The flight left JFK at 1:30 p.m. Aug. 14, full of 233 excited olim (immigrants) making aliyah. It was the latest haul of Americans moving to Israel through Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization dedicated to easing aliyah.
Founded by Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart, the 15-year-old organization has chartered more than 55 flights to bring 50,000 Jews to Israel, including 6,300 soldiers.
No one could sleep on the plane full of families and single Jews in their teens and 20s anticipating new lives in Israel. Passengers walked up and down the aisles all night, getting to know one another. Most didn’t know what to expect when the plane landed, and few expected to be greeted by Israeli politicians, dignitaries and Israel Defense Forces soldiers welcoming them home.
David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, awaited his 24-year-old daughter, Talia, a nurse from New York. She plans to do ulpan, an intensive course in Hebrew, then work as a nurse in Tel Aviv.
“We’re so proud of her. We love her so much, and we just want her to be happy. This is something she’s always wanted to do,” the ambassador said. “She loves Israel, and we love Israel. The whole family loves Israel, and this is her dream.”
The 233 olim were shuttled to an airport hangar, where a large crowd held welcome-home signs and cheered. Speakers including Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, Gelbart, Rabbi Fass and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, a former finance minister, addressed the crowd.
Rabbi Fass reminded the olim that they are living a centuries-old dream held by Jews around the world.
“Most Jews throughout the Diaspora understand and appreciate that Israel is our inheritance, that it is our ancestral land. But how many understand that it is our matana, or our gift?” Rabbi Fass said. “Everyone in this hangar understands that it’s our matana or gift. Everyone understands that and is inspired and appreciates the miracle we have, so share that excitement, share that appreciation with all your families and friends back home so they can follow in your footsteps.”
Seventy of the new immigrants are joining the IDF. For them, aliyah is about moving where they feel comfortable as Jews and are inspired to serve.
The olim receive financial assistance, including cash at Ben Gurion Airport, a bank deposit when they move and additional deposits for six months. Their benefits include stipends for rent, subsidized college tuition, a car subsidy and ulpan.
For Matan Rudner, 18, of Dallas, Texas, making aliyah fulfills a soul mission. He said he can’t imagine a life not in Israel.
Though his parents and grandparents are Israeli, he has no family in Israel now, only friends. The recent high school grad said he is joining the IDF because “Israel’s problems are my problems.”
“There is a saying — ‘My heart is in the East, and I’m on the ends of the West” — and as an American, you’re super on the ends of the West. In Israel, I feel like my heart and I are in the same place,” Rudner said. “The army is my army. In Israel, everything is mine, whereas in America it’s someone else’s.”
Lapid spoke about his father, a Holocaust survivor, who decided to join the IDF as soon as he entered the country. He reassured the new soldiers that their choice will ensure success because they are choosing to be part of something they can be proud of.
Like many of the new IDF recruits, his father was young, but his choice shaped his future, Lapid said.
“The clerk shouted, ‘Children who are 17, go to the absorption center; children who are 18, go into the army.’ And my father raised his hand and said, ‘I’m 17½; what should I do?’ And the clerk said, ‘Do whatever you want,’ ” Lapid said. “People make decisions that define their lives and success. … My father looked at my mother and grandmother, picked up his bag, slung it over his shoulder and said, ‘I’m going to the army.’ ”
Joining the IDF can determine the trajectory of olim’s lives in Israel. The IDF helps immigrants adjust to a new culture and launch their careers, easing their transitions.
The opportunity to make aliyah and join the IDF is much more meaningful than the typical American route, said Noa Ollestead, 18, an oleh from Seattle.
“A lot of my friends are going off to college and excited for frat parties and beer pong, and those things sound fun, but part of me never felt like that was me,” Ollestead said. “I feel like I’m going to gain so much more out of this and be so much more mature out of this.”
Americans in the IDF strengthen the connection between the United States and Israel, said Friedman, who was encouraged to see 70 olim joining the Israeli military.
“I think what’s amazing is we have so many Americans coming to Israel, and they’re going to remain American and become Israeli,” Friedman said. “You have this whole group of Israeli-Americans, and I think they add a lot to both countries.”