Five years later: A family’s wartime aliyah

When we arrived at Ben-Gurion airport five years ago this week, there were no colorful posters with Israeli flags announcing, “Welcome Home.”

July 24, 2019 17:45
Five years later: A family’s wartime aliyah

BLESSED: THE writer and her family embark on their aliyah.. (photo credit: SHACHAR AZRAN NEFESH B’NEFESH)

When we arrived at Ben-Gurion airport five years ago this week, there were no colorful posters with Israeli flags announcing, “Welcome Home,” no live bands or throngs of students dancing the hora and no hordes of cheering family and friends.
For over a year, my family and I had looked forward to the huge, raucous ceremony that is the hallmark of the Nefesh B’Nefesh aliyah (immigration) charter flight. But when we entered Ben-Gurion’s Terminal One on July 22, 2014, the mood was eerily subdued. Nefesh B’Nefesh cofounder and executive director Rabbi Yehoshua Fass recollects, “Our arrival ceremonies are usually a sight to behold – singing, dancing, laughing and crying. We typically have over 1,000 guests and Israeli dignitaries in attendance to honor, welcome and celebrate the new olim [immigrants]. This arrival looked nothing like that.”
My husband and I and four of our children (our oldest was in camp and made aliyah later) were among 228 North Americans who had just immigrated in the middle of a war, and in that airport terminal, excitement mingled with tension and fear.
Our family had left our home in La Jolla, California, four weeks earlier to embark on a month-long road trip, traversing 17 states and more than 5,000 miles as a personal “Farewell, America” tour. We were driving to that charter flight to give our children a once-in-a-lifetime landing celebration so they could see that our aliyah was so important that we would be feted like rock stars.
As we traveled, stopping at places like the Grand Canyon and Mount Rushmore, the bodies of the three Israeli boys who had been kidnapped shortly before we left California had been found and the tinder box had ignited, with rockets raining down all over Israel. We found ourselves driving toward uncertainty as Operation Protective Edge got underway, with IDF troops entering Gaza and Israelis huddling in bomb shelters, and we clung to the thought of that big celebration, our stand against Hamas.
But just one day before our departure, we received an email from Rabbi Fass informing us that the ceremony was canceled. Fass recalls, “We really weren’t sure if our charter flight was even going to take off but we managed to get special permission to fly with the caveat that absolutely no aliyah arrival ceremony would be allowed to take place at Ben-Gurion Airport.” Upon reading the letter, I burst into tears, feeling that something small but precious was stolen from us, but we were determined to come home.
When we arrived at New York City’s JFK Airport the following day, we began to meet the other families taking this journey with us, some of whom would become close friends in the years ahead. Rabbi Fass addressed the crowd, proudly telling us that not a single person from our flight had canceled, and how important it was that we were moving at this critical time. As he states, “The goodbyes in JFK were tearful, heart-wrenching scenes of parents giving brachot (blessings) to their children before they left, proud of the choices they were making and understandably fearful regarding their future.”
When we landed, after praying for quiet and singing rowdily on the plane, we were grateful to still have a small ceremony, albeit pared down, as dignitaries like former chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and Natan Sharansky had insisted on coming to the airport to greet us.
AFTER WEARILY collecting our suitcases, a mix-up (a taste of Israeli bureaucracy to come) caused the six of us to venture home in two small taxis with most of our 18 pieces of luggage strapped precariously on the roofs. On that first ride to our new home, I worried in equal measure about suitcases falling and what to do if a siren sounded on the highway. In fact, a siren wailed at the airport right after we left, so we just missed running to a shelter. Shortly after we landed, the FAA canceled all flights from the United States to Israel.
When we finally made it to our new home, our family members who were banned from the airport surprised us, wearing personalized T-shirts and carrying those much-missed signs in front of our new house, ready to dance along with new neighbors who came to welcome us home.
There was so much we couldn’t know on the day we landed. We couldn’t know that we would run to a bomb shelter two weeks later on the 9th of Av, that we would face a stabbing Intifada, that our children would have friends here and in the States who would lose parents to terrorism, or that a terrorist would infiltrate our town just down the street from our home. And we could not have imagined how frustrating the more mundane challenges would be, like our kids gaining fluency in Hebrew and adjusting to a new culture.
But we also could not fathom the deep happiness and pride we would experience in our new lives; how sweet it would be to watch our daughters win soccer and spelling and writing awards in Israel. We blessed a son entering the army, marveled as a daughter took bagrut exams and made her first army appearance, and watched our youngest shine in the Israeli Scouts. Our kids can roll their Hebrew reishes (as well as their eyes at tourists they deem “too American”). They have come to appreciate Israel’s seasons, the birth of wildflowers each winter in the wadi behind our home, and to appreciate the warm waters of the Mediterranean over the chilly Pacific they left behind. They refuse to eat hummus when we visit America because it is too inauthentic, their tongues and their hearts singing of their transformation. Our children are more resilient, interesting, strong, committed and Israeli than we could have dreamed.
We are happily in touch with a number of fellow olim from that flight five years ago. Among us there are doctors, teachers and a talented paper-cut artist, a rabbi who has helped establish thriving gap-year programs and one of us has even become the mayor of her town. My husband has a successful telemedicine career in a private pulmonary practice, and is a volunteer medic with United Hatzalah, and Israel is my muse, in all of her complexity and splendor, and she inspires me to blog and write poetry.
One year after we landed, a few of us from the July 2014 charter flight went to greet the next July charter flight. As we held signs and danced and sang for the newest crop of olim who arrived in a more peaceful time, I felt a tikkun, a repair in my heart when I finally experienced the big aliyah balagan (chaos). I even felt a new appreciation for our surreal, small tekes (ceremony) from the year before as we had made history by coming in that precarious time, just when our new country needed us most.
Rabbi Fass shares that over “these last 18 years, I’ve been very fortunate to witness many beautiful and significant moments.... One of my most cherished moments was our charter aliyah flight in the summer of 2014.”
Five years in, we feel blessed living in Israel – wars, warts and all.

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