TEL AVIV — At just after 7 a.m. on Aug. 17, their 10-hour ordeal of a flight finally concluded, 233 weary soon-to-be new citizens of Israel staggered off the El Al charter.
They couldn’t possibly have imagined what they were in for next.
As they walked down the makeshift steps to the Ben Gurion Airport tarmac, they were met by a phalanx of photographers, each trying to capture the moment.
After posing for pictures — including a group shot of the 75 young men and women who will be joining the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in three months following a crash indoctrination course — they boarded buses and proceeded to a hangar set aside for the occasion.
Then it became even more surreal.
As the buses approached the hangar, the music picked up and the celebration began. Loved ones, friends and basically anyone who wanted to come out at 7 a.m. to greet people they felt an immediate kinship to were there to welcome them. To hug them. To wave signs with individual and family names. To wave Israeli flags.
These olim weren’t just anybody, you see.
“I am not used to being treated like a celebrity, but that is the way the ceremonies made you feel,” David Leichter, who brought his wife, Tzippy, and their five children from Baltimore, said via email less than a week since their arrival. “You felt like you were doing something incredible. But for us, this was something that we were dreaming of for a long time. So it was strange and at the same time exhilarating to be treated like this.
“Our first week has been great! I find it amazing how kind and sympathetic Israelis can be once they learn that you’ve just made aliyah.”
They’re hardly alone among Baltimoreans.
Avidan and Ilana Milevsky also have moved their five children — three girls and two boys, ages 1 to 11 — to Eretz Yisrael, as have Menachem and Sara Lanner and their gang of five. Then there are those such as Jaqui Austen, Lily Ganse and Jacob Roshgadol, who’ll join the army once they get acclimated.
Since NBN started, we’ve doubled aliyot, and the retention rate is over 90 percent. that is our greatest testament. People are coming, and we’re helping them stay.
— Doreet Freedman, vice president of partnership and development at Nefesh B’Nefesh
They’ve all taken the plunge thanks to Nefesh B’Nefesh, the group that coordinates flights bringing hordes of like-minded Americans and a few Canadians to Israel twice a year.
What began as a startup out of a garage 14 years ago has evolved into an organization that provides invaluable service to those considering such a weighty decision. From the moment they inquire about making aliyah through the mounds of paperwork that have to be filled out prior to arrival and then the constant follow-up once they settle into their new home, NBN is there with advice, support and a sympathetic ear.
“I can’t image doing this without Nefesh B’Nefesh,” said Ilana Milevsky, a few days before she and her family headed to New York, where the sendoff at John F. Kennedy International Airport included Israel’s new Consul General in New York Dani Dayan. “They give a tremendous amount of support.
“They help with the documentation and also give proactive, emotional support reassuring us. They’ve been helping us out with everything from schools for the kids to health insurance. They cover so much, and instead of needing a month or two to take care of it, they’re doing it over days and weeks.”
That’s why it’s been so successful, the Aug. 16 trip being NBN’s 55th charter flight since its 2002 origin, encompassing more than 50,000 oleh.
“We were trying to reinvent the failing mechanism of immigration,” explained Doreet Freedman, NBN’s vice president of partnership and development and one of five charter members. “When we started off, of the 1,500 to 2,000 a year who made aliyah, about 60 percent returned to America.
“Since NBN started, we’ve doubled aliyot, and the retention rate is over 90 percent. That is our greatest testament. People are coming, and we’re helping them to stay,” he continued, noting that other sponsors include Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
But don’t try telling the 233 people being serenaded with love by some 1,800 adoring fans — among them Israeli President Reuven Rivlin — that they’re simply being used as good PR for the Jewish homeland.
We Feel This Is The Place All Jews Should Be. It’s The Best Place For Our Children. — Tzippy Leichter
No wonder so many of them, like the Leichters, truly believe the signs filling that hangar, the words Rivlin and others repeated like a mantra: They were coming “home.”
“It’s really been in my head for four years or so,” said University of Maryland, College Park graduate Roshgadol, 21, who hopes his degree in mechanical engineering will give him options with the IDF that enable him to avoid combat. “When I wanted to go then, I was already in Israel studying in the yeshiva in Jerusalem. What’s changed is now I go to the army coming in with a skill they want me to have. It’s a major incentive for them to take me.”
If nothing else, Roshgadol will be close to his older sisters, Ayelet and Liora, both of whom made aliyah a few years back. Not that he’ll get to see much of them right away, since the IDF immediately puts young men and women into a pre-training regimen on a kibbutz to prepare them for their induction.
“We’re part of [Tzofim] Garin Tzabar,” said Roshgadol, who indicated that the political climate in the U.S. had nothing to do with his decision to leave. “We go to different kibbutzim for three months before we go in the army.
“While I was over there over for the summer last year, I had an interview with one of the units. A long as I get security clearance, I can go into the unit. Garin Tzabar and Nefesh B’Nefesh take care of lot of bureaucracy needs. I just had to pick a date, go to the Israeli consulate and get a visa. They took care of all the arrangements.”
Doing it for yourself is one thing. Doing it for a family of seven is something else, which is why the Leichters originally backed out on their dream seven years ago.
“We went on pilot trip for 10 days to check out the communities and talk to people about what it would be like,” recalled David Leichter, a CPA whose business has evolved to the point he’s now confident he can make it work from both ends. “I went on some job interviews and visited a half-dozen communities and Jewish day schools.
“When we came home I said, ‘This is not going to happen.’ The salaries were well below what I was looking for, and we didn’t find a suitable community. It changed about a year ago. Things fell into place, and we decided this is a good time.”
So Leichter, his wife, sons Binyamin, 13, Noam, 11, and Avi, 4, daughter Nava, 8, and 4-week-old baby boy Shalom are settling into their new home.
“We are currently living in Ramat Beit Shemesh off of one of the main streets,” Lechter wrote. “We had no idea what the apartment looked like ahead of time or where it was located, but as it turns out, it is in the very best location that we could have hoped for.
“It’s right near the center of the city and very near the synagogues where we pray. The kids probably still feel as though they are on vacation, as they haven’t started school and haven’t had to ‘live’ here yet. So they’re in seventh heaven.”
In time they’ll understand why their parents made such a momentous decision.
“We feel this is the place all Jews should be,” said Tzippy Leichter, a teacher and speech therapist who met her husband when both were attending neighboring yeshivas in Manhattan. “It’s the best place for our children.
“There’s a connection. You really feel like you’re a part of the Jewish people when you’re there. You feel you’re where you’re supposed to be.”
Whatever their reason for coming, whether it’s to raise their family or serve in the army, they’re equally valued to Rivlin and the rest.
“For nearly 2,000 years the Jewish people have known exile,” a boisterous Rivlin told the new arrivals, which included 24 families, 78 children and representatives of 22 states. “For you, dear new olim, that exile that began then ends today.
“Welcome to Israel. Welcome to Zion. Welcome home.”
It remains be seen whether those making aliyah are truly home or just visiting for the time being.
But at least on this day for the Leichters, Milevskys and Lanners, along with Roshgadol, Austen and Ganse, their task is simple: Just live their lives.