Zahava Stemp knew she would cry when she landed as a new immigrant with her husband and five children at Ben-Gurion Airport on Wednesday morning.
“I am an emotional girl, so I expected nothing less” than tears, said Stemp, whose eyes were moist.
She held her young son’s hand. Her brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail and a large pink cloth bag with a strawberry and daisy pattern was strapped over her shoulder.
The entire family wore light blue T-shirts that stated “Stemp Aliyah 2022.”
“It is very cliché,” she said, but when they walked out of the plane into the bright sunshine, her thought was this is “living the dream. I never wanted to be one of those people who said that, but it’s happening and that is what I am doing.”
"I never wanted to be one of those people who said that, but it’s happening and that is what I am doing."Zehava Stemp
Her family was among the 225 immigrants aboard the El Al flight chartered by the nonprofit Nefesh B’Nefesh organization, which works in partnership with the Jewish Agency and has facilitated North American immigration for the last 20 years.
This special anniversary flight was the 63rd chartered plane to bring immigrants to Israel since the organization’s inception. It also marks the resumption of such flights, which were halted in 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On board was Sam Leeman, 26, of Bath, Maine, who was the 75,000th person to make aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh.
“I can’t be more thrilled to be a citizen of Israel today,” said Leeman, who for the last year has been a medical student at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba. He stood on the tarmac as he spoke with an Israeli flag wrapped around his shoulders.
“My whole life I have away dreamed of being in Israel and it has always been the hope to be here. I feel like this past year [in Beersheba] only invigorated my desire to be a citizen,” he said.
“My whole life I have away dreamed of being in Israel and it has always been the hope to be here. I feel like this past year [in Beersheba] only invigorated my desire to be a citizen.”Sam Leeman
How many Jews made aliyah in 2021?
Last year, 4,478 North Americans made aliyah, representing 16% of the overall 28,600 Jewish immigrants to Israel in 2021, according to the Jewish Agency. This year, 3,000 North Americans have immigrated through Nefesh B’Nefesh, most of whom do not go on special charter flights.
But those who do, receive VIP treatment. Critical parts of their paperwork are processed on the plane and at the airport. They are greeted with Israeli flags and music as they walk out of the plane and down the stairwell to the tarmac.
When they finally exit the airport, they walk under an arch of blue and white balloons and are greeted once more by singing and in some cases dancing volunteers. Cabs awaited the new immigrants at the airport to take them to their final destinations.
Yaakov Luxemburg of Baltimore, Maryland, made aliyah with his wife, three daughters and their dog, who waited in her cage by the baggage claim while the family filled out paperwork so they could head out to their new home in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
“This has been a long-term dream of ours. It finally came together after all these years,” said Luxemburg as he searched for the family’s suitcases.
The final push was the age of his children. His oldest daughter is 16.
“My girls are a little bit older. It was kind of now or never. I had to stop making excuses because if I waited one more minute then we would never come as a family.”
Luxemburg said the two years he spent in Israel after high school was the basis for his decision to immigrate.
“I loved every minute. I always wanted to get back here. It just took 20 years,” said Luxemburg, who already has a job as an accountant.
“I loved every minute. I always wanted to get back here. It just took 20 years.”Yaakov Luxemburg
“I felt like I always kept my eyes” on the possibility of returning. Now that he has landed, Luxemburg said, the feeling has been incredible, “like I was coming home.”
A Torah scroll that survived the Holocaust
Alvin Reinstein, 71, and his wife, Esther Lauder, 72, made aliyah from Teaneck, New Jersey, with a Torah scroll that had been written in Poland prior to the Holocaust.
Reinstein held the Torah in his arms at JFK Airport in New York before departing on Tuesday and again on the Ben-Gurion tarmac after landing.
Their son Sam gave it to them as a parting gift. Sewn into its cloth cover are the names of Reinstein and Lauder’s parents, who were Holocaust survivors.
Lauder said the Torah scroll represented their parents as well the six million who were killed and that it was as if they were taking their parents and all the Holocaust victims with them on this sacred journey.
The couple said they plan to live near their daughter in Efrat. Their decision to immigrate, however, was strongly linked to their experience as children of survivors, they explained.
“It affects your life so much that so many of your decisions are made with that in the back of your head,” Lauder said.
Reinstein added, “My parent’s experiences during the Shoah show that Israel is the ultimate protection for the Jewish people and we belong in Israel and not in the United States.”
“My parent’s experiences during the Shoah show that Israel is the ultimate protection for the Jewish people and we belong in Israel and not in the United States.”Alvin Reinstein
The Holocaust was not far from the mind of Dalya Pickholtz, who was among 40 of the young adults on the flight who plan to become lone soldiers.
On their last night in the United States they were treated to a Yankees baseball game and hosted in a special suite. For Pickholtz, 18, who is from Florida, the game was already part of the journey.
that, I come from grandparents who were in the Holocaust and after the Holocaust they went to Israel and had a home there [and] were welcome there, so I want to give back to the land that already gave back to me.
“I am, thank God, alive and I am, thank God, here, and that is why I want to serve, also for my future children,” said Pickholtz, who dreams of becoming a doctor.
According to Nefesh B’Nefesh, Pickholtz was one of 48 singles on the flight, which also had seven retirees and 99 children, including a two-month-old. Among the new immigrants were eight physicians and 19 health professionals.
Immigrants on the flight who were interviewed by The Jerusalem Post, described themselves as long-standing Zionists who had been brought up in homes, schools and camps that instilled within them a love of Israel since early childhood.
The question for them was less whether or not to make aliyah, but when to make it.
Noam Friedman said he and his wife, Shifra, who he had met in high school, had always spoken of it, but only made a final decision to move last summer.
Noam spoke with the Post at his backyard goodbye party at his in-laws home in Teaneck, New Jersey, on Sunday, two days before his departure. He sat on a folding chair on the lawn. Hanging from a bush behind him was a huge Israeli flag and a string of smaller flags.
Although the couple came from Zionist homes and schools, he credited in particular Camp Moshava.
“It’s impossible not to mention the influence that the camp had on us, both as campers and as staff,” Friedman said.
It was “a formative part of our journey,” said Friedman, who had closed down his home already in June and was living at his in-laws until they left.
“It’s a huge mix of emotions,” said Friedman, adding that “there is a lot of excitement” and “some sadness at leaving family. There is uncertainty as to what life will be like.”
Shifra credited COVID-19 with helping them make the move, noting that when life began to return to normal, it seemed like the right time to make a change.
For their departure from JFK, they and their three children wore black T-shirts that said, “This is my aliyah shirt.”
Once they had checked in, Nefesh B’Nefesh held a goodbye ceremony for them, which gave parents and family members a last chance to say goodbye.
Shifra’s mother, Aliza, said she was proud two of her children had already immigrated. When her oldest daughter, Atara, immigrated six years ago, Aliza recalled stating she was “not leaving but leading us.”
Aliza said she felt she had “hit the jackpot” to have so many children who made aliyah and added that she planned in the future to immigrate, so that eventually the whole family would be in Israel.
Wednesday’s chartered flight was co-sponsored by Heidi Rothberg from Ireland, Lou Cohen from Baltimore and the Grossman family from New Jersey. The flight is coordinated in partnership with the Aliyah and Integration Ministry, The Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL) and Jewish National Fund-USA.
The author was a guest of Nefesh B’Nefesh on the flight and in New York.