A homecoming for Olim


Elissa Einhorn first wanted to make aliyah (emigrate to Israel) 30 years ago, but her late father, a Holocaust survivor who was convinced America was the best place in the world, didn’t support her dream. 

So, the 56-year-old writer from Sacramento stifled the urge to relocate to the Jewish homeland until last summer when, on a mission to Israel with Honest Reporting, a media watchdog that monitors coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, her desire to make aliyah was rekindled.

“I was surprised that all those emotions came back after 30 years, so I just decided to really think about whether I can really do this. I’m not a young person anymore, and, uh,” she said, beginning to cry as she spoke onboard an Aug. 17 chartered Nefesh B’Nefesh flight, “it’s just unbelievable I’m on this plane.”

Founded in 2001, Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) facilitates aliyah for people from North America and the United Kingdom. The organization works with numerous agencies, including the Jewish Agency for Israel, Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Immigration Absorption, and the Jewish National Fund-USA in making the aliyah process as smooth as possible. The organization crossed the threshold of bringing its 50,000th oleh (immigrant) on last week’s charter flight.

From left: San Fernando Valley residents Lidor Asulin, Natalie Rubinstein and Tamir Marom were among those onboard the Nefesh B’Nefesh flight. Photo by Ryan Torok 

The plane, which departed New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) on Aug. 16, carried 223 olim (people making aliyah) who, incuding Einhorn, have followed through with their wish of moving to Israel. The plane landed in Israel at Ben Gurion International Airport on the morning of Aug. 17. Those on board included 75 young adults who are making aliyah with the intention of joining the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), with women outnumbering men, 41 to 34. 

There were 13 people from California on board, including three 18-year-olds from the San Fernando Valley who are from Israeli families and are joining the IDF.

“I don’t want to do an office job; I can do that here,” Natalie Rubinstein, 18, of West Hills, who wants to be an artillery instructor in the IDF, told the Journal in a restaurant at LAX before the departure of a red-eye flight to New York. “I want to do physical stuff.” 

She was joined by Tamir Marom, 18, and Lidor Asulin, 18, both from Woodland Hills. The three met through their membership in Tzofim, an organization offering programs that develop and maintain the connection between Tzofim (Israeli Scouts) in Israel and Jews in North America. After completing their preparation for the IDF through Tzofim’s Garin Tzabar program, the youth are enlisted into an IDF unit, becoming “lone soldiers” — members of the IDF who are living in Israel without the support of immediate family members. More than  6,300 lone soldiers are currently serving in the IDF, according to lonesoldiercenter.com, an organization that offers social and practical support to lone soldiers and their families.

“I don’t think we’re really alone, to be honest,” said Asulin, who is joining the IDF after deciding he wasn’t yet ready for college. “Eventually we all become family, one way or another.”

That’s the hope of NBN. Tani Kramer, the organization’s associate manager of public relations and communications, was among those staffing the flight. Originally from Sacramento, Kramer made aliyah to Israel with his family after he completed ninth grade. The family had been living in Israel for two years at the time, for what they believed would be a temporary stay. His father, a professor from the University of California, Davis, was ready to take the family back to California, but Kramer wasn’t interested. When he told his parents he’d found a family friend who would take him in, Kramer’s father decided the entire family would stay.

In an interview with the Journal on board the El Al airplane, Kramer spoke about what he called his “Nefesh moment,” which he had several years ago, after having joined the organization. Kramer interacted with a young adult who’d been contemplating aliyah but who had decided he wasn’t ready. Later, he ran into this man’s father. The man hugged Kramer, told him his son had made aliyah and that he was thankful to Kramer for facilitating the son’s decision.

Shortly before the plane landed in Tel Aviv, Kramer was wrapping tefillin with many of the observant olim. Meanwhile, the less observant were mingling. The excitement was palpable as the airplane neared its destination. Soon the flight attendants told everyone to be seated, and as the airplane descended into Israel, people on board broke out singing “Am Yisrael Chai.”

