On packed flight to Israel, hundreds of American Jews, emboldened by Gaza crisis, start lives anew


Daniel Knafo was wide awake aboard the Boeing 747 as sunlight began peaking over the northern horizon of the Mediterranean Sea early on the morning of Aug. 12.

Less than 10 hours earlier, he was at the departure terminal of John F. Kennedy International Airport with more than 300 American Jews, all of them embarking on a journey to start new lives in Israel.

And shortly before that, the teenager was at Los Angeles International Airport, bidding farewell to the city he called home for the first 17 years of his life.

At about 5 a.m., Knafo was standing in the aisle of El Al chartered flight 3004, which was cruising above the Mediterranean and less than two hours west of Ben Gurion International Airport, where the Woodland Hills native  would step on to the tarmac with the other 338 other Jews onboard—young, old, married and single.

Guy Zohar and Daniel Knafo, both from the San Fernando Valley, at Ben Gurion Airport.

Of those, Knafo was also one of 108 young Jews planning to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces within the first few months of making Israel home. This flight was chartered by Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that promotes aliyah to Israel from North America and the United Kingdom. The group assists families and individuals in making the move, with financial support, assistance with the job hunt and other myriad obstacles that immigrants have to navigate.

It was the organization’s 52nd chartered aliyah flight since its founding in 2002, during which time, according to its website, Nefesh B’Nefesh has helped more than 30,000 diaspora Jews move to Israel.

The timing of this particular flight full of immigrants, or olim, may strike some as particularly poignant, given the on-and-off war that has enveloped Israel for the past several weeks—Hamas has fired 3,500 rockets into Israel since July 8, according to the IDF. And in response to the rockets and the discovery of more than 30 underground cross-border attack tunnels, Israel’s military launched a ground and air assault on Hamas’s strongholds in Gaza, most of which are densely populated within civilian neighborhoods. The war has left a reported 64 Israeli soldiers, three Israeli civilians, and 1,881 Palestinians dead.

But for Knafo and numerous other American olim interviewed by the Journal at JFK airport and aboard the flight, the Gaza war is not a deterrent to making aliyah—it is, at least in part, a catalyst to move to the Jewish state.

“I want to be there more than ever,” Knafo said, as dozens of fellow soon-to-be soldiers socialized around him. “Nothing will stop me from joining.”

Knafo, who attended El Camino Real High School and graduated from New Community Jewish High School, hopes to serve either in the IDF’s paratrooper unit (Tzanchanim) or in the elite Golani Brigade. He is honest with himself about the risks he will face. “If they tell you they are not scared, they’re lying,” he said of all the  young immigrants preparing for military service.

Not long before leaving, on July 20, Knafo attended an evening candlelight vigil in Los Angeles for Max Steinberg, another former student at El Camino Real High School who left Los Angeles to volunteer in the IDF. Steinberg and six other soldiers were killed in Gaza when their Golani unit’s vehicle was struck by Hamas anti-tank missiles in the first days of the IDF’s ground incursion.

Knafo said that he felt guilty leading a normal life while Israel was embroiled in war.
“It kills me that while they are fighting I’m in L.A. living the life, driving my car, going to the beach,” he said. “I don’t think its right. That’s why I want to be there more than ever.”

Knafo is one of 49 Jews from California who landed at Ben Gurion Airport early on the morning of Aug. 12 on the chartered flight—25 of whom will be joining the IDF. And while a large swath of the plane’s other passengers were also from New York and New Jersey (117 and 45, respectively), the group of olim hailed from places as far north as Alaska and Canada’s British Columbia, and as far south as Georgia and Florida.

Matt and Ariella Rosenblatt, also from Los Angeles, decided that this would be their last chance to make the move with their three children. Their oldest, Yishai, 8, was approaching the age when, Matt said, he and Ariella wouldn’t feel as comfortable starting a new life for the entire family.

Matt and Ariella Rosenblatt, moving to Israel from Los Angeles, with their three children at JFK after a ceremony led by Nefesh B'Nefesh

The Rosenblatts plan to stay with relatives this week until they receive the key to their apartment in Efrat; Matt, who had a job as an actuary in Los Angeles, will follow up on some work leads in Israel. Shortly before a joyful and celebratory departure ceremony at JFK—where the olim were greeted by Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, Ron Prosor and American-born Knesset member Dov Lipman — Matt said he and Ariella discussed the distinctive timing of their move, but decided against delaying or cancelling .

“Had we been there already two months and then this started up while we were already there, we wouldn’t have come back, so, really, what’s the difference?” Matt said.

The Rosenblatts a few moments after landing in Israel. They will soon move into an apartment in Efrat.

Onboard, as the flight neared Israel, Ariella was keeping an eye on 1-year-old Yair, her youngest, and recalling the couples’ conversations about the fact that their children would eventually have to serve in the Israeli military.

“We’ve talked about it. We were like, ‘Wow, that’s two sons in the army,” she said. “It’s scary.”
Feeling “excited” and “a little nervous,” Ariella added, seeing your children serve in the military is a price of living in Israel, and that, “We need to be home when our country is in this situation.”

