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.”

Respect, inclusion and tolerance at the Western Wall


“There are no villains in this story.”  Those were the calming words of Natan Sharansky, renowned human rights champion and Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. The story was of in-fighting that has erupted among Jews at the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism.  Sharansky, tasked with resolving the issue by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, spoke to a group of Los Angeles Rabbis last week, knowing that the monthly Jewish holiday of Rosh Hodesh will arrive this Sunday – and many Jews will gather again for prayer at the Western Wall.  The prospect of clashes has unsettled the Jewish world. 

Some of those gathering will be part of “Women of the Wall,” a group of women and men meeting every Rosh Hodesh for almost 25 years. The women will be praying as a group in the women's section. Others will be women and men who believe that the way “Women of the Wall” pray violates Jewish law. Last month on Rosh Hodesh these differences led to an ugly confrontation. As the great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote a generation ago, “From the place where we are right flowers will never grow in the spring.” From the place where we are right, violence erupts.

We are American rabbis from different denominations; we know there are different ways to be a Jew.  We know that the ability to disagree civilly does not grow spontaneously. It takes many years of cultivating relationships and building trust through meeting, listening, sharing, and working together. This is a process that diaspora rabbis and Jews have been engaged in for decades, one which has begun to bear real fruit in recent years.

[RELATED: L.A. rabbis urge calm at the Kotel]

Here in Los Angeles many of us are reaching across our divisions to model a relationship of respect and dignity.  Despite our deep differences, we all equally love the Jewish people and the State of Israel. We dare not demonize or dehumanize one another.

The Western Wall is a central symbol to all Jews.  But this Wall that has united people can also divide us.  Winston Churchill used to say that Americans and the British are two peoples separated by a common language. The two groups vying for control of the Western Wall are two communities separated by a common scripture, the Torah. Matters of conscience are not themselves amenable to compromise or negotiation.  Still, we all believe that a principal element of conscience is to listen and learn from one another and to show the respect and dignity that befits an ancient people and a great tradition.

Few know that better than Natan Sharansky, who languished in the gulag for eight years. He was chosen by Israel’s Prime Minister to come up with a solution, one that would defuse a dispute that spilled over to Jewish denominations in the United States, and strained relations between diaspora Jews and the State of Israel at a time that she is threatened existentially by Iran and the possibility looms of a front opening up with Syria. Sharansky reminded us that while each was – and still is – convinced of the justice of his or her position, there was another side to be heard.

Freed in exchange for a Soviet spy in 1986, Sharansky explained that he was whisked off to Jerusalem, now in the company of his wife Avital from whom he had been separated so many years before, right after their marriage. One of his first stops, of course, was the Western Wall. He clung to Avital’s hand to remind himself that this was no fantasy, no dream from which he would wake up in solitary confinement once again. Nearing the Wall, however, he and Avital had to briefly part company, as men and women are separated in prayer in Orthodox tradition.  He did not convey this with any resentment. (His wife, in fact, is Orthodox.) He told us of what he understood at that moment. The Western Wall serves as a place to pray for countless Jews. But it also serves as a powerful focus of national Jewish yearning and aspiration, quite apart from religious belief. Somehow, both have to be satisfied, and that is what his plan would try to do, embodying the key Jewish and democratic values of mutual respect, inclusion and tolerance. Sharansky and the Government of Israel should be commended for engaging in this ambitious effort to resolve such a difficult problem.

We believe that this is a message that resonates not only among the Jews of our great city, but among all our neighbors as well. At a time when the Middle East faces increasing upheaval and bitter partisanship has become a norm even within many democratic countries, this is a theme worth amplifying and repeating. And with the help of G-d, perhaps some of our determination will reflect back to Jerusalem, the “City of Peace,” and make it more peaceful yet. With some gentleness we can ensure that flowers will always be able to grow.

Signed,
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Rabbi Denise Eger
Rabbi Ed Feinstein
Rabbi Morley Feinstein
Rabbi Laura Geller
Rabbi Judith HaLevy
Rabbi Eli Herscher
Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky
Rabbi Elazar Muskin
Rabbi Kalman Topp
Rabbi David Wolpe
Members of a Task Force on Jewish Unity comprised of Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Progressive and Reconstructionist leaders

Letters to the Editor: Women of the Wall, Gun Violence, Angelina Jolie


Words at the Wall

If praying with tallis and tefillin was all that Women of the Wall (WOW) wanted, they would be satisfied with the Sharnsky compromise of a third section for all other forms of Jewish worship (“Stone-Walling,” May 24). If they accepted that, they would also be allowing the Orthodox to have a place where they could pray the way they wanted to. The 2,000-year history of ritual and prayer at the Kotel should be allowed to continue and have its place as well.

