The Human Spirit: Toward self-realization, and contribution

Nefesh B'Nefesh's greatest innovation is its unambivalent encouragement of aliya.

aliya 224.88 nefesh  (photo credit: Nefesh B'Nefesh)
aliya 224.88 nefesh
(photo credit: Nefesh B'Nefesh)
We're eight miles above the Atlantic Ocean in the cockpit of a Boeing 777. A full moon, melon-yellow, hangs like a giant balloon in the silent sky. "This is the most advanced passenger plane in the world. You only need an experienced pilot when anything goes wrong," says Capt. Gideon Livni. He is an experienced pilot. He's been flying for El Al for 18 years. Before that, he was full-time IAF. Livni keeps a watchful eye on the rows of illuminated buttons of the flight deck, as the management and satellite communications system propels us eastward from the United States to Israel. But there's time to relish the passenger log: Tonight he's carrying 240 immigrants, among them 104 children. The oldest passenger is 72, the youngest one month old. That doesn't count the guests like me on this chartered flight, invited by Nefesh B'Nefesh, the six-year-old nonprofit organization which spares no effort to catalyze and facilitate immigration of North American and British Jews. Every Zionist cell of my heart is beating fast when I meet the immigrants at JFK. "Are you making aliya? And are you making aliya?" I ask them. I can spot the immigrants among the well-wishing friends and relatives who have come to wish them a bon voyage. THE MIX of excitement and weariness is etched in their faces. Despite the help of Nefesh B'Nefesh staff at every juncture of the immigration process, packing and closing up households and planning for a new life remain a huge challenge. A pregnant mother of five from Los Angeles has a blaring headache. A father of five from Queens, originally from Azerbaijan, sounds uncertain as he describes the forthcoming move to Bnei Brak to make sure his children grow up with Jewish values. He asks me if I think I made the right decision by leaving America so long ago and bringing up my children in Israel. I assure him that I have no regrets. Just the opposite. I moved to Israel in 1971, the bumper year of all time for immigration from the US when, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, 7,364 Americans took on Israeli citizenship. But as terror and economic troubles of the second intifada combined with a lull in immigration, a mere 1,237 Americans became Israelis in 2000. That was before Nefesh B'Nefesh reversed this trend. The organization has brought 36 chartered and 22 group aliya flights, totaling more than 16,000 immigrants from the US, Canada and the UK. At last, the well-wishers depart, and the passengers fill the wide-bodied jet. They applaud as Capt. Livni takes off. BY THE time these men, women and children land - nine hours and change later - they'll step onto Israeli soil as fully-processed new immigrants. They don't even have to go through passport control or customs. Interior Ministry reps spend a sleepless night walking around the plane with electronic PC-Tablets, the electronic pads that hold the personal details of every immigrant. These were developed by Nefesh B'Nefesh as one of a myriad of technological devices aimed at making the notoriously labor-intensive aliya "paperwork" an anachronism. Their immigrant cards will be waiting at Ben-Gurion Airport, and three days later they can pick up their ID cards at the Nefesh B'Nefesh office in Jerusalem. We veteran Israelis can appreciate this dazzling efficiency even more than the newcomers. Nonetheless, the operative question remains the same as it was decades ago: Why are you making aliya? I can still pinpoint the exact moment I decided to move to Israel. Why are these Americans Jews, from such a variety of ages, religious practices and lifestyles, uprooting themselves and casting their lots with the Zionist enterprise? For Beverlyn Baer, 22, in a sleeveless T-shirt, the decision was about falling in love. She discovered Israel on a Birthright Israel free trip, loved it and also one of the soldiers who accompanied her group of college kids. She came back and volunteered in Ramle for five months to get better acquainted with the country and the young man. Her boyfriend will be waiting at the airport and they'll go to either the Golan Heights or Tel Aviv. They haven't decided yet. Jo Anne Alderstein is a much-heralded immigrant attorney in New York. Today she is an immigrant herself. The events of September 11 were a personal wake-up call. On September 5, 2001, she'd moved into her dream apartment near the World Trade Center. Then her daughter gave birth to a baby in Israel and Alderstein quit unpacking and caught the first flight out. Hence, she missed the terror attack. "If that wasn't a kick in