It will be nine months before we know if the closure we’re experiencing will result in a baby boom or a spike in divorce rates. Maybe both. In the meantime, there’s another sort of love being tested: the love of homeland. No, not the Homeland you might love watching on Netflix, but the “My heart is in the East and I in the uttermost West” love of homeland immortalized by Yehuda Halevi in his definitive declaration of yearning for Jerusalem.
Nearly 1,000 years separate us from the Jewish community of Spain in which this philosopher-poet pined for the Land of Israel, yet for a substantial number of Jews worldwide, the longing reverberates as forcefully today as it did a millennium ago, even in the time of corona.
When I asked Ed and Barbara Susman, who arrived in Israel as new olim just last week, how long they’ve been planning this move, their answer was instantaneous: “All our lives.” That’s somewhere in excess of 60 years.
It hasn’t been quite that long for Alec Jaffe, but he’s only 24, and has been dreaming the dream since the age of 16. Matias Romeo, 32, began his journey when he participated in a gap-year Masa program in Israel eight years ago. For Meyer and Grace Moses, moving here with their two daughters, Revital and Tovena, has long been only a question of when.
These newest immigrants to Israel are among the more than 1,046 plucky souls from more than 34 countries who either moved here since March 1 – when COVID-19 had already begun taking its toll – or who will be arriving before Passover.
Ed and Barbara left New Jersey. Alec was born in California. The Moss family is from just outside Mumbai. Matias hails from Buenos Aires. But they have something in common that none of them could have imagined a month ago: They’ve found themselves starting their new lives in isolation, but not alone.
Acknowledging the solicitous staff of the Beit Canada Absorption Center in Ashdod where they’re living, as well as the (virtual) embrace of relatives and friends who preceded them here, Meyer and his wife said, “We are really touched and overwhelmed by each and every one, so concerned and supportive. This experience of love and moral support will always be part of our lives.”
Alec, who hadn’t registered for any program in advance, was taken in by the family of someone he had only met through an online chat room. It’s not something he takes for granted.
“They’re taking really good care of me,” he said, offsetting the occasional twinge of homesickness he feels. “It’s obviously stressful being here like this [but] honestly, I was more stressed facing so many unknowns during the couple of weeks before getting here than I am now.”
MATIAS WAS also welcomed with open arms – from afar and without touching – by friends he made at the Hebrew-language ulpan in Beersheba he previously attended. Throughout our conversation, he repeatedly referred to the absorption center in which he was now in isolation as “home,” emphasizing that though he was confined to his room, staff and companions were taking great care of him.
The Susmans are in a different situation. No one’s embraced them yet, but that’s not for lack of people who would like to. They have a daughter and son-in-law who moved here several years ago. However, explains Barbara, “When they came by the day after we arrived to bring us something for Shabbat, my daughter could only leave it outside our door, which I only opened once she retreated to a safe distance. We got to see each other but couldn’t hug. It was really hard.”
Nonetheless, neither she nor Ed are complaining. Quite the contrary.
“The important thing for us is that we made it here,” Ed explained. “Until the last minute, we were worried that we wouldn’t, that the flight would be canceled or that they’d close the doors even to olim, so we were thrilled to get on the plane.”
More thrilled than them, however, were the 72 olim from Ethiopia who landed here this week, some of whom have been waiting for 20 years to come home. It was an extraordinarily emotional experience for them to finally set foot in the homeland they’ve been dreaming of for so long, but nevertheless also tempered by the corona pandemic. Due to the restrictions placed upon all of us, and the necessity of directly entering quarantine required of everyone coming from abroad, they were immediately whisked away, without the opportunity to see family, to an absorption facility where they’ll remain together in isolation for the next two weeks. Jewish Agency staff who welcomed them are now looking forward to facilitating their reunion with relatives whom they haven’t seen for years – and children for a lifetime – at the end of the mandatory 14-day waiting period.
