Making Aliyah - during the Yom Kippur War

In honor of Aliyah Day on 7 Heshvan, a longtime oleh recounts the first time he saw Israel.

Arieh O'Sullivan and his father Efraim listen to radio news reports during the Yom Kippur War, October 1973. (photo credit: ARIEH O’SULLIVAN)
Arieh O'Sullivan and his father Efraim listen to radio news reports during the Yom Kippur War, October 1973.
(photo credit: ARIEH O’SULLIVAN)
My father Efraim was shot by a black supremacist sniper on the roof of the Howard Johnson’s hotel in New Orleans. It was January 1973. He was the commander of the Intelligence division of the New Orleans Police. He was only wounded, but nine men, mostly other white policemen, were dead.
After years of living on the edge, putting his life on the line, this passionate Zionist decided it was time to take his family to Israel, where he thought it would be safer with a promise of a job in the Israel Police.
After a cross-country journey, we arrived in New York City on the night of October 5, 1973. We got up early the next morning to go sightseeing and then go to the Yom Kippur service at the Lexington Avenue Synagogue. We went in and Papa couldn’t relax just hours away from departure. Something was up. We stepped outside and began walking up the Avenue when he saw someone reading the New York Post. Its extra edition headline read: “Middle East Erupts. Egypt Crosses the Canal, Syrians March on Golan, Air War over Gulf of Suez, Israel Is Mobilizing.” My father’s face had this “Why me, Lord?” look. He was clearly finding out that it’s not easy being a Jew. I didn’t know what the word “mobilizing” meant. I thought it meant disintegrating. I started shaking.
“Well, Papa. What do we do now?”
So here was the O’Sullivan family. We had sold everything and had nothing to go back to. My father bought a small battery-powered radio from a street vendor and we went to Central Park to think it through. He drew maps in the sand as we listened to the newscasts. He tried to pretend it wasn’t as bad as it all sounded but my mother Dina knew better. We called a friend who came and picked us up to stay at his home until we could learn more. There, we glued ourselves to the radio and took out the maps and every time the newscasts came on we’d listen to what was going on. Egyptians laid another pontoon bridge across the Suez Canal, another one and another one. It looked very bad. We couldn’t remain in limbo at our friend’s house in Connecticut forever. We had to make a decision.
My father contacted the shaliach, a Jewish Agency emissary dispatched to encourage Jews to immigrate to Israel, who was based in Atlanta. We had never met him in person and had only known him through telephone calls and letters.
“Go back home and contact me when this is over. Anyway, they need the room on the airplanes for the reservists going back to fight,” he said bluntly.
'New York Sunda News', front page, October 7, 1973. (courtesy).'New York Sunda News', front page, October 7, 1973. (courtesy).
WE HAD no home. Everything we owned was in five bags in the trunk of the car. Besides, this wasn’t the time to abandon Israel. The shaliach took our phone number and promised to get back to us. Later that evening he actually did call, but he had a bizarre message – if my father, and only my father, wanted to go, he could, because he could help as a volunteer. There was no way the rest of us could go.
Mom said, “If you want to go, then go. I’m not taking the children.”
The shaliach called again at about 10 p.m. to say that if we could get to JFK Airport before midnight there were four seats being held for us.
“But we’re five people,” my father said.
“Four seats. Take it or leave it.”
We had long family talks during the day. My father was confident the Israelis would blitz this one just like in the Six Day War six years earlier. The Israeli Defense Forces were invincible. My mother was not so sure. She had never been to Israel before, not even on any pilot trip and had only this year decided to go through the formal conversion process. Becoming a Jew was one thing, but it was something else entirely to take your family into a war zone in a faraway country where you knew no one, didn’t speak the language and had only vague promises of jobs and housing.
On the other hand... the war couldn’t last that long and returning to the life of a cop family where my father would be away for days at a time would most probably have led to a divorce. She had a sense of adventure bursting to get out and she decided to go. We all decided to go.
