Airports are odd places — all at once grimy and antiseptic, charmless and exciting, hectic and boring. They are witness to beginnings and endings, joy and grief, tears of happiness, tears of sorrow. Emotion and logistics battle for priority. There is bad food and — well, no. There is bad food and more bad food.
Although no one makes aliyah on a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight— or to put that in English, no one moves to Israel to set up a new life there on a flight chartered by the Israeli nonprofit agency called Nefesh B’Nefesh — without having done a huge amount of preparation, it’s at the airport, as new immigrants prepare to board the plane for a new life, that emotions surface publicly.
Last week, I found myself in a roped-off section of a departure terminal at JFK Airport in Queens, listening to speeches and watching the faces of the new immigrants — the olim, as they’re called, people who are ascending to Israel — as they prepare to say goodbye to their old lives, in the very physical form of their relatives, right there next to them, and move on to their new ones.
It’s impossible to know exactly what another person is feeling, but it is possible to know what his or her external experiences are. I went to Israel with the Nefesh B’Nefesh charter that took off on Tuesday, August 22, and landed early on Wednesday morning. Twenty-four new olim from our coverage area were among the 233 changing their lives that day, and I got to watch as they took those huge, terrifying, glorious steps.
Another unavoidable truth about airports is that they involve lots of snaking lines, huge amounts of hurry-up-and-wait, and a fair amount of uncertainty. (Is this the right line? Really? I know that it seems to be, but what if I’m wrong? Should I go there instead? And is that other line moving faster than this one? Not fairrrrrr!!!!!)
We were told to get to the airport at 9:30 in the morning. Maybe because it was mid-August, traffic was far less awful than expected. There already were long lines of olim, waiting to be interviewed by the El Al security screener and then hand over their luggage. The mood seemed tense but upbeat. It was early. The dream was close.
After the luggage was checked in, everyone was invited downstairs for a ceremony, which originally had been called for 10 but started at around 11 o’clock. The speakers included both the founders of Nefesh B’Nefesh, Tony Gelbart, now its chairman, and Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, its executive director, as well as Israel’s consul general in New York, Danny Dayan. They all were appropriately inspirational and high-minded; all were interrupted at regular intervals by airport announcements. (“Welcome to Terminal Eight! Be sure to have your bags with you at all times…”)
Emotion ran high in that crowded section of the vast terminal, although it wasn’t the speakers who were eliciting it. There would have been no need for them to have done that, had they wanted to. Here, young people about to join the IDF sat with their parents, who were about to say goodbye to them and let them go by themselves to face possible danger. Here, young parents with their babies and toddlers sat with their own parents, preparing to part.
As it turned out, Rabbi Shmuel Goldin of Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood was among the parents saying goodbye to their children. Shmuel and Barbara Goldin have five children — four sons and a daughter — and on Tuesday their third son, Yehuda, and his family were about to make aliyah.
Rabbi Goldin is not typical of the parents at the airport, I realized quickly. His second son, Yossi, and his wife, Shifra Cooper Goldin, who grew up in Teaneck, made aliyah a few years ago, and all the Goldins will be together in Israel this week, when they convene for a family wedding. Also, Shmuel and Barbara Goldin plan to make aliyah themselves once he retires from his pulpit, “so our emotion was somewhat muted,” he said. “We knew we’d see them very soon. A lot of other people saying goodbye to their kids don’t know when they’ll see them again.”
Even given his own situation, Rabbi Goldin said, “what I knew but didn’t necessarily expect to feel, because you get so caught up in the logistics, in the details, but Nefesh B’Nefesh gives you a chance to feel — it allows you to take a step back and realize what you’re doing. That you’re able to have the opportunity to go back and live in our land. That everyone making aliyah is making the journey that so many of our forefathers prayed to be able to do. They’re taking the historic step back to our land, which we were forced to leave so many years ago.
“And to have it happen only two days after Tisha B’Av,” the fast day that commemorates many of the multitude of sorrows that have engulfed the Jewish people, and fell this year on August 13. “Nefesh B’Nefesh allows you to do that.”
He pointed out something that I’d noticed — the huge range of people making aliyah. The youngest baby on the flight was less than a month old, and the oldest adult was 85. There were men in black hats and women in sheitels, men in kippot and women in long skirts, there were women in jeans and men in T-shirts, men and women in IDF shirts, and men and women with tattoos. (Okay, not many of them, but significantly more than none.) They came from 25 of the 50 American states, from as far away from JFK as Arizona and Texas. “It’s a vast array,” Rabbi Goldin said. “Everyone has a place in Israel. That’s the Jewish state.”
