family and friends, she’s looking forward to the end of her wandering.
“I want to go, and I want to be there and I want our children to be there, and I want our grandchildren to be there,” Ben Shalom said.
Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that facilitates immigration to Israel by North Americans in conjunction with The Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and JNF-USA, said that Israel could expect 90,000 olim by the end of 2021, compared to just 35,463 in 2019, JTA reported in June. Nefesh B’Nefesh received more than 900 applications in the first half of June alone.
Candice Nemoff is doing remote, part-time sales marketing in Netanya; she’d worked at Congregation Rodeph Shalom for the six years prior, a locale with decidedly less beach-front property. Nemoff, 29, had harbored dreams of aliyah for a long time, and a Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia partnership trip last July finally convinced her that it was where she wanted to be.
Though the process remained “fairly straightforward,” Nemoff said, there were complications to an immigration journey that began in February. It’s not easy to coordinate registration for language classes when the country you’re attempting to immigrate to is on lockdown. When she finally did arrive in September, subsequently quarantining for two weeks, Nemoff had one of her first only-in-Israel experiences as a resident: Her ability to obtain, fill out and return some key forms was hampered by office closures for Rosh Hashanah.
“So basically, for the first month, I couldn’t do anything,” Nemoff said. When the clouds of the pandemic finally break, she’s looking forward to diving headfirst into Netanya’s arts community.
Making aliyah was Deenah Wasserman’s guiding light through medical school and residency, and through her time as a doctor working at a Camden, New Jersey, hospital. Through thick and thin, Wasserman, 29, kept her future home in mind. She had August set as her time to pack up and go for years and, even when March made it appear as if August was going to be impossible, she went “full speed ahead” anyway, as she put it.
“I honestly didn’t really have a backup plan,” she said with a laugh.
Wasserman arrived in Israel on her own, dragging all of her luggage around by herself, but when she finally made it to Ashdod, she was joining the country that her brother’s family had moved to last year.
As Wasserman understands it, the difficulty of her aliyah experience was simply a metaphor for the purpose of aliyah. The entire process, she said, much like Israel, is not a fairytale, and she didn’t expect it to be.
“But I think that if you’re coming for the right reasons,” said Wasserman, “and this is what you want to do, that’s the way you kind of get through all the annoyances of everything else.”
Ben Shalom still has a lot of loose ends to tie up before she and her family make their move in the spring. She’s a matchmaker, and she’ll bring that venture to their new home, but her husband, Gershon Ben Shalom, will sell his blinds and draperies business. She’s also got a home in Bala Cynwyd to sell. But the plan she made with her husband back when they were dating — that they would make aliyah one day — is finally, truly happening.
“We have a new adventure waiting for us,” she said.
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