Throughout the group, not one person interviewed expressed regret or fear, either at the decision to start anew in Israel, or at the choice to go now and not wait until the advent of cease-fires that would endure in longer than 72-hour intervals.

In fact, the spirited mood on board the airplane echoed, on the one hand, the feel of a Jewish summer camp field trip (with teenagers and young adults mingling, sitting on laps and barely sleeping), and on another hand, the patriotic Zionist mission that it was. Many passengers wore shirts that read, “Aliyah is my protective edge,” a reference to Operation Protective Edge, the IDF’s official moniker for its Gaza campaign.

Whenever a Nefesh B’Nefesh staff member referenced over loudspeaker those on the flight who would be enlisting with the IDF, much of the plane erupted in applause.

And, upon arrival at Ben Gurion, the new arrivals were greeted by Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s recently appointed president, and Natan Sharansky, the renowned Soviet refusenik and chairman of the Jewish Agency—as well as hundreds of cheering Israelis and dozens of reporters and cameramen covering the arrival of the newcomers from North America.President Reuven Rivlin and Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky greet the olim as they descend to the tarmac.

Lena Elkins, who flew Friday from her hometown of San Francisco to New York, was one of a small number of young olim aboard the flight who will jump straight into her professional life without first joining the military. A recent graduate of the University of Oregon, Elkins’ younger sister moved to Israel last year and is in the IDF.

Living in Israel, Elkins said a few hours into the flight, has been on her mind since a visit six years ago with the Jewish Federation’s Diller Teen Fellows Program. And while she wishes she had served in the military, she said finding work is her priority now. Doing so in Israel, she said, particularly now, is also a major part of the Zionist project.

“I think it [Gaza] honestly has strengthened it [aliyah],” Elkins said. “It’s what Israel needs right now. This is what Zionism is. It’s people being there for Israel.”

Shortly after stepping foot on the tarmac and getting a feel for the love Israelis heap on diaspora Jews who move here, Channah Barkhordarie, a recent doctoral graduate of UCLA, said aliyah entered her mind last September, when her PhD advisor moved to Israel.

Barkhordarie, like Elkins, has no plans to enlist in the military and views her decision to live here as a way to “support this state.”

“Coming here and studying here and living my life here—that’s my show of support,” she said.

Everyone, it seemed, had made their aliyah decision long before this summer’s turmoil but that decision was only rendered more meaningful by the recent war, as well as the deaths of three Israeli teens by terrorists that provoked the fighting.

Toby and Chaby Karan, from Riverdale, at JFK airport.

“We just couldn’t cope with just being here,” Toby Karan, who moved from Riverdale, N.Y. with his wife, Chava, and four children, said at JFK airport before departure. “There were days through the past two months, the hardest days, that we said we’d never more wanted to live in Israel.”

On the flight, Liat Aharon, 18, sat calmly in her seat as many of her friends around her bounced around the cabin. “It seems like a dream,” said the Encino native of the approach to Israel, but she added, “It keeps getting scarier and scarier; I can’t believe it’s already happening.”

When asked, though, whether she felt as if she was leaving home or going home, she responded immediately:

“I’m going home.”

Israel stops to remember victims of Holocaust


Israel came to a standstill as a siren sounded for two minutes in memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

Following the siren Monday morning, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry participated in a wreath-laying ceremony in the Yad Vashem Hall of Remembrance as part of Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Kerry then joined Israeli President Shimon Peres for the “Unto Every Person There is a Name” ceremony held each at the Knesset, where Peres read out the names of his relatives who were victims of the Holocaust. Names of Shoah victims also were read by the chief rabbis, ministers, Knesset members, former Knesset members, members of the Yad Vashem administration, members of youth movements, soldiers, world association representatives, and delegations from abroad.

Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday night at the national Yom Hashoah ceremony at Yad Vashem that the hatred of Jews is still strong more than 70 years after the Holocaust began.

“The map of Europe still contains local stains of anti-Semitism,” Peres said at Sunday night's ceremony in Jerusalem, his voice breaking with emotion. “Racism erupted on that land in the last century and dragged it down to its lowest point. Ultimately the murder which came from her, damaged her.”

“Not all the flames have been extinguished. Crises are once again exploited to form Nazi parties, ridiculous but dangerous. Sickening anti-Semitic cartoons are published allegedly in the name of press freedom.”

Netanyahu said in his address to Holocaust survivors and their families, “Hatred of Jews has not disappeared. It has been replaced with a hatred of the Jewish state.”

He followed his assertion with quotes of anti-Semitic statements made by Iranian religious and political leaders.

Six Holocaust survivors told their stories in a prerecorded video before they lit the six torches representing the 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust.

The ceremony was broadcast on all Israeli television channels and on several radio stations. On Yom Hashoah in Israel, places of entertainment are closed and Holocaust themed-movies and documentaries are shown on television channels. Memorial ceremonies are held throughout the country.