Once the talks were over, finally it was time to go. There were sniffles. There were tears running down cheeks, and there were suspiciously bright eyes. There were goodbyes.
But wait! Not quite. There was another line, as we waited for doors to open. More red eyes. More sniffles. More looking at watches. More deep emotion, often making it impossible for anyone to say very much at all.
Then the doors opened, people said final goodbyes, and those of us going on the plane got on another very long line.
Many lines later, we all got on the plane, and it took off, rising high above the clouds, and for 11 hours we sat in that metal cylinder, in that weird timelessness of air travel, knowing that we were hurtling over the ocean and then the Mediterranean, across countries and continents and time zones, but feeling nothing other than the occasional bump.
During the trip, I talked to some of the local olim.
Amit Vogel, 17, of Ridgewood, wore an IDF T-shirt, signaling her intent to join the Israel Defense Forces. She’s just graduated from high school, she said, and is making aliyah because “I have always wanted to give to Israel. I knew since I was in about third grade that I wanted to go to the army, that I wanted to contribute something.
“I thought that this was the right time. And my parents support me.”
Her parents, Talia and Ayal, both were born in Israel; her mother is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. Amit is the middle child; her little brother, who is 11, is in middle school, but her sister, 19, will make aliyah next week. “We’re not doing this together because the logistics didn’t allow it,” Amit said. She has many cousins in Israel, and she grew up speaking Hebrew.
Despite those cousins, because she has no first-degree relatives in Israel, she will be considered a lone soldier, Amit added, and she’s looking forward to the support she will get.
Her ties to the Jewish people do not stress religion, she said. “We celebrate the holidays, but I don’t identify with any movement,” she said. But “my sense of connection with the people is very strong.”
After the army, Amit plans on going to college — she doesn’t know where — and after that maybe she’ll become a social worker. “I like helping people,” she said. But for now, she’s keeping her options open. “When I get there, I’ll figure it out.”
Ian Griggs, 39, grew up in Montvale and made aliyah from Fort Lee. He’s worked in television and social media and as a marketer and screenwriter; he’s self-deprecating and funny, and ready for something new.
He grew up as a member of Temple Emanuel in Woodcliff Lake but was not particularly observant. As the oldest sibling in a family of four, he felt protective of his younger brothers and sister; “your role as a big brother is to keep everyone safe and happy,” he said. So when his sister Alison, “a spiritual person,” became more and more Jewishly observant, it piqued Ian’s interest. He became more observant too. (But no, he said, the very hipster-style fedora he was sporting was not a religious statement, just a sartorial one.)
Soon Alison, by then married and very observant, had moved to Israel, and Ian visited her there often. “I would go at least once a year, often more, and every time it became harder to leave my three nephews,” he said. Gradually, the idea that he too should move to Israel grew. “I will do ulpan for five months” to learn Hebrew, he said. “And then I’ll look for work.” He has many connections, including some to the Knicks — he’s a “diehard supporter,” he said, and the chance of working for the team somehow “is not unrealistic.” And if that doesn’t work out, he said, something else will.
“My parents are kind of sad to see me go, but they realize that it’s the right move for me,” he said. And if he meets someone, falls in love, and marries — that wouldn’t displease anyone in his family. Particularly him.
Next, I talked to two local families. Yonatan and Yael Orlinsky lived in Bergenfield until Tuesday; Yonatan grew up in Teaneck, and his parents, Mindy and Hendry, and his brother, Judah, and his family live there still.
But Yonatan, Yael, and their three boys — one is 7 years old, one is 4, and the baby is 18 months — are making aliyah. Yael is a nurse practitioner, and Yonatan is a lawyer who specializes in international law and has a job waiting for him at Greenberg Traurig, a small office that’s part of a huge international Miami-based firm. Yael doesn’t have a job yet, and plans to spend some time settling her children into their new lives before she looks for one, but because the idea of nurse practitioners is new to Israel, she’s excited about the opportunity. “She can help a new field grow,” Yonatan said.
The family is making aliyah because “it was our dream to live in Israel,” he said. “We talked about it when we were dating, and kept on talking about it when we got married. Israel is a miracle, and we have the opportunity to live there — an opportunity Jews didn’t have for 2,000 years.
“We see how the Jewish community in Teaneck has flourished, and now we have the chance to contribute to the flowering of our homeland.”
Avi and Yael Pinsky lived in Teaneck with their daughters — the older one is 3 1/2 and the younger one is 1 ½ — until Tuesday. “Even when I was single, this was my dream,” Yael said. “This is our land. I want to be able to raise our kids with our values.”