the pants, I don't know what is," she says. Her dream has changed; her dream apartment is now on Rehov Emek Refaim in Jerusalem. To remind herself, she'll keep a framed magazine cover of the New York skyline before 9/11 next to the words "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning," at the entrance to her Jerusalem apartment. "I should have come 30 years earlier," she says. "I knew I needed to come. The existence of Nefesh B'Nefesh made the transition easier." Indeed, the organization is an endless font of practical information: your rights as immigrants, where to go for Hebrew classes, how to arrange health insurance and register the kids for school, how to release your shipment from customs. It also provides financial aid. But the greatest innovation is the warm welcome and encouragement; there's nothing ambivalent about its belief in aliya as the ultimate tool for self-realization and for building the State of Israel. EBULLIENCE OVERCOMES tiredness on the flight. The immigrants can hardly sit still and catch up on their sleep. No steward reprimands them as they crowd the aisles, introducing themselves to others, jotting down names, ideas. Immigration means starting all over in acquiring the contacts of people who will be your friends and provide a safety net for you. At one bulkhead seat, a young religious couple from New York are rocking their eight-month-old daughter. The father turns out to be an Israeli, the son of American immigrants. On a visit to the US, he met Jenny Rosenfeld, a graduate student in English literature, at a Shabbat dinner table. It was love at first sight for both of them. They married and waited for her to complete her doctorate. His name is Pinhas Roth and he's from the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem. Suddenly I realize who he is: the older brother of the late Malki Roth. Malki was planning a youth movement activity with her best friend Michal Raziel in the Sbarro pizza restaurant when a terrorist with a guitar-case full of explosives murdered them. The eighth anniversary of their death will take place in two days . "Our baby's name is Neshama Malka," Jenny says softly. "We know she has the wonderful soul of her Aunt Malki." I think about how Nefesh B'Nefesh got started. In 2002 Yehoshua Fass was serving as a successful community rabbi in Boca Raton, Florida when his Israeli cousin was murdered by terrorists. He got a clear vision of what he had to do. He couldn't replace his cousin or other victims of terror, but he could pledge to do everything within his power to encourage immigration from the West and strengthen the State of Israel in their memory. Aliya had to become easier if it was to attract Western immigrants. Rabbi Fass found a partner in Florida businessman Tony Gelbert in forging a service-centered aliya engine that would provide the answer to overcome the daunting economic and practical obstacles associated with the move. He would set the example. Fass and his family were on the first Nefesh B'Nefesh flight, and he and Gelbert are on this, the 35th flight, as they seek to continually refine the process. At first they relied on private donations, but at the end of 2005 the Israeli government began contributing too, and they work together with the Jewish Agency and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. The aliya of eight-month old Neshama Malka Roth is the fulfillment of their pledge. Sitting in the cockpit as we sail through the sky, I share some of these stories with Capt. Livni, who hasn't had a chance to meet the passengers. He tells me a little about himself, how he grew up on a kibbutz and how he formed and commanded the very squadron of F-16s that astronaut Ilan Ramon flew in. Later, when I have access to the Internet I'll fill in a few details about the good captain which he didn't share with me. His name pops up on Web sites that mark the world's ace pilots. It seems that the avuncular Livni flew Mirages and downed six planes in the Yom Kippur War. But it's the contribution of immigration to which he gives credit for the country's success. "The million Russian Jews saved our country," he says. "I don't know where we'd be without them. Now, if only we had a million Jews from the United States, we'd really be in terrific shape." Still musing aloud, Livni says, "If only we could figure out how to get them to come." Then suddenly his face lights up in a wide smile. Nefesh B'Nefesh does indeed know how to get them to come. The process has started. There are 240 new immigrants in his plane right now. Livni issues new orders to his crew. Today each El Al breakfast omelet will come with a plastic cup of Israeli wine. As the newcomers are reaching the Promised Land, the veteran fighter pilot wants to toast them with a l'hayim.