'Hello," says Dror only a trifle hesitantly, rising to his feet and looking around the room.
Perhaps 200 faces, the mainly middle-aged heart of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts, turn expectantly toward him a tall Ethiopian man holding a tiny lapel microphone. He doesn't disappoint.
He spent his toddler years, he tells them in resonant, Hebrew-accented English, living in a remote village in the Gondar region, where his family grew crops and kept cattle. One of his earliest memories is of the day his brother, David, was dispatched to the nearest town to buy essentials and he was charged with keeping the birds and thieves off the corn.
"Are you crazy," he remembers telling David. "I'm only four!" Six months later he was working again this time chiming a hand-held bell as he walked the paths of a refugee camp to tell the other kids it was time to come eat a refugee camp to which his family had trekked, in Sudan, en route to Zion.
Not long after that he was in Israel, and he offers an early memory from his new country, too about his arrival at the Ashkelon absorption center where his family made its first home.
"I told the people there that I needed to go to... you know," he says, a little shyly, "and somebody got up to show me the way. And they took me into this building. And I asked them why we were going inside. I needed to go outside. That's where I'd always gone before."
Here in Worcester, Mass., Dror only has the floor for a few minutes, so he condenses a lot of the life story, barely mentioning how he excelled in his first schools, was eventually sent to a boarding school to ensure a top-notch education, served as a paratrooper in the IDF, and has now graduated in the "anthropology, sociology and psychology faculties" at the University of Haifa.
He sits down with a simple "thank you," to warm applause, and now Olga, the second of the evening's young aliya success stories, gets up.
IF DROR'S family had always dreamed of the Jewish homeland, Olga grew up never dreaming she had a stake in it. She knew, she says, "that my grandmother always soaked the meat in salt water before cooking it, and that my friends' grandmothers didn't," but for a youngster in the Ukraine of 20 years ago, however inquisitive, that simply wasn't enough information to spark an investigation into her heritage.
The search for her roots began only when Olga turned 13 and an older cousin rather reluctantly honored a two-century-strong family tradition and gave her the medallion that, it had long ago been decreed, would be passed down to the youngest girl of each generation.
Olga asked her grandmother to tell her what was meant by the strange writing on one side. It was Hebrew, she was told, Shema Yisrael in fact.
And why, Olga asked, was her family cherishing this strange object in this strange language and handing it on carefully through the decades?
"Because we're Jewish," came the response. "I'm Jewish, and your mother's Jewish, and that means you're Jewish." Her belated embrace of her faith culminated, Olga says, when she participated in the March of the Living, "returning" to the Polish soil where, she had since ascertained, her ancestors once lived.
Her decision to make a new life in Israel, she goes on, was confirmed the first time she was driven up into the hills of Jerusalem, through the swirling, early morning mists. "There aren't too many hills in Ukraine," she smiles.
Concluding her personal tale of ascent, like Dror, with details of the degree she's just completing in business management and Latin American studies Olga suddenly, and anything but artificially, changes her tone. She's been talking softly and with light self-deprecation, but now she speaks much more powerfully, telling the audience loudly and emotionally that "you guys" changed her life that Jewish generosity helped enable her to finance her move to Israel and her new life there.
She's no longer dependent on these and other Jewish philanthropists big and small; she's somehow managed to combine her studies with full-time work as a graphic designer at an office very near to my own. But, like Dror and countless olim, she says, she couldn't have made it to where she is now without their generosity.
WE'RE SEVERAL thousand miles from Israel and, even though the meal served earlier featured humous and falafel and little blue centerpieces with Stars of David to make us feel at home, we certainly feel the difference.
We feel it in the exquisite politeness with which the local federation chief thanks each of the numerous staffers and volunteers who've made the evening possible. We feel it in the minute-by-minute adherence to the evening's time schedule. We really feel it when, this being the federation's annual general meeting, a new board and officers are elected with absolutely no speechifying, protest, dissent, argument or backbiting indeed, without so much as a vote. They're merely nodded through in contented unanimity.
But the stories told so earnestly by the two new Israelis utterly connect us all, and transcend the distance we've traveled to get here.
This trip to the United States has underlined that, as at home, disengagement may have been carried out, but it is anything but over. It has left the world Jewish family torn: riven emotionally and religiously and pragmatically over the fate of the evacuees, the shrinking of Greater Israel, the questions of whether our security will be enhanced and whether our international rehabilitation will be more than fleeting.
I attended a briefing with Ariel Sharon in New York at which he was, unsurprisingly, as doubt-free as ever about the wisdom of the pullout, upbeat on the benefits in relations with the United States and optimistic about long-term fruits closer to home. While hopeful rather than certain that the Palestinian Authority would ultimately attain control over Gaza, he seemed confident that if Israel were nonetheless targeted from the Strip and resorted to the disproportionate response that the IDF's chief of staff advocates, the international community would show understanding and even approval.
And I've heard the anguished concerns from home that the initial chaos of the first few days after the pullout will escalate into a new phase of the terror war, and that Israel will have no more sympathy or perceived legitimacy in fighting it this year than it has in the past five.
I've been asked this week, by people certain that they hold the monopoly on wisdom and not really seeking any kind of answer from me, how Israel can have been so suicidally short-sighted as to have capitulated to terrorism by pulling out of the Strip; and also why on earth Israel delayed its departure from Gaza for decades when its presence there was so undeniably untenable.
But on that one night in Worcester, Mass., at least, the two Israeli success stories gave us all pause from the bitter internal debate, cemented the bridge between Diaspora and Israel, and underlined the fundamental imperative to ingather the exiles and give them shelter.
For a few minutes, Dror and Olga reminded us at the most basic level, the level of simple Jewish survival why this resurrected Israel came into being, and how badly we need to ensure it flourishes.
Send us your comments
Marilyn Crawford, Clatskanie, OR, USA:
Throughout the Holy Scriptures, prophets declare that God will return all of His people Israel to her homeland. I am sorry that His name is not mentioned. He too regrets being forgotten as the Scriptures repeat over and over. Holy people of God, the land is yours, take it bravely and confidently in the name of your God, do not divide it to appease the world, you are not of the world, but chosen and set apart. If you want the protection of your Creator, lean not upon your own understanding, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. Then your people will flow, protected, into the land of milk and honey, and He will be your God and you will be His people.
Robert Meyer, Mercaz Shapira, Israel
: I read the column, waiting for the real point to come - but it never did. Two olim go to visit America and tell their stories and succeed in making their connection to the Worcester, MA crowd. The American Jewish audience may feel good that these olim succeeded in Israel, but the aliyah connection to them was not made at all. I came to Israel about 20 years ago, and other Americans come as well but not enough. If more Americans would come, perhaps there would not have been a reason to give up parts of Eretz Israel
. Why was the push for more Americans to come to Israel not made?