“I remember when I was very young and my father said to me, ‘If you don’t clean your closet, I’m going to send you off to the Israeli military,’” Mindy Levine of New York recalled. “I think he realized that after a month went by, this was not a good incentive. I really did want to go to the Israeli military, and my closet remained an utter disaster. It’s something I always wanted to do.”
Levine, together with her husband, Randy, who is the president of the New York Yankees baseball team, recently hosted a group of Americans about to join the IDF at the iconic Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.
The American-style send-off for the soon-to-be-soldiers contrasted with their arrival Wednesday morning at Ben-Gurion Airport. There a deliriously-happy crowd of 2,000 family and friends, and eight members of Knesset and officials, were on hand to greet the 57 lone soldiers, and 182 other olim (immigrants) and returning citizens before they were sent to their new homes.
The August flight, which was sponsored by Heidi Rothberg of Denver, was the second planeload of Nefesh B’Nefesh olim and returning citizens from the United States and Canada to touch down this summer.
The flight, also made possible by NBN’s partners – Jewish National Fund-USA, the Jewish Agency, the Aliya and Integration Ministry, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel (KKL) and Tzofim-Garin Tzabar – brought Jews from 24 US states and three Canadian provinces. The group varied from babies to retirees, including 30 families, 90 children and three sets of twins.
300 Olim are greeted by Natan Sharansky and Isaac Herzog after making Aliyah, July 2018 (Credit: Jewish Agency for Israel)
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But it was the soon-to-be soldiers without parents in Israel who garnered the accolades.
Dani Dayan, Israel’s consul general in New York, credited the entire family unit when it comes to a young adult’s decision to enlist in the IDF.
“I have a lot of admiration, not just for these young adults, but for their parents who raised them well. These are young Jews who had many opportunities before them. They could have gone to college or gone into their family’s business, but they decided to come to Israel and enlist and stay in the country. This is something that never ceases to amaze me,” he said. “Despite all this talk about the Diaspora distancing themselves from Israel, there is still a strong love for Israel among American Jewry. There is no doubt that these lone soldiers are evidence of that.”
For Rebecca Weiss, an 18-year-old immigrant from Toronto, Canada, her journey to the IDF enlistment bureau began at the age of 12 when she attended summer camp in Israel and began to fall in love with the country.
“If you want to live in a Jewish state at my age, to fully integrate into Israeli culture, the best way to do that is to join the army,” she told The Jerusalem Post.
As tensions flare up in the South where rockets and incendiary balloons and kites are launched daily, rather than worrying about their daughter, Weiss’s parents are proud of her decision.
“We’re not nervous at all,” Jeff Weiss said, explaining that Rebecca’s immigration is a dream fulfilled not just for her, but the entire family.
Weiss’s mother, Vicki, attended Tel Aviv University as a teenager with the hope of staying, and regrets not making her time here permanent.
For her father, the aliyah dream also slipped through his fingers. “My father, in the ‘30s, was a Zionist who wanted to make aliyah. But as a Holocaust survivor, he didn’t want to have another extended hard life, so he moved to Canada instead. I was going to fulfill that dream, but now our daughter will fulfill it for all of us,” he said.
“I think it’s the best time to go! What better time is there?” Gerald Katzenberg, father of lone soldier Gabriel, agreed with the Weiss’s attitude about making aliyah despite tension in the South.
“We’re very proud of him. We’re going to miss him tremendously. But we are so proud! He’s decided to take this big responsibility upon himself and join the army and protect the Jewish people,” his mother, Regina, said.
Looking back at what could have been was a popular sentiment among many of the adults who witnessed the lone soldiers achieve this milestone.
“It’s amazing. In Israel, every 18-year-old has to join the army. We have young Americans who can go anywhere they want, do anything they want, and they are making a choice to protect the Jewish people and do their duty to serve in the IDF,” said Ron Werner, the chair of the NBN Task Force at JNF-USA. “They’re the ones that cause me to tear up. When I see them, I wonder, why didn’t that happen to me?”
For JNF CEO Russell F. Robinson, making aliyah plays a critical two-part benefit for the land and people of Israel. “When you’re up on the plane and start to descend, and the tires are coming down and you hear that noise of the tires hitting the runway, you have sent a message to our friends and enemies alike – we are home,” he said.
Dayan added, “Imagine a Hollywood movie producer telling Gal Gadot, ‘You have two options. Either star as Wonder Woman or you can watch the film in the theaters.’ Obviously, the right decision is being the star in the movie. That’s exactly the decision you made. You made the decision to be the protagonist of your own story.”
Founded in 2002, Nefesh B’Nefesh has assisted in bringing 57,000 Jews to Israel. The organization currently assists 3,200 soldiers in its lone soldiers program.
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