Reporter's Notebook: Beyond the flag-waving

“Watching olim walk being mobbed by everyone with all the music and dancing makes me cry every time” said my wife.

Olim arrive in Israel with Nefesh B'Nefesh  (photo credit: Courtesy Nefesh B'Nefesh)
Olim arrive in Israel with Nefesh B'Nefesh
(photo credit: Courtesy Nefesh B'Nefesh)
My wife promised I would be moved to tears.
“You have to come – watching the olim walk off the bus and be mobbed by everyone with all the music and dancing makes me cry every time,” she said.
I’ve been hearing about the Nefesh B’Nefesh welcoming ceremonies for new immigrants at Ben-Gurion Airport for years now – about how they’re so emotional, the living manifestation of the Zionist dream, the perfect recharger for someone who’s been living in Israel longer than they had in the US.
But the combination of getting up at 4:45 a.m., waiting in long security lines necessitated by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu attending the ceremony and a slight aversion to flag-waving, hora-dancing displays of primal Zionism, all contributed to my ambivalence about attending Tuesday’s ceremony marking the arrival of 350 olim from North America, including 127 lone soldiers as part of the Garin Tzabar program.
My wife and some of my children had already been to a dozen previous ceremonies, she in her capacity of working with the absorption of olim and them due to the generous spread of fresh pastries and iced coffee smoothies provided by Nefesh B’Nefesh (as well as actually liking open and joyous displays of Zionism).
So bleary-eyed and at least hopeful of nabbing a sweet breakfast, I boarded a bus with around 40 other members of my community, most of whom were going to greet arriving friends or family members, and journeyed to the airport. Unfortunately, due to the bottleneck provided by the top-level security check, many of the visitors missed meeting their loved ones during the arrivals procession from the bus that brought them from their El Al flight to the terminal.
For those that did make it through, the scene was indeed impressive, with shrieks of recognition, impromptu dances and tearful reunions being the norm instead of the exception. I tried to get in the moment, but my eyes remained dry. The new arrivals appeared to consist of two different population groups – modern Orthodox families with many small children, and the largely secularlooking 18-to-25-year-olds – many of them children of Israelis who moved abroad, arriving to join the army and sporting identical green tshirts with the slogan “Joining the IDF – Summer 2012.”
Sitting a few minutes later in the hall where the formal part of the ceremony was about to take place with speeches from Netanyahu and the other dignitaries, I started talking to one of the future soldiers name Uri, who had arrived from Los Angeles.
“It’s amazing being here, it’s something I knew I wanted to do since I was little,” he said, adding that he had learned Hebrew growing up from his Israeli parents. Sitting next to him, Tal, a pretty, dark-complected Garin Tzabar member, said that she was hoping to join a combat unit after completing the Hebrew ulpan the group was beginning this week.
In front of them, another lone soldier, Shoham from Tucson, Arizona, was getting a hug from her aunt, Timna, a modern-looking Sabra with short, red, spiked hair from Bat Hefer.
“This is the first time I’ve been here to a ceremony and I never thought it would be this special – it’s been so emotional,” said Timna, above the din of the Jewish soul music being played by a live band onstage.
“It doesn’t matter to me that almost all of the immigrants arriving are Orthodox – they are the beautiful Israelis, and they’re not haredim, so we welcome them.”
The long lineup of speeches began with Nefesh B’Nefesh co-founders Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart, Immigrant Absorption Minister Sofa Landver and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky among the dignitaries welcoming the new Israelis. Most focused on thanking the arrivals for making the decision to throw their lot in with the Jewish homeland and the Israeli people.
Then there was a musical interlude leading up to Netanyahu’s arrival. The band started performing that Arik Einstein standard “Uf Gozal” (Fly, Little Nestling), about leaving home, spreading one’s wings and stepping out into the world.
Looking over, Uri and Tal, who 12 hours earlier had just met in New York boarding their flight, had their arms around each other’s shoulders, swaying to the music and singing along. And that’s when my eyes blurred and I got choked up.
Their sense of belonging, youthful idealism and yes… unabashed Zionism had broken through the smoke screens of flag-waving, debtpaying speeches and long security lines. They – and we – had indeed come home.