“We’ll take the four seats,” my father said in the telephone.
The next telephone call Papa made was to his Dad.
“Oh, I’m so glad you called,” my grandfather said. “What time are you coming back? I’ll meet you at the airport.”
“Dad,” my father said. “I called to say goodbye.”
We made a mad rush to the airport, which resulted in a long wait at the terminal. Finally, the five of us got on and even Harry, our dog, was taken along in his cage.
The plane was filled with reservists, mostly shaggy-haired young men traveling, working or studying in America who were now rushing back to fight the Egyptians in the Sinai or Syrians on the Golan Heights. We boarded the plane. Someone had given my sisters and me balloons and little Israeli flags. My father carried little Kelly, five years old, in his arms and she held on to her teddy bear. We were the only family on the plane and we came aboard everyone looked at us with incredulity.
“You’re coming to visit Israel now?” someone asked. “Don’t you know there’s a war on?”
“We’re not just coming to visit. We’re making aliyah,” my father replied, using the Hebrew word for “going up,” which meant immigrating to the Jewish state.
The young men in the front heard this and started clapping. Everyone turned to look, and as word spread: “They’re moving to Israel.” Soon the whole plane was giving the O’Sullivan family a standing ovation. Some were saying something else.
“They’re meshuganim,” the Yiddish word for being absolutely nuts.
WE LANDED at night, October 9. The entire country was under a wartime blackout. There were no lights shining from Tel Aviv to signal we were getting close. Very quickly the plane descended and we landed at Lod airport without fanfare. Most of those aboard were likely deeply anxious about how they were going to get to their military units. At the airport, there were sandbags and armored personnel carriers and anti-aircraft guns. My eyes were wide open.
“Wow, this is great,” I said. Soldiers were everywhere. My mother was scared out of her wits.
“I don’t want to see anything,” she said, shaking her head.
We passed through customs with the aid of flashlights. My dog Harry came around out riding the baggage conveyor belt. Somehow he had gotten out of his cage and when he saw us jumped off and took his position at my side and when we walked out he followed us as if he had been living here all the time.
An official from the immigration agency greeted us and led us to a small transit vehicle. Its headlights were painted over black except for two slits to allow a little of the light out. It was so dark my sister Erin and I became separated and lost for a while until we were found. We drove off toward the mountains for a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. There we were to be put up in what the Israelis were calling an “absorption center.” I didn’t like the sound of that.
Meanwhile at the absorption center of Mevaseret Zion, as it was called, New York-native Shlomo Einstein woke up his wife Sara. They had moved to Israel a few months earlier and he was now in charge of the welcoming committee.
“Sara, wake up,” he said. “I need dog food.”
“Shlomo. Is there something wrong with you?!” Sara said.
“No there’s a family arriving. Their name is O’Sullivan. They have a dog. I need dog food.”
“O’Sullivan! In the middle of the night? There’s a war on. Are you meshugena?”
He wasn’t and he somehow got hold of some dog food and other provisions and showed up as we got out of the transit. Einstein, who had forgotten already our name, but knew it was Irish, came up to my father and the first thing he said was: “Welcome Mr. Kelly.”
They took us to one of the public bomb shelters. They had been locked when the war broke out three days before, but the immigrants had managed to break them open. As a precaution, families were spending the nights in the shelter, known in Hebrew as a miklat. Miklat was the first word we learned in this new country. The light from a single candle was all that lit up the underground shelter. It was an exhausting journey and we all fell asleep immediately wrapped up in blankets.
When morning came, the sunlight cascaded down the concrete steps into the shelter. We slowly climbed the steep steps through the narrow, womb-like passageway. In a kind of rebirth, the O’Sullivan family emerged from this bomb shelter and saw Israel in the daylight for the first time in our lives. It was a most unusual venue for my first glimpse of the Holy Land. 
The writer was defense correspondent for The Jerusalem Post from 1996-2006.