The plane was filled with a variety of passengers, and families with small children constituted a considerable number of those on board. Among them were the Eisens, a family of six from Los Angeles with plans to settle in a home they’ve purchased in Beit Shemesh.

“We’re excited,” said Ethan Eisen, a father of four who with his family most recently lived in the Pico-Robertson area, “[though] it was a little tough saying goodbye to some friends.” 

The youngest person on the flight was 3 1/2 weeks old. The oldest was 85. 

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin and NBN co-founders Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart were among those who addressed the olim during a welcoming ceremony in an airplane hangar at Ben Gurion airport. 

“You are no longer Jews in exile,” Rivlin said, speaking to a crowd of hundreds, including current Israeli soldiers who came to greet the olim. “You are Israelis.”

Angelenos Make Aliyah Dream Reality


 

It’s 4 p.m. “Erev Christmas,” and 21-year-old Adam Bodenstein is still rushing around his home in the Pico-Robertson area. He has yet to take a shower before Shabbat comes. In four days time, the Modern Orthodox UC Berkley graduate, who grew up in a Conservative household, will board a flight at New York’s JFK Airport that will take him to his new home — Israel.

But this is no ordinary El Al flight. This is Nefesh B’Nefesh’s (NBN) eighth flight (and first-ever winter flight) in three years.

NBN — co-founded by Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, a dynamic, vibrant redhead from Florida who made aliyah, and fellow Floridian Tony Gelbart, president and CEO of CPM Worldwide Group investment company — started out as a blip on American Jewry’s radar screens back in 2002. The two set out to boost North American and Canadian emigration by providing financial support and helping alleviate the obstacles and burdens inherent in making aliyah. To date, the organization has brought almost 4,000 new immigrants to the country; more than 100 have been from the Los Angeles area.

Bodenstein will have to wade through ulpan and the Israeli army but will have the additional support of his Israeli wife (whom he incidentally met in Los Angeles) when they marry this summer.

Four days later, at JFK, 45-year-old Modern Orthodox convert Howard Posner, from the Beverly-Fairfax area, is wandering around slightly dazed, having taken a red-eye the night before. Orlie Dekel a 26-year-old from Culver City has spent the last five days with cousins in New York, but is still one of the last to arrive at the airport and hasn’t finished packing. Two other Southern Californians are also taking the aliyah plunge: 62-year-old Modern Orthodox divorcĂ©e Danielle Schonbrunn of Valley Village and 22-year-old newly religious Dvora Nir.

The very fact that there are five Angelenos on this flight is a sharp change from previous flights, in which the majority of the new immigrants tended to hail from the East Coast. And unlike NBN’s previous seven flights, this particular planeload boasts a significantly high proportion of singles.

At 62, Schonbrunn is retired and is finally realizing her aliyah dream by following in the footsteps of her sons and daughter-in-law who made aliyah with NBN in 2002. She’ll live out her retirement near them and their six children in Ramat Beit Shemesh, just outside Jerusalem.

All the Angelenos speak of how much easier they feel it is to be taking the plunge without the burden of having to support and raise a family, and all believe that as singles they have the opportunity to reinvent themselves. Schonbrunn said she is looking forward to “going to ulpan and becoming a schoolgirl again.”

Posner, who underwent an Orthodox conversion in 2002, made his way out to Los Angeles in 1997, clutching a feature film he had written, directed and produced, in search of the elusive Hollywood dream. But that quickly turned into “a Hollywood nightmare” and Posner became a mild-mannered paralegal. He said NBN has afforded him the opportunity to rekindle his artistic dreams.

Converted, married and divorced within the last three years, Posner made his first ever trip to Israel in April 2004, and after only two weeks was hooked on the country. When he returned to Los Angeles he worked feverishly every night to produce a book complete with photographs documenting his extraordinary experiences in Israel, which he hopes to publish.

“I want to use the tools Hashem gave me as a writer and a filmmaker to show how our people are living and doing good things in Israel,” he said.