But back to the Susmans. While leaving the confines of their apartment will unlikely be as moving for them as it will be for the Ethiopians, they are confident, based on previous visits to the area in Netanya where they are living, that once they get through these two weeks not only will their children be welcoming them enthusiastically, but their neighbors will as well. “Knowing that we have a warm community to be a part of, knowing that we found a location we’re happy with, and knowing that we are back in our homeland, what could be better than that?”
That was pretty much the sentiment expressed by all the olim I spoke with, none of whom had any second thoughts about coming, even during this particularly challenging time.
Alec, though he’d only been here once before arriving last week, told me, “There would pretty much have had to have been an actual war zone here for me not to have come now.”
Part of the reason for his decision was, “I never felt I fully belonged in America... I have a different mindset and a different way of thinking about the world.” But he also offered a far more positive reason for his decision. “I’m secular,” he said. “I did have a bar mitzvah but I haven’t been to synagogue for years. But this one teacher I had in Hebrew school, my favorite, she made me fall in love with Israel, instilled in me Zionist values.” And so when he was ready and his plans had been made, he didn’t want to wait any longer.
Meyer was equally resolute about this being the right time to join more than 70,000 others from India who have already made Israel their home. More than that, Meyer assured me that many of the 4,000 to 5,000 Jews he left behind are also ready to make the move. He even asked to meet with me to discuss how we might facilitate their coming.
Matias was also confident he’d made the right choice. He could easily have stayed with his parents in Argentina, but despite the boredom and claustrophobia he’s presently experiencing, he is convinced his life here is going to be better and more fulfilling than the one he left behind. He’s just anxious to get out and start building it. His first priority is to find work. “I trained as a sound engineer,” he says, “but I’m really ready to do anything, whatever’s needed.”
Barbara and Ed are at a different point in their lives. After years of working as a real estate agent and automation consultant, respectively, they are now “more interested in doing things here that give something back to Israel.”
THAT’S EXACTLY the sort of attitude that fuels Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, the executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh, which works with the Jewish Agency to bring immigrants from North America to Israel.
“It is truly remarkable to see that aliyah is continuing amidst increasingly complex global circumstances,” he said. “These new olim, more than ever, represent the strong future of the State of Israel as they are determined to fulfill their dreams of helping to build the Jewish Nation.”
Shay Felber, director of the Jewish Agency’s Aliyah and Integration unit, concurs.
“Aliyah has always been at the heart of the Zionist enterprise, and it continues to be at the heart of what we are doing today,” he said. “And we’re doing everything we can, together with the Aliyah and Integration Ministry - and in strict compliance with guidelines established by the Health Ministry - to ensure that the gates of Israel remain open to everyone eligible to join us here - as long as we can confirm that they are prepared and able to abide by the compulsory 14-day period of confinement.”
While these stipulations might result in a number of individuals postponing their aliyah, the overwhelming majority are continuing to come as planned.
“What the olim arriving under these challenging circumstances are telling us,” said Shay, “is that they are coming not because they see Israel as a refuge, but because they care passionately about being a part of what we are creating here now that we are back in our homeland.”
That’s exactly right. When I reached out to these new immigrants, it was to welcome them on behalf of the Jewish Agency and to offer them some encouragement during these trying times. Little did I realize that I would come away from the conversations even more encouraged myself. Their upbeat attitude, positive outlook, and palpable sense of fulfillment in having taken the first step in realizing their dreams should be an inspiration to those of us now entrusted with welcoming them. It is a reminder of the aspirations that brought us here in the first place or that have kept us here throughout the years.
Their stories should also serve as a beacon to Jews around the world for whom the idea of aliyah may, from time to time, cross their minds. These new olim, and the 1,000 others arriving in the midst of this contagion who will be stepping off the plane and entering quarantine, may find themselves in isolation, but they won’t find themselves feeling alone. They are home, in their homeland, and they know it. Love in the time of corona.
The writer is deputy chairman of The Jewish Agency executive. The opinions expressed are his own.