Aliyah During Wartime

JERUSALEM — David and Helaine Brenner had a real Israeli welcome last week, as they prepared to leave Ben-Gurion International Airport to embark on their new lives as Israeli citizens. They ducked for cover and fled from an approaching rocket fired from the Gaza Strip.

Fresh off the special El Al flight chartered by Nefesh B’Nefesh that brought 228 new immigrants from North America to the Jewish state, the couple and their two young boys — who have spent the last several years living in Baltimore — were loading up the free cab provided by the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption when the air-raid siren’s high-pitched wail pierced the calm, morning air.

“Our kids didn’t even hear it,” Helaine Brenner, 45, said with a smile of her children, Lior, 13, and Tovia, 11. “We just ushered them to the shelter with everybody else and waited out the attack.”

The rocket, likely intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, came as part of a morning barrage July 22 that prompted the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States, responding to another rocket that exploded in the town of Yehud just one mile away, to ban all flights by American operators either arriving to or departing from Israel’s central airport for little more than a day.

But two days later, as she sat with her husband and children to receive their Israeli identity cards at a Nefesh B’Nefesh ceremony at Jerusalem’s international convention center, Brenner took the whole experience in stride.

“Our second siren was the next day when we were in the rental car planning to grab something to eat,” the preschool teacher at the former Yeshivat Rambam day school said. “We pulled over, walked into a shoe store, and the staff there helped us into the shelter.”

That Brenner, who until this week belonged to Suburban Orthodox Congregation, could rattle off such details so matter-of-factly, might have appeared remarkable were it not for the similar experiences of so many others on that Nefesh B’Nefesh flight, the organization’s 51st such charter. William and Tanya Mann, a mid-50s African-American couple who converted to Judaism before deciding to make aliyah, told of scurrying to shelter the minute they arrived in their new hometown of Beersheba in Israel’s south.

“There were two rockets, and we had maybe 45 seconds. We didn’t even make it” to the bunker, said William Mann, formerly of Riverdale, N.Y. “We heard the boom” of the Iron Dome missiles intercepting the weaponry.

Before they left New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport last week, members of the immigrant group acknowledged the risk of making aliyah during a time of war. But according to Nefesh B’Nefesh founder Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, not a single person chose to cancel or even delay his or her plans after Israel embarked on its Operation Protective Edge to stop attacks from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

The last time the private organization, which contracts with the Israeli government to coordinate all immigration from North America, brought a flight of immigrants during wartime was in 2006 during the second Lebanon war, said Fass. When the rockets from Gaza started falling, “we anticipated the extra jitters and that [the immigrants] would be bombarded [by family and friends] with extra questions, extra scrutiny; so proactively, we reached out to provide more strength and encouragement to them.”

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The Brenners didn’t feel any pressure to change their minds in the days and weeks leading up to their move, said David Brenner.

Making aliyah, he stressed, was a lifelong dream, one reinforced during the 14 years of his marriage. A layoff three years ago gave him the opportunity to go into business for himself, and a trip last summer to Jerusalem convinced him that he could continue his work from abroad.

“We made the firm decision about a year ago,” he related. “After that, everything fell into place.”

The family had no trouble selling their home, and a fortuitous connection pointed them in the direction of a rental home in Alon Shvut that was priced “exactly according to our budget,” said Helaine Brenner.

Divine providence, they both agreed, made everything possible, but it was their Zionist beliefs that provided the drive.

“Within our family, the reason [to move] is to leave a life for our children, [a life] we hope will have meaning,” said Helaine Brenner. “But well beyond that, we feel like the State of Israel is vital to the Jewish people, and we feel like it’s our present and it’s our future.”

Rabbi Shmuel Jablon similarly said he and his wife, Becky, moved their family from Philadelphia to Efrat for their five children, ages 8 months to 17 years, as much as to fulfill a lifelong dream.

“After so many years of us speaking Hebrew to the kids, we figured that 2,000 years of exile is enough,” said Jablon. “It’s time to come home.”

His 9-year-old son, Akiva, was less philosophical, saying that he was looking forward to the Little League baseball in Efrat — a community of more than 9,000 people in the Judean Mountains of the West Bank. But he looked up from his iPad game (also baseball) to admit that he was “very excited.”

His eldest sister, Leah, said that she saw in her family’s move a message to Jewish people everywhere.

“If there’s something holding them back” from making aliyah, “if they’re nervous about missing out on opportunities in America,” she said, “they should know that Israel really is the land of opportunities.”

Turning to the security situation, their father was defiant.

“We had no intention of giving Hamas a victory by delaying aliyah for even a day,” said the rabbi, an educator who used to work for Torah Academy in suburban Philadelphia. “It’s our land, our state, and we’re not changing our plans for terrorists.

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