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Area olim touch down in Israel

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Cheering crowds welcome to Israel 238 new immigrants from a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight on Aug. 3.

More than 400 people from Bergen, Hudson, and Passaic counties made aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh this summer, as the organization approached what its cofounder and executive director calls “a tipping point” in North American aliyah.

“Aliyah is no longer on the back burner, it’s discussed openly,” Rabbi Yehoshua Fass said during an Aug. 3 charter flight from Newark’s Liberty International Airport carrying 238 new immigrants. “There’s been a dynamic shift.”

Since the founding of Nefesh B’Nefesh in 2002, the organization has facilitated the journeys of more than 20,000 new olim. Three thousand were expected to move to Israel this summer – a final trip is scheduled for Tuesday. Within the next few years, Fass expects, the annual number of North American olim will approach at least 6,000 a year.

Among those making aliyah on Aug. 3 were doctors, electricians, musicians, and writers. Thirty-six families, with children as young as 3 months, boarded the plane, along with 63 people making the voyage on their own. And the family pets could not be left behind; four dogs and three cats will now have to learn Hebrew commands.

Many were moving for ideological reasons, Fass said, whether they were religious, Zionist, or simply wanted to play a role in developing Israel.

“It’s the package that this is where I want to raise my family, this is where I belong,” he said.

Pre-flight

Paul Serkin of Teaneck was one of those going solo. With his children grown, the divorcee decided that the time was finally right to make a journey he had first thought about in 1977 when he spent a year studying at an Israeli yeshiva.

His oldest daughter, Tova, lives in Herzliya with her husband, Yair Yehuda. Serkin will stay with them until he finds work and a place to live. Instead of dissuading him, the uncertainties have only encouraged his decision.

“It was time,” said the 51-year-old while waiting for the Nefesh B’Nefesh departure ceremony to begin in Newark. “I realized each year I wait it’ll be harder to find a job. The economy here being what it was, I was ready to change positions and decided instead of looking for a job in America, I’ll look for a job in Israel.”

Serkin’s younger daughter, Devorah, plans to make aliyah later this month, while his son, Yosef, is employed with the New York Police Department, but thinking of aliyah within a few years.

“I always felt it was a place where Jews belonged,” Serkin said. “I felt at home and comfortable. I’m ready to return to that.”

Fass told The Jewish Standard that Sept. 11 caused a shift in thinking among potential olim worried about Israel’s security. No longer did they see terrorism occurring only in Israel. Serkin agreed about the security situation and appeared confident that while it may be a concern for his friends in America, he does not share their worry.

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Amy and Simon Solnica of Bergenfield and their children were among 414 new olim this summer from Bergen, Hudson, and Passaic counties.

“People say to me today, ‘Aren’t you scared, with everything that’s going on?’ I remind them that 3,000 people were killed in New York in one moment and that’s never happened in Israel,” Serkin said. “I feel safer in Israel than I do in New York. It always seems to be the right place to be.”

Twenty-year-old Adam Bachner of Teaneck first visited Israel when he was 14. He spent a week and a half in Italy and then two weeks in the Jewish state. He got “sucked into the whole Israel thing,” he said. He didn’t grow up particularly Zionist or with a strong interest in religion. His parents had honeymooned in Israel but not been there since then, while his older sister Lauren had gone on Birthright. He spent a few years in public school before transferring to the now-defunct Metropolitan Schechter High School in Teaneck. His class took its senior trip to Israel and that, he said, “struck a nerve.”

After graduation he spent a year in Israel. One day he sent a text message to his mother that everything was OK but she should call him.

Upon reading the message, Hildy Bachner told her husband Larry that she knew her son wanted to stay in Israel.

Speaking a few days before the flight, Bachner’s mother said she was nervous about her son leaving but knew it would be a good experience for him. As for his plans to join the Israel Defense Forces upon his arrival, Bachner said her son is “doing the right thing.

“I think more Americans should do it,” she said. “If you want to say, ‘I’m a Jew and Israel is my country,’ you should be willing to send your children to fight for and protect your country. When you go to Israel and it’s safe, it’s because your kids made it that way.”

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Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, cofounder and executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh, says North American aliyah is at “a tipping point” and may soon reach 6,000-8,000 olim a year. Photos by josh lipowsky

“It’s a completely life-altering decision but it’s a good one,” Adam Bachner said during a phone interview a week before the flight.

Safety is also a concern for Bachner, but not one he is dwelling on.

“I have just as big a chance of surviving as any of the Israelis who are required to go” into the army, Bachner said. “That’s what keeps me together. I’m not the only one doing this.”