Yael grew up in Teaneck, and her parents, Rachel and Yitzhak Furst, still live there. “My parents are supportive of us,” she said. “Hopefully, in their retirement, they will make aliyah too. Avi’s an accountant, and he has a job lined up; Yael, a teacher who worked at Yeshivat Noam and Ben Porat Yosef, will wait “and see where aliyah takes us” before she decides to look for work outside the home. She’s fluent in Hebrew; Avi’s okay, they said, but he “has a learning curve,” they agreed.
The plane, full of children and young adults and emotion and excitement, is oddly quiet. At one point, the men gather to daven. The young people in the shirts that say Olim l’Tzahal — marking them as immigrants who are about to join the IDF — talk and flirt and laugh.
And then there are announcements, and the olim put on the hats and bracelets that mark them as new Israelis, and then we start descending through the fluffy whiteness that our brains tell us are clouds but our senses say are magic palaces, and then, finally, we land.
As we wait to get off the plane, the IDF contingent sings “Od Yavo Shalom Aleinu,” the stirring ode to peace, and then they walk off at the head of the queue, some of them wrapped in Israeli flags, many of them kneeling to kiss the oil-pocked tarmac.
Once everyone is organized into buses, we are taken to a large hangar for, surprise, another ceremony. But first there is loud, live music — the musicians are on the stage inside, and their music is broadcast outside too. There are hordes of people waiting to meet the new immigrants, and everyone is shrieking, hugging, kissing, crying, dancing. The emotion is so explosive that you think that if someone were to light a match, it would go boom.
But it doesn’t feel the way it did in New York. There it was nerves, anticipation, edginess, the need to say goodbye, to move on, to move. Here, in Ben-Gurion, it’s more pure. It’s excitement. It’s joy. It’s even to some extent disbelief. They’ve waited for so very long. Can this possibly be real? Well, yes. It is!
The ceremony was streamed live, and parents watched. “That night, Barbara and I watched them coming off the plane,” Rabbi Goldin said. “On the one hand, yes, reality will hit tomorrow, but on the other hand, this is not unrealistic. This is also reality. No one will be singing and dancing all the time — if you do, you won’t succeed — but if you don’t ever sing and dance — if you lose sight of the higher dimension of what you’ve just done — you also won’t succeed.
“Nefesh B’Nefesh allows us to do both.”
The ceremony featured many dignitaries, including Israel’s grandfatherly president, Reuven Rivlin. As they had in New York, everyone who spoke thanked everyone else. After a while, attention wandered.
There was a theme, though, that permeated all the talks, on both sides of the trip. “You’re coming home,” everyone said. “Welcome home.”
How can that be? Is there any need to denigrate the places people had lived, where they had grown up, where many of their families still lived?
Oh no, Abby Leichman, a longtime Jewish Standard correspondent who made aliyah with Nefesh B’Nefesh nine years ago and now lives in Ma’ale Adumim with her husband, Steve, said. Oh no. That’s not at all what they’re saying.
“When they said we were coming home, I heard home with a capital H,” Abby said. “That we were coming Home.” Her real homes had been in Yonkers, where she grew up, and then in Teaneck, where she lived for many years, she said. Now Ma’ale Adumim really is home, but that took a long time. But it was Home right away.
When she and Steve landed, in 2007, “we were the first off the bus from the plane, and we saw the line of female soldiers waving flags, and then the music — a brass band — started to play,” she said. “It was a stark contrast to the stories my paternal grandparents told me about how they felt when they got off the boat at Ellis Island, when they emigrated from Hungary. That was very scary” — officials looked for reasons to turn immigrants away, she said. But she, like the other immigrants, were welcomed with love, and literally with open arms — everyone just wanted to hug her.
Nefesh B’Nefesh’s 50,000th oleh walked off the plane on Wednesday. The flight included 75 IDF enlistees, 10 medical professionals, and representatives of a wide range of other professions. Nefesh B’Nefesh — which does not work in a vacuum, but with help from a range of governmental and semi-governmental organizations, including Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel, JNF-USA, and Tzofim-Garin Tzabar — will continue to help everyone on the plane settle into a new life in Israel, providing help in finding jobs, housing, and other kinds of support.
When I came home from Jerusalem, where I stayed for a few days, I flew on a regular commercial flight. Like the charter flight, it was El Al; it involved lines, waits, odd bumps, cloud palaces, bathroom lines, food provided at inexplicable times and unavailable at others, and background claustrophobia. But it did not include the nearly palpable hopes and dreams and fears and yearnings of a planeful of people.