Nefesh Soldiers 224.88.
(photo credit: Sasson Tiram)
Shuki Bloomberg, 20, finally fulfilled his lifelong dreams of moving to Israel and serving in the IDF, as he and 26 fellow soldiers stepped off the plane together at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Tuesday morning.
Participating in a program called Garin Tzabar, which brings Americans to the army, Bloomberg will train for the IDF together with other immigrants in the first international religious branch of the program.
"It was never a choice of whether or not to serve," explained Bloomberg, a native of Chicago. "I always knew I wanted to make aliya, and the army was something that I viewed as an obligation that I needed to do for the country. It's wonderful to finally be here."
Bloomberg is not the only foreigner who has chosen to serve in the IDF. According to the army, one out of every five soldiers was born outside of Israel and made aliya.
The new soldiers were accompanied on their flight by fellow immigrants, as the plane was filled with 210 new olim, including 34 families, 88 children, and 31 singles. This was the third such flight chartered by Nefesh B'Nefesh (NBN) this summer, with six more expected to arrive by the beginning of September. By the end of 2007, NBN will have helped over 3,500 people make aliya.
Since its inception five years ago, NBN has succeeded in bringing over 11,500 new immigrants to Israel, resulting in an almost 80-percent increase in North American aliya.
Michael Jankelowitz, spokesman for the Jewish Agency for Israel, said that "over the last four years, two agencies have developed - NBN in America and Ami in France. Under the leadership of [former chairman] Sallai Meridor, the Jewish Agency has revised its strategic long-term plan. In this plan, the agency decided to support these grassroots organizations in the free world that encouraged aliya. The plan, in partnering with these organizations, has been cooperation, transparency and increased numbers, in order to achieve the goal of increasing aliya from the West."
He added that aliya has been on the rise over the last five years. In 2006, 3,202 North Americans made aliya, and by June 2007, another 742 arrived - up from 708 at the same point the previous year.
The flight contained a diverse group of immigrants hailing from 20 different states and provinces, including doctors, lawyers, bankers, jewelers and teachers. The oldest oleh was 78; the youngest was two months old.
NBN cofounders Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart were also on the flight, along with former Israeli ambassador to the US and current NBN Chairman Danny Ayalon.
"I never get tired of coming on the flight with them," said Gelbart. "We are giving them the gift of Israel."
"NBN is committed to continue working, with the great support of the government, until we bring 100,000 olim over the next few years," declared Ayalon. "This is our vision, and it is a real privilege to see it coming together and being fulfilled."
The immigrants were thrilled to be recognized as official citizens of Israel. Many cheered as Hanoch Zamir, the senior deputy of the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, presented the first teudat zehut (ID card) to the Abramson family from San Francisco.
"I'm feeling a mixture of relief and excitement," exclaimed Carrie Boit, 23, from Alabama, reveling in the moment. "It's all sort of surreal."
"We are thrilled to be here," said Josh Wolff, who arrived with his wife and four children from Boston. "My son is putting on his tefillin for the first time at the Kotel tomorrow morning. After 15 years of planning, ever since we've been married, we finally made it."
For New Yorkers Shlomit and Shmuel Furmansky and their three children, the move was a special milestone: They were reuniting with Shmuel's two sisters, who came on NBN's July 10 charter flight.
"We had been talking about it for a long time," explained Shlomit. "Since Shmuel's aunt [Sarah Blaustein] was killed in a terrorist attack in May 2001, we have been thinking about it." Now, 19 members of their family have made aliya within the last four weeks, and all of them came to the airport on Tuesday to celebrate.
Also on board were Ithamar and Miriam Pollak from Connecticut, both of whom are Holocaust survivors.
Ithamar survived Auschwitz and moved to America in 1947, while Miriam managed to escape the concentration camps by procuring Aryan papers. As a welcoming gesture and a reminder of North America, several players from the inaugural Israel Baseball League greeted the new olim at the airport with IBL yearbooks and free tickets to the season's upcoming championship game.
"NBN invited us to come, and we brought 11 guys from all six teams," explained David Rattner, the facilities manager at the Sportek baseball field in Tel Aviv. "These people are steadfast supporters of Israel, and they know about baseball, so we thought this was a great idea."
The atmosphere was joyous as the immigrants stepped off the plane, many with tears in their eyes and waving Israeli flags; the sound of the shofar, heralding their return, could be heard in the background.
Also on hand to greet the newcomers were several politicians, including Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu and members of the IDF, as well as over 700 guests who came to share in the immigrants' celebration.
"You spent your last Shabbat as Diaspora Jews, and you left your houses and came home," said Rabbi Fass, addressing the crowd. "Anyone today who needed an infusion of hope and inspiration should just look at all these olim who have returned to Israel."
Netanyahu echoed his message, saying, "You have come back; this is your land and your home, in the deepest sense of the word."
Also present was Col. Golan Bar-Levi, commander of the IDF's Magen center, who praised the 27 new soldiers.
"We appreciate your decision to join us, and we look forward to having you with us," he asserted. "You have now become part of the long-term process of designing the future of the people of Israel. You will make sure that the chain of future generations will remain solid and unbroken forever."