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It was 7:30 in the morning on Tuesday, Aug. 14 when El Al flight 3004 out of New York touched down on a remote tarmac on the outer edges of Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport. Not a moment too soon for the planeload of passengers who had spent the previous ten hours schmoozing in the aircraft’s cramped aisles, catching a catnap here and there and dining on airline cuisine. No sooner did the plane’s doors swing open then they came bounding down the portable metal staircase.
A few minutes later, the group of more than 350 boarded busses for a short ride to what looked like an abandoned terminal, filled with family and friends…and a full-blown party. Finally, to much fanfare, in walked the Prime Minister himself. Mounting the podium, Bibi Netanyahu addressed the crowd in both Hebrew and English. “B’ruchim ha’ba-im ha’bayta,” he began. “Welcome to Israel; welcome home!”
Okay, so it wasn’t your typical flight arrival at Ben Gurion Airport. Then again, El Al flight 3004 wasn’t your typical flight.
In fact, the El Al charter flight that departed New York on Monday afternoon, Aug. 13 was filled with 351 “olim chadashim”—351 North American new immigrants on their way to start a new life as citizens of the place where, as Netanyahu told the crowd, “the identity of our people was forged—where we are building a Jewish future.” Israel.
Among the 351: 48 families, 93 children, 154 singles, and 127 young people set to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)—the largest number of new IDF soldiers to arrive on a flight ever. They came from three Canadian provinces, as well as 27 American states. There were among them, not surprisingly, a rabbi, several doctors, and a variety of computer experts; but there was also a meteorologist, an architect, a renowned cookbook author, and a massage therapist, as well as a host of other professions.
There were almost as many stories on board as there were olim.
“I was a student at [the University of California at] Berkeley and that’s actually where I got involved with Israel,” said Brian Maissy, a 22-year old from Orange County, Calif., who recently received his degree in computer science.
Ironically, said Maissey, it was Berkeley’s infamous anti-Israel bent that prompted him to learn more about Zionism. “One of my first experiences was walking on the main campus and being handed flyers containing anti-Israel propaganda. I wasn’t expecting this. So, I looked for a Zionist organization on campus and found one called Tikvah Students for Israel.”
Maissy spent the last three summers in Israel on various programs. “I just fell in love with the place and figured it was time to come home,” said Maissy, who was one of the flight’s 127 young adults making aliyah as part of Tzofim Garin Tzabar, a program for Diaspora youth who wish to serve in the IDF. “I’m going into the army because I want to do my part to contribute to the county.”
For the Spiegels of Cleveland, Ohio, making aliyah was practically pre-ordained.
“My wife and I have wanted to make aliyah since we were teenagers,” said Alan Speigel, who stood on the EL AL check-in line at JFK, watching over the family’s cart piled high with luggage, as his wife, Rivka, corralled their three young children—Orly, 7, Samuel, 5, and Amitai, 2. “We’ve been planning for this day for the past 10 years,” said Speigel, a pediatrician.
As for Pam and Ira Brenner, they hadn’t imagined leaving family and friends in Hollywood, Fla. for an apartment in Ra’anana—not until their two daughters decided to make Israel their home. “We want to be near our children and our granddaughter,” said Pam. whose daughters each decided to make aliyah after participating in Taglit Birthright Israel trips.
Despite the different narratives that may have brought them to this moment, however, the 351 olim shared two things: A strong desire, as Bibi put it, to link their “personal future with the future of the Jewish state and the Jewish people;” and the help they received in making aliyah from Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization dedicated to revitalizing aliyah from North America and the United Kingdom by minimizing the obstacles that can hinder its success. The special charter flight that brought them to Israel to was organized by Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) and Friends of the IDF (FIDF), in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel and Tszofim Garin Tzabar.
“Ten years ago there weren’t more than 2000 people a year making aliyah, and more than 50 percent of those left,” explains Doreet Freedman, NBN’s director of strategic partnerships. “The retention rate was so poor, but it wasn’t because people didn’t want to stay in Israel, it was because they were lonely, they couldn’t find jobs, they were daunted by the bureaucracy."
Then, in 2002, recognizing the need to untangle the aliyah process, Nefesh B’Nefesh was founded by Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and businessman/philanthropist Tony Gelbart. That summer, the organization brought its first aliyah charter flight to Israel. Over the course of the past decade, the organization has brought more than 30,000 people from North America and the United Kingdom to live in the Jewish state.
“Now we’re bringing close to 5000 a year with a retention rate of approximately 97 percent—which really means we’ve quadrupled aliyah,” says Freedman.
How do they do it? The key to the organization’s success, says Freedman, is its “holistic approach” to aliyah. in which every potential oleh is assigned a case manager who gets to know the person’s needs and helps the oleh navigate his or her way through the entire process.
And their work is not over when the plane touches down in Tel Aviv.
“You have to make sure that people are happy and are employed,” says Freedman, noting that NBN keeps in touch the first year with a phone call a month, and also hosts many post-aliyah events.”
Impressed by NBN’s success, in 2005 Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made the unprecedented decision to “outsource” aliyah to NBN. Then, in August 2011, NBN partnered with FIDF to help provide support for North American and British “Lone Soldiers”—young people who, like the 127 young people aboard the Aug. 13 charter flight, make aliyah and join the IDF. Among the services they provide: adoptive families, Shabbat and holiday dinners, and financial aid. When the soldiers complete their service, NBN also helps them integrate into Israeli society.
In February 2012, the IDF provided FIDF and NBN with a mandate to expand the Lone Soldier program to include those making aliyah from all around the world.
“Lone Soldiers have been coming from all over the world to protect the homeland of the Jewish people since 1948,” says FIDF National Director and CEO, Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yitzhak (Jerry) Gershon, who came up with the idea. “I thought: NBN is taking care of Lone Soldiers from North America—why not care for Lone Soldiers from all over the world? Because if there is no IDF there will be no State of Israel; and if there’s no state of Israel, Jews cannot have the same security and prosperity that they have experienced worldwide.”
On Aug. 13, speaking directly to the 127 young people headed for the IDF, Netanyahu seemed to echo Gershon’s sentiments: “I would like to meet all of you in three years time when you finish your service,” he said. “And I want to salute you again and encourage you to arise and thrive in the only Jewish state.”
In December 2008, Nefesh B’Nefesh added another prong to its line-up of flagship programs when the Russell and Angelica Barry Foundation challenged the organization to bring 1,000 North American olim to settle in Israel’s northern reaches—communities way north of Haifa.
To meet the challenge NBN created the “Go North” program, based on the organization’s proven principles. Three and half years later, NBN is nearing its aliyah goal of 1,000 olim, and it expects to hit the 1500 mark by the end of five years. What’s more, building on the idea of populating Israel’s peripheral communities, this past June NBN forged a partnership with Keren Kayemet LeIsrael to launch a similar initiative in Israel’s southern sector.
Now, NBN is preparing to address a third challenge: Israel’s surprising shortage of doctors.
“Years ago, the wave of immigration from the Soviet Union infused Israel with tons of doctors—too many doctors. Those doctors are now retiring, and Israel does not have enough medical schools and is not producing a sufficient number of doctors,” explains Freedman.
Now in its initial stages, NBN’s initiative to bring doctors to Israel has already resulted in more than 300 new Israeli physicians.
Of course, Nefesh B’Nefesh can’t solve all aliyah-related issues.
As her parents stood in line to check their luggage at JFK, seven-year old Orly Spiegel, who “used to be in first grade,” pinpointed one. “My parents talk in Hebrew when they don’t want us to understand,” she said. “But I’ll understand Hebrew soon, so they’ll have to learn a new language.”