By ABIGAIL KLEIN
He doesn't care for tomatoes, eggplants or olives, but David Bassan is nevertheless sure he has planted himself in the right place to build his future. "I do like humous and shwarma, so maybe that makes up for it," he said as he enjoyed a slice of unadorned pizza in downtown Jerusalem.
Bassan and his three younger sisters were brought up in West Orange, New Jersey, by parents whose ancestors hailed from Poland, Romania, India and Israel.
"My father's father was from a family that has been in Israel 200 years - and about half of them still are," said Bassan. "My great-grandparents left in the early 1900s because of a severe drought and went back after the 1967 war. But my grandfather and my father grew up in America."
Despite those family ties, Bassan visited only once before coming for a year of study after high school at the Frisch School, a large coed yeshiva in Paramus, New Jersey. By then, he had already decided to make aliya.
"During the second half of ninth grade, I started valuing Eretz Yisrael more," said Bassan. "For me, it came from what we were learning in school. I saw how Israel is the central piece in all of [the Bible] and beyond, that there is a connection between the people and the land and that the Jewish nation should build itself and fulfill its purpose in this land. There is a higher level of connection to God that is available here."
As the extent and depth of his feelings grew, Bassan started discussing his plans with his parents. But during 11th grade, an illness and complications raised doubts as to whether he would be able to see those plans to fruition. He reluctantly applied to American colleges, still determined to remain here after a year or two of yeshiva if his health permitted. Fortunately, he was able to realize that dream.
ROAD TO ALIYA
Bassan chose Yeshivat Hakotel for his post-high school studies and has stayed there, just steps away from the Western Wall, ever since.
"Hakotel has been a good fit for me in many ways. The atmosphere is Israeli, and it's very warm and spiritual. The [teachers] are easy to connect to and the learning was a good level for me. And of course, it's in a very significant location."
After Hanukka of his first year, he again broached the idea of aliya with his parents. "Thank God, we didn't have any arguments, just discussions of practicalities," he said. "Ultimately, they wanted me to do what was best for myself. Although they would love to have me in closer proximity, they prefer for me to be farther away and happy, having a more fulfilling life, than to be in America constantly wanting to be somewhere else."
Bassan met with representatives of Nefesh B'Nefesh even before returning for a second year at Hakotel. He decided it made sense to plan his immigration before university. "If I wanted to live here, I figured I should be educated here, in Hebrew."
The next order of business was deciding how to contribute to the nation through some sort of national service. While Bassan initially hoped to serve in the army, either in a combat or "jobnik" position, he realized that it would not work out from a medical standpoint. In his search for other meaningful modes, he began to think about Sherut Leumi (National Service) instead.
"I saw that Sherut Leumi was more practical and flexible, and in the end would enable me to help out the nation in a more significant way," he said.
Most participants are religious women, but Bassan discovered that there is a division for men. He met with the department head and discussed the options available to him.
Before Pessah of his second year at Hakotel, Bassan went back to New Jersey until his Nefesh B'Nefesh charter flight left on August 3.
He was surprised to find that while most of the families on the plane were Orthodox, most of the 60-odd singles were not - proving the fallacy of the popular assumption that only religious Americans choose to live here. Of the latter group, 55 were headed to army service as lone soldiers.
En route, he sensed a charged atmosphere. "Everyone was making aliya together and everyone was so excited about it," he said. "When you get off the plane there are so many people waiting to greet you - some of them just because they want to see olim coming in."
Preliminary tasks such as signing up for a health plan and a phone were accomplished in one day. "The only bureaucratic problems I ran into were with the army," Bassan said.
Needing an IDF exemption before beginning National Service, Bassan waited six weeks to get an appointment with the army doctor, and two months later was still sorting things out.
However, he still was able to start serving in October at a boys' elementary school in Jerusalem's Nahlaot neighborhood, where a male tutor and role model is particularly appreciated. Five or six days a week, he works with children needing extra help, assists teachers and performs administrative chores.
He hopes his efforts will aid the pupils not only in their studies, but perhaps more importantly in the crucial development that occurs during these years. "I don't necessarily want to go into education," he said, "but I really do enjoy it there."
Bassan started writing all his class notes in Hebrew during his junior and senior years in high school, putting words he didn't know into brackets so he could look them up later.
"When it was time to choose a yeshiva in Israel, I wanted to be in a place where I could improve my Hebrew. In Hakotel, I made a lot of Israeli friends, and during meals I made an effort to sit sometimes with Israelis and to speak with my roommates and study partners in Hebrew."
As a result, he manages well at the elementary school, but he keeps a piece of paper in his pocket to write down unfamiliar words.
Bassan plans a career in environmental engineering. "In the sciences, a lot of the vocabulary is in English anyway. I imagine university at the beginning won't be so easy, but I'll get used to it."
Bassan likes to explore the country with friends. He also helps out in a local soup kitchen, and has organized classmates to volunteer at an institution for children from broken homes.
For Shabbat, Bassan usually visits relatives. "When I'm not with family, I'm in the yeshiva, where we often dance down to the Kotel and have a warm and spiritual Shabbat."
ADVICE FOR POTENTIAL OLIM
He expressed his hope that large numbers of olim will signal "the start of some big events for the Jewish people," and encourages others to join him - prior to university, if possible.
"If you feel strongly about coming, for whatever personal or national reason, the bureaucratic problems shouldn't stop you. Just being here, in a Jewish atmosphere, is a big privilege."
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