I’d already spent two years in Israel when I came back officially as an Oleh Hadash, a new Israeli immigrant. I remember it fairly well. January, 1978. Having finished university and done a stint on Kibbutz, the time had come to get serious.
The plane landed sometime in the early evening. I was by myself, had no family here, but a few friends. They probably knew I was coming back, but waited for my call.
Of course, coming over as an Israeli meant that I had to ‘go through the mill.’ Actually it wasn’t too bad. The normal filling in forms in the airport office of the ministry of immigration, and then waiting for the free ride to my choice of destination. I do recall raising my voice as the hours marched on, but was told, ‘savlanut, savlanut’ (which means patience). I didn’t have much choice. My Hebrew wasn’t non-existent, but certainly not good enough to express myself in any great detail.
Finally, riding in some kind of truck, I made it to a dormitory in Talpiot, Jerusalem sometime after midnight. The gate was locked and it took some time until the building’s Russian guard finally heard the doorbell and let me in. The housemother showed me to my room, where my new roomate was rudely awakened in the early hours of the morning. Eventually he forgave me and is today a friend living in nearby Kiryat Arba.
That was how it began. No bells or whistles, but an inner sense of pride - ‘Here I am, now I’m an Israeli.’ It was a good feeling.
Yesterday I ‘made Aliyah’ all over again.
We had friends who were coming over on the Nefesh b’Nefesh flight, bringing some 230 new Israelis to our homeland from North America. The Abrams family, from Atlantic City, New Jersey, were finally coming home.
This flight over was far from their first. The family has been visiting Israel for at least one month every summer for over ten years. A few years ago they almost made it a permanent stay, but were held up at the last minute. The real hero of the family are not the parents, rather their oldest daughter, Elana, who decided that Atlantic City really wasn’t the place for a ‘good Jewish girl’ to go to high school. So a few years she left the US for Israel, on her own, to attend a women’s school in Bnei Brak. She came to visit us in Hebron every now and again; we tried to ease her way as much as we could. But in reality, her success was her own. A month ago she finished, Bagrut (graduation examinations) and all, and is planning, a year from now, to begin medical school here in Israel.
Standard studies weren’t enough of a challenge, so Elana also volunteered with Magen David Adom, and rode around in ambulances in the middle of the night assisting people who needed help. When that wasn’t keeping her busy she starred on her school’s basketball team.
In about a month Elana will begin her ‘Shnat Sherut,’ a year of volunteer work religious women undertake in place of army duty. She will be continuing her work with Magen David Adom and emergency aid, based in Kiryat Arba.
And during her free time she’ll be helping her parents and siblings adjust to their new lives in Jerusalem.
A month or so ago my daughter, who’s just a year older than Elana, received an invitation to greet the family at Ben Gurion airport upon arrival of the Nefesh b’Nefesh flight. The plane was supposed to land at about 7:30 AM, and invited guests had to be there by 6:45. That meant we’d have to leave the house at about 5:00. A little early for me. But at the last minute we decided to go.
It didn’t take too long until the Terminal 1 hall was packed with others just like us, waiting to welcome the new Israelis. Having a press pass, I was able to wait only meters away from the shuttle buses transporting the people from the plane to the airport. About thirty Israeli soldiers in dress uniform lined the walkway, with live music creating an authentic holiday atmosphere. When the first bus pulled up they began playing ‘Hevenu Shalom Alechem’ with hundreds of people waving Israeli flags, singing and cheering. As the passengers stepped off the bus, they seemed to be stunned.
There were young and old, singles and families of six and seven children. One group included a four generation family. Among the arrivals were eighty five youth who will be inducted into the army in a couple of weeks. From five months to ninty four years old, all coming to live in Israel. The expressions on these people’s faces left little need for words - they could not believe the reception they were receiving, as they took their first steps as Israelis.
My friends were on one of the last shuttles arriving at the terminal. I’d been filming video and photos of the festivities, but when I saw Ken and the others step off the bus I couldn’t really control myself. I ran over to him, grabbed his hands and started dancing, around and around and around.
Earlier in the morning I’d interviewed an NBN member, who told me that whenever he participated in these events, he had tears in his eyes. Well, he wasn’t the only one.
Finally, with everyone in the hall, a beautiful ceremony commenced, which included a speech by President Shimon Peres and a performance by Israeli singer Rami Kleinstein. But the ‘stars of the show,’ as far as I’m concerned, were Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Mr. Tony Gelbart, who initiated Nefesh b’Nefesh less than a decade ago, and have, so far, brought over 25,000 new Israelis to Israel.
Watching the event, I could only look back and remember my Aliyah experience over thirty years ago, put myself in these people’s shoes, and say to myself, “Welcome to Israel.”