You’ve heard of the Welcome Wagon? Well, two guys raised in Teaneck took that idea to new heights when they arranged a parade and picnic on August 18 to welcome new immigrants to their new hometown — Moreshet, a Lower Galilee village of about 300 families.
Some 70 Moreshet residents turned out to escort Shari and Phil Reiss and their children into the town, singing, dancing, and waving Israeli flags. Local teenagers unloaded their luggage from the taxi and brought it into their new home.
“I thought it would be nice, since this was only the second time a family made aliyah directly to Moreshet, to greet them as you would a new sefer Torah,” Ezra Gilbert explained. “I wanted to make it really significant for the family and also for the community, because Israelis always wonder why Western immigrants are coming. This makes them realize that the way they welcome olim” — immigrants — “can affect whether those olim are successful or not and whether more olim will come.”
Mr. Gilbert and his wife, Roni, made aliyah to the central city of Modi’in seven years ago. When they moved to Moreshet in March 2011, they became involved in civic affairs and in the close-knit group of English-speaking residents. A few months later, Mr. Gilbert’s childhood friend Avi Mandelbaum moved in across the street with his wife, Michal, and kids, making history as the first family to come off a Nefesh B’Nefesh plane and settle in Moreshet without any stops in between.
“Avi and I were in Cub Scouts together — Pack 223 from Congregation Beth Aaron,” Mr. Gilbert said. “My mom was the den mother, and we met in our basement. Our parents go to the same shul, Shaare Tefillah, and are longtime friends. Avi and I lost touch for 20 years and re-met in Highland Park, disconnected when we made aliyah in 2008, and reconnected when they made aliyah and coincidentally moved to Moreshet.”
Like good Scouts, Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Mandelbaum prepared well for the Reiss family’s arrival, delegating the many tasks involved in the picnic and arranging for necessities to be in place in the newcomers’ rented house when they got there.
“Michal and I have more beds than we need, so we brought them over and assembled them,” Mr. Mandelbaum said. “We noticed there was no refrigerator in the house, so we sent an email to our local list and someone responded that they had a full-size fridge we could take. Ezra and I went to get it one night, and ran into two other neighbors who helped us roll the fridge across the yard and into the house.”
Four folding chairs that the Gilberts gave the Mandelbaums when they moved in are now with the Reisses. Someone brought fruits and vegetables, someone else brought disposable tableware, and another neighbor organized meals to be brought over for two weeks. Michal Mandelbaum sent out a Google spreadsheet so people could sign up to participate in the parade and picnic.
“It really is a very cohesive community, that has an unusually high number of people who all they want to do is help,” Mr. Mandelbaum said.
Shari Reiss — whose mother, Ellen Chazan, lives in Teaneck — and her husband were bowled over by the reception they received as Moreshet’s 19th English-speaking family. “We are very grateful,” Phil Reiss said. “Moreshet is a small, close-knit, very warm religious community. For children, life revolves around outdoor play, a major plus for our three energetic young ones.”
Mr. Gilbert, who knew the Reisses casually from Highland Park, bumped into Mr. Reiss in the airport last January. Mr. Gilbert was going to his sister’s wedding in the States, while Mr. Reiss had just arrived in Israel to seek work in his field, statistics in neuroscience and psychiatric research.
Mr. Reiss said he was going to meet with Professor Benjamin Reiser of the University of Haifa’s department of statistics. Dr. Reiser lives in Moreshet. “I said, ‘You’re kidding! I live in Moreshet!’” Mr. Gilbert related.
They stayed in touch, and when the Reisses expressed an interest in housing in Moreshet, Mr. Gilbert scouted out options and sent them pictures of available rentals via WhatsApp. He signed the contract for them and fronted the security deposit.
Mr. Gilbert stresses that he sees himself not as a cheerleader for Moreshet but as a cheerleader for aliyah from the West. “I look at Moreshet as a good example of what’s possible,” he said. “When my friends and family come to visit and see the life we’ve made here, they do a double take and say, ‘Hey, I can do this’ or ‘I can relate to this,’ because it’s similar to an American suburb, with a nice house and community.”
Oddly enough, he and Mr. Mandelbaum were not the first former Teaneck residents to move in. Attorney Haim Gelfand holds that distinction. His parents and the Mandelbaums were neighbors in Teaneck in the 1980s, and Avi’s mother Naomi succeeded Haim’s mother Elyse as the PTA president at the Yeshiva of North Jersey. Mr. Gelfand even organized a parade for new olim to Moreshet six years ago, a fact Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Mandelbaum did not discover until after they had set their own plans in motion.
The entire Gilbert and Mandelbaum clans — each has four children and is expecting a fifth — went to the airport at 5 in the morning on August 18 to greet the Reisses. Nefesh B’Nefesh founder and executive director Rabbi Yehoshua Fass wrote to Mr. Gilbert that evening: “I couldn’t let the day end without again expressing how moved we all were with the welcome you showered on the Reiss family. I just watched the video again with all my kids and shared with them the ultimate mitzvah of hachnasat orchim,” welcoming guests.
“All of the olim who live here were helped in some fashion by others and have a strong desire to ‘pay it forward’ and help others as they were helped and to inspire the Reisses, once they are settled, to do the same,” Mr. Gilbert said.