Oddly enough, during Posner’s 13 months of marriage, aliyah became a major topic between him and his then wife. Financial constraints, including the couples’ attempts to have a child, put those dreams on hold. The marriage didn’t last — but Posner’s dream did. He is the first to admit that it’s his newly single status that has allowed him to follow his heart to Israel, where he said his first job is to try and master Hebrew.

Dekel and Nir do not face such language barriers. Nir is a k’tina hozeret — a returning minor, born in Israel who moved to Sherman Oaks with her Israeli father and American mother at age 8. And Dekel, although born and raised in Los Angeles, grew up in a Hebrew-speaking household, the child of Israeli parents, both of whom, along with her married sister, now live in Israel.

For Dekel, her life in Los Angeles has been anything but easy. Her entire family returned to Israel six years ago, and Dekel has been living in her own apartment, paying her own bills as a preschool teacher at Conservative Temple Isaiah and putting herself through college. Still, her independent spirit has prevailed. Instead of moving in with her mother in Neve Zedek or her sister in Givatayim, Dekel, who dreams of getting married and starting her life anew, has chosen to live at Kibbutz Be’erot Yitzhak near Ben-Gurion Airport.

She’s also thinking of changing careers. She’s interested in gourmet cooking and is considering studying culinary arts. The move, Dekel said, is an opportunity for “an extreme makeover,” starting with an appointment at her sister’s hair dressing salon the day after she lands, where she will bid farewell to her jet-black curls and become a brunette. She also loves Israeli clothes and can’t wait to buy a new wardrobe.

At 22, Nir, who grew up in a secular household, became newly religious two years ago — six years after her parents did.

“I just couldn’t give up my secular lifestyle back then,” she said.

Now, Nir is making her way to a Lubavitch seminary in Tsfat with a religious fervor that seeps out of her every pore.

“Tsfat is the place where you can hear your soul,” she said, without a trace of irony.

A Birthright graduate who spent a year at the Neve seminary in Jerusalem, Nir said the catalyst for her took place two years ago when she put a note into the Kotel stating, “‘God, I want to be with you.’ And he said, ‘OK,'” she said with a smile.

Yet despite her rose-colored visions, Nir said she has also been practical in her decision. For her, now is the time to leave Los Angeles, while she can still do all the things she wants to do and experience Israel before she is married with a family — which she expects to be sometime in the near future.

“Jews in America talk about wanting to have their bodies shipped to Israel when they die,” she said. “I say, why come to Israel just to be buried when you can live here?”

It is perhaps the most eloquent summation of the energy, fervor and commitment that all of these former Angelenos have to their new home in Israel. They all acknowledge the financial and economic hardships that await them, but refuse to let that dampen their spirits. They all have a philosophical attitude toward terrorism — citing incidents of drive-by shootings in Los Angeles and the Western media’s over hyping of the “matzav” or situation — and said they need to just “live their lives” and hope they will be safe in Israel.

But most of all they acknowledge they couldn’t have done it without NBN. Posner didn’t tell anyone that he was leaving until his NBN grant came through six weeks before his departure. Schonbrunn becomes overwhelmed with emotion as she talks of the organization’s generosity. Nir said NBN is “heaven sent”; Dekel is thrilled that after attempting the aliyah paperwork in Israel two years ago, NBN was there to help her through the difficult steps. Bodenstein — who has a degree in religious studies — pays the organization the ultimate compliment, hoping to eventually work for NBN or a similar organization “to do Zionist educational work for the Diaspora.”

And that is why, in spite of jet lag and sheer exhaustion, when Fass ascends the podium at the hangar Ben-Gurion and tells everyone to phone home immediately and tell their friends, family and loved ones that it is “a precious gift to live in artzenu [our homeland], and you should all consider coming, because we’ll have the planes ready,” a deafening roar goes up from the latest group of “Jewish souls” who now call Israel home.

For information on Nefesh B’Nefesh, visit