As a Jewish woman who took the big step of making aliya from America 10 years ago, who still wakes up each morning pinching herself to make sure this dream is real, there is nothing more gratifying than helping Jews realize the Zionist dream of moving to Israel.
Since I came here, I have gone to Ben-Gurion Airport many times to greet new immigrants, whose faces are often full of emotion – both joy and worry – as they take their first steps on the holy soil of Israel. Throughout the years, the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews has spent more than $180 million on aliya, bringing olim from all corners of the world to Israel – Jews from India, from Russia, from Ethiopia, and elsewhere. We even gave the first $2m. to start Nefesh B’Nefesh. And that’s because we regard each new Jewish person in Israel as a sacred inheritance from God.
Watching any new immigrant hold up his newly printed Israeli ID card with tears in his eyes touches my soul. Whether they have come from the comfort of North America or the danger of war-torn Ukraine, they have taken their own personal spiritual and physical journey to the Holy Land, and ended up here to join their people. As my father, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, always says, “Any Jewish person who picks up their life and moves to Israel is religious in my eyes. Some are more or less observant, but all are religious.”
The emotional reunification of new immigrants to Israel with their families touches all Israelis. Who can forget the tears of joy on the faces of Ethiopian immigrants as they exited the stairs of the airplane at Ben-Gurion Airport and kneeled down to kiss the ground? Or the mass immigration to Israel after the fall of the former Soviet Union, when Soviet Jews had the opportunity for a safe and legal aliya for the first time? Or the uplifting and inspiring videos from Nefesh B’Nefesh documenting the tears, joy and celebration of North American Jews fulfilling their dream of aliya? The stories are as timeless and emotional as Jewish history itself.
But then there are the stories of people who made aliya from countries that don’t have diplomatic ties with Israel, stories that are not as well-known or spoken about, but are dramatic, daring, uplifting and courageous. It’s these secret aliya missions that remind me how blessed I am to have been born in America, with the freedom to make aliya when I wanted to, without having to worry that I might never see my family and friends again.
Recently I had the honor of welcoming olim who came from a country with no diplomatic relations with Israel; they were greeted quietly, with little fanfare, instead of cameras and ceremonies.
And the deep sense of relief that we all felt upon their safe exit from the plane at Ben-Gurion Airport was greater than all the aliya ceremonies I have attended put together.
For months The Fellowship has been quietly working with government and private officials, creating the safest path of travel for Jews from these countries to come to Israel. We all knew that this mission was both dangerous and risky, yet despite the risks, there were more than a dozen Jews desperate to come to their true home. And from desperation comes redemption. Just a few months after one of them, 22-year-old Moshe, contacted us asking us to find a safe path for him to return to the land of his ancestors, I was there to welcome him to the Holy Land.
As Moshe departed with his four pieces of luggage, he had a big smile on his face. “I just traveled for one day, but it feels like years,” he said, referring to his Fellowship-funded flight.
“Thank God, thank God,” he said, while lifting his hands to the heavens and shedding tears of joy.
“Was life bad in your country?” I asked him, as he cradled his beautiful and smiling fivemonth- old son in his arms. “The government does what it can to try and make Jews feel at home,” he said. “But the truth is, it’s not home.
Only Eretz Yisrael is home,” Moshe said.
There are currently only a few hundred Jews left in the country Moshe came from. “Our community is small, yet we are dedicated Jews and have a strong community,” Moshe told me with a smile, finishing the sentence with “Baruch Hashem.” Yet despite the Jewish community’s desire to live a comfortable life of faith and worship, they are unable to live completely openly and freely as Jews, as they live in a country where they are constantly afraid to openly practice their faith.
“I would never walk out with a kippa,” Moshe said, his face suddenly full of fear.
“Most of the population was nice to us, but we don’t want to push our luck.”
Speaking to Moshe, I learned that there are many security measures Jews in his country have taken to avoid confrontation and the possibility of terrorism. They don’t leave synagogue as a group after prayers, so as not to call attention to themselves. There is no Jewish school, so Jewish children study in a private school. Religious men and women wear hats instead of the traditional Jewish head coverings, so they won’t get attacked for being Jews.
After explaining to me the precautions Jews take to stay safe, Moshe whispered to me words that were very difficult for him to say.
“My country was my family’s home for hundreds of years. Yet there is no future for Jews there anymore. The Jewish people’s future is in Israel. Baruch Hashem.”
After I spoke to Moshe for 20 minutes, he began to get very nervous. “Please don’t use my name, or show anyone my face,” he said, with fear in his voice. “If the authorities know that I moved to Israel, my family who is still there could be in grave danger.” I promised him I would change his name when writing his story, and blur his face when showing pictures.
I realize that dealing with aliya from countries with no diplomatic relations with Israel is no joke; if I don’t keep my word, that interview could cost his family members their life or freedom.
I understood Moshe’s reservations, and greatly appreciated his willingness to educate me on Jewish life in his country. And, as I quickly learned, Moshe was one of the few willing to take that risk.
As dozens of other new immigrants departed from their Fellowship-sponsored On Wings of Eagles flight, I tried to speak to them, but they wouldn’t speak. “How is life there,” I asked. One person muttered, “Fine,” but that was the only answer I received. As I held the children, welcomed them to Israel, and tried to ease some of the fear that I saw in their parents’ eyes, finally a mother came up to me and explained their worries. “We all left for Israel without anyone knowing. We have business partners, family members and friends who would be at risk if anyone found out we’re in Israel. We would never be able to go back and see them again. Asking us for our story sounds very innocent – and I know you genuinely and lovingly want to understand where we came from – yet this can cost us dearly.”
I gave the mother a hug, and welcomed her to Israel, and didn’t ask anyone else for his story. “This is your opportunity to start anew,” I told the fearful mother. “You made the bold and brave step to rebuild your life in the Jewish homeland without fear or intimidation – to have the option of sending your children to Jewish schools, to leave synagogue in groups, and to wear whatever religious garb you choose. The Fellowship, along with all of the Jewish people, is proud to welcome you home, and we will be with you every step of the way.’ With tears in her eyes, she gave me a big hug. “Thank you,” was all she said. “Thank you.”The writer is senior vice president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.