Bachner and 54 other young men and women on the flight planned to head to the IDF. Nefesh B’Nefesh coordinated with Garin Tzabar, a division of the Friends of Israel Scouts, to prepare the future soldiers of the Jewish state. The organization sends olim intent on army service to a kibbutz for almost four months for intensive Hebrew study and bonding – with each other and with their new country.

The program “makes a family out of them,” said Michael Atir, director of Garin Tzabar, at Newark Airport.

“Eventually they’re going to get to the army but as Israelis,” Atir said.

In the air

On the plane the reality of what Bachner is doing has set in.

“I had cold feet but I weighed out the good in what I’m doing and the bad in what I’m doing,” he said. “There’s a lot more good than bad. There wasn’t anything holding me back.”

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greets the new olim at Ben-Gurion Airport, telling them they are helping to change the country.

Bachner realizes that as a soldier he may be ordered to evacuate Jews from the west bank under a future peace deal. That, he said, is likely to be his hardest task, but he will follow the orders he is given.

“That’s not what the Tzahal was established for,” he said, “but at the same time they’re doing what’s best for Israel. You can’t think about one family or one person at a time. You have to think about the whole of Israel.

“It’s hard but that’s why I’m here – to help Israel.”

Garin Tzabar has provided Bachner with a “support system,” which he said is already making the transition easier for him and the other lone soldiers on the plane.

“It gives us a place to live. It gives us an adopted family on our kibbutz. It gives us a group of friends,” he said. “It’s a second family while we’re away.”

Though he has his Israeli surrogate family, he does not yet feel like an Israeli. That will take time, he said, and something more than just relationships.

“I’m not going to consider myself Israeli until I’m in the army,” he said. “I’m not going to feel any sense of fulfillment or achievement until I accomplish what I set out to do. I have nothing to be proud of yet.”

Simon and Amy Solnica of Bergenfield had thought about aliyah before but family issues had prevented them from making the trip. As their four children kept themselves entertained on the plane, Simon Solnica explained the family’s dedication to their new lives.

“We’ve always wanted to make aliyah,” he said. “[But] I was in school, my wife was in school, family members were sick…. We weren’t able to do it.”

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Adam Bachner of Teaneck and 54 others on the flight will spend the next four months with Garin Tzabar, a division of Israel Scouts, preparing for service in the Israel Defense Forces.

When the family returned from their pilot trip, they were in tears, he said. The kids asked if they were actually going to go through with the trip and the Solnicas made their decision.

“It’s the biggest gift we can give to our children,” said Amy Solnica, “but yet there’s such a big commitment and big decision we doubted whether it was the right time or whether we could do it successfully.”

Trained as an educational psychologist, Simon Solnica hopes to find work in his field in Bet Shemesh, where the family is moving.

“I’m excited,” said 11-year-old Batya Solnica. “It’s also a little bit scary. I’m not going to know people. I don’t know so much Hebrew.”

Others on the plane expressed similar doubts but placed their faith in God leading them through the challenges.

“We think it’s going to be the best way for us to serve HaShem,” said Shmuel Rothenberg of Passaic. “We realized that really nothing that we do in this world is in our control anyway, it’s all coming from above. It’s best to be in a place where we can feel that more tangibly and be able to serve HaShem in the best possible way.

With five children, Shmuel and Menucha Rothenberg are worried about the challenges of adapting to their new home in Bet Shemesh, especially when finding work – Shmuel Rothenberg manages technology projects and his wife is a school administrator – but said their faith reassures them.

“These are all gifts every day,” Shmuel Rothenberg said. “It’s all a question of living with that and understanding where everything is coming from. It’s no different whether we live here or somewhere else, it’s the same reality.”

‘Bruchim habaim habayita’

After more than 10 hours, the plane set down in Tel Aviv and the new citizens deplaned near Ben-Gurion Airport’s old Terminal 1, where they were greeted by friends, family, soldiers, and politicians, all cheering, waving banners, and dancing.

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Paul Serkin of Teaneck will stay with his daughter and son-in-law in Herzliya upon his arrival.

Greeting the newcomers inside was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who echoed Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Fass.

“We’re very close to a tipping point,” he said. “I think all of you are going to be part of it and witness it. For the first time in 2,000 years there are going to be more Jews inside of Israel than Jews outside of Israel. This has been a long time coming.”

Netanyahu continued to praise the contributions of Western olim and the impact they can have on Israel.

“You bring in a professionalism, a dedication to work and to excellence, an antipathy – this I like – an antipathy to bureaucracy. We want to change this country,” he said. “We want it to make it at once not only the realization of the dreams of the past but a beacon to the future. This will be the most advanced country in the world. It already is in some areas but we can make it excellent in all areas and you’re part of that, an important part of that.”

“Bruchim habaim,” he said, using the Hebrew phrase for welcome. “Bruchim habaim habayita.” Welcome home.

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