On Monday, the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem and the Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael held a joint Holocaust commemoration ceremony dedicated annually to commemorating the heroism of Jews who rescued fellow Jews during the Holocaust. The ceremony took place in the Martyr’s Forest “Scroll of Fire” Plaza.

The ceremony recalled the rescue activities of Otto Komoly, president of the Zionist Federation in Hungary and the chairman of the Hungarian Jewish community’s clandestine Rescue Committee, and later director of the International Red Cross' “Department A” responsible for rescuing Jewish children.

On Sunday, Israeli military chief Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz left for Poland with an Israel Defense Forces delegation to the March of the Living in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Gantz will lead the March of the Living — the first time the march was led by a current IDF chief of general staff. Some 10,000 people from all over the world are participating in the march.

Gantz also was scheduled to lay a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw, where a military service will take place.

On the weekend prior to Yom Hashoah, dozens of young Poles who recently discovered their Jewish roots came together in Oscwiecim, the site of the Auschwitz camp,  for a weekend educational seminar under the auspices of Shavei Israel.

Yom HaShoah in Israel [SLIDESHOW]


Ceremony at Yad Vashem

Panetta to meet Barak, Netanyahu, Peres in quick trip to Israel


Defense Secretary Leon Panetta arrived in Israel to discuss United States-Israel defense ties and the potential threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

Panetta will meet with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres.

“We are a friend, we are a partner, we have — as the defense minister has pointed out — probably the strongest US-Israel defense relationship that we have had in history,” Panetta told reporters before the meeting, according to the Associated Press and Times of Israel. “What we are doing, working together, is an indication not only of our friendship but of our alliance to work together to try to preserve peace in the future.”

Panetta did not go into specifics on the Iran discussions, but said that he and Israeli officials would be “discussing various contingencies and how we would respond.”

On Tuesday, President Obama announced tougher sanctions on Iran’s energy sector and banks, according to the AP.

Also on Tuesday, Netanyahu told Israeli Channel 2 News that he had not yet made a decision on whether to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, but urged military and security officials to keep the debate over such a strike out of the public sphere.

Netanyahu, Peres hail U.S. friendship, leadership on Independence Day


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in an Independence Day message that he “appreciate(s) deeply all that America has done for Israel.”

The taped video message was played Tuesday night at the Independence Day celebration at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in Herzliya. Netanyahu did not attend the event, due to a leg injury sustained while playing soccer with Jewish and Arab children last month.

Referring to the Middle East, Netanyahu said real democracy is not just having popular elections.

“By ensuring both popular sovereignty and individual rights, the nations of the region can join America and Israel in being genuine democracies,” Netanyahu said, adding that “there is ample reason for skepticism.”

However, he continued, “In the long term I believe there is reason for hope,” because “the power of freedom is bound to prevail.”

Israeli President Shimon Peres was the main speaker at the Independence Day celebration, which featured hundreds of guests.

“There is a historic friendship between our two nations. America was, and remains, Israel’s greatest ally and its closest friend,” Peres declared.

He called President Obama’s decision to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom “a moving gesture of a great leader, a great friend, President Obama. It was an expression of the unshakeable bond between our countries, our two nations, our two peoples. I felt the commitment of President Obama to the peace and security of the State of Israel. It was an uncompromising pledge to the security and future of Israel followed by generous implementation.”

Peres also discussed the shared values between the two countries, saying “The United States and Israel were conceived as ideas, to better society, serving a greater good. Always dreaming and always looking forward. Never hating, never attacking and always seeking peace. We share similarities. We are both immigrant-based societies. We both share a pioneering culture. But even more importantly we share a moral compass; we champion freedom, cherish liberty and are committed to the pursuit of happiness. We both see science and technology as the route to a better world. We value the individual as an entrepreneur and the collective responsibility as a source of strength.”

At funeral, Israel’s leaders praise Shamir’s dedication and service


Israel’s leaders paid tribute to former Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir at his funeral at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl cemetery.

An intimate but distinguished crowd sat opposite a military honor guard at the outdoor ceremony on Monday evening. Joining Shamir’s children and grandchildren in attendance were Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; President Shimon Peres; the head of the Israeli Defense Forces, Benny Gantz; the Sephardic chief rabbi, Shlomo Amar; and other political, religious and military leaders.

Shamir died Saturday at the age of 96. He served as Israel’s prime minister from 1983 to 1984, and from 1986 to 1992.

Peres, who was both Shamir’s coalition partner and main political opponent in the 1980s, praised Shamir’s strong beliefs and called him “a leader who followed his path until he departed this world” and “one of the best leaders of Israeli democracy.” Peres alluded to his and Shamir’s ideological differences several times throughout his eulogy, but emphasized that “we were sons of the same nation.”

In his eulogy, Netanyahu stressed Shamir’s lifetime of service to the state, noting that Shamir fought in an underground militia before Israel’s founding, and then as a secret Mossad agent afterwards, until he reached positions of leadership.

“He was a known man, but even then it seemed that in his heart and his actions he kept looking at himself as that anonymous soldier for his people and land,” Netanyahu said.