This type of “theater” illustrates that it’s not just equality that WOW want, but rather to impose their practices and values on others. This is frighteningly similar to Muslims who want to impose their will on democratic societies.

Adrienne  Eisenberg
Tarzana

I hope every Jewish person comes to the Kotel; every man, woman and child who can get there, comes to the Kotel, regardless of level of frumkeit, age, attire. Come, just come, and maybe when the whole squawking mess of us shows up at the Wall, unable to discern who is enemy and who is friend, we’ll come to realize that we all are Jews and we are all friends; that there has never been the need to fight. Am Yisrael Chai.

Rachel Ann Anolick-Hindarochel
via jewishjournal.com


Tefillin Not for Sharing

I don’t find this exciting at all (“My Grandfather’s Tefillin,” May 24). In my opinion, it’s really a shame and disrespectful. I think we women must remember how holy it feels to have a man that is not equal to us; being the man, they are unique and special.

Doreen Cohanim
via jewishjournal.com


Gun Violence

What’s with the obsession with gun violence (“Scandal!” May 24)?  It’s not even among the 15 leading causes of death in the United States, according to National Vital Statistics Report. It’s down a stunning 49 percent since 1993. 

And according to a recent Gallup poll, most Americans (86 percent) think job creation and economic growth should be Congress’ top priority (gun control is next to last).

Warren Scheinin
Redondo Beach


Advances in Breast Cancer Surgery

Dr. Albert Fuchs’ column on Angelina Jolie’s preventative double mastectomy addressed the difficult issue of breast cancer surgery very well but it’s worth emphasizing an often overlooked aspect — the type of mastectomy performed (“Understanding Angelina,” May 17). The mastectomy that Jolie underwent is not the old-fashioned procedure that leaves a woman with a horrible scar across the chest in place of her breast. This operation, a leftover from the early days of surgery, is gradually being replaced by operations that join the best of plastic surgery with cancer surgery, together known as oncoplastic surgery. These surgeries are proven to accomplish cancer prevention or treatment as effectively without the deformity that destroys the lives of many breast cancer survivors.

Jolie’s surgery, a nipple-sparing mastectomy with implant reconstruction, is just one version of these operations that remove the cancer-forming breast tissue inside the breast but leave the skin and even nipple intact. The volume inside the breast can be replaced with an implant, as in Jolie’s case, or natural fat from elsewhere in the body. As a result, Jolie can look forward to a new life without high risk of developing breast cancer but still have breasts that look and feel normal. The important point for readers of the Journal is that you don’t need to be an A-level actress to access these advanced oncoplastic procedures. Most preventative mastectomies and breast cancer surgeries are amenable to similar surgical techniques, but, like many things in medicine today, it pays to do a little homework and be a more informed patient.  

As doctors involved in the treatment of this heartbreaking disease on a daily basis, we applaud Ms. Jolie opening the discussion and Dr. Fuchs for his informed column.

Dr. Joshua D. I. Ellenhorn, director, Tower Breast Center
Dr. Joel A. Aronowitz, director of plastic surgery, Tower Breast Center


Poetry Men

I may be mistaken but each and every time I pick up the Jewish Journal and there is poetry in your Poem section, the poet just happens to be female. Is there a reason for this bias or is this just the quirkiness of my no longer religiously reading your journal and fortuitously missing the males?

Daniel Goodman 
via e-mail

 
Editor’s Note: In just the last seven issues, the Journal has published the poetry of Tony Barnstone, David Gershator, Jake Marmer and Bill Yarrow. Look them up at jewishjournal.com/poetry and see what you have been missing.


Correction

In the photo caption for “A Match Made in … Israel” (May 17), Nevo Segal is on the left, not the right.

Easy to forget, Sharansky tells March


Former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, who now heads the Jewish Agency for Israel, led more than 10,000 people in the March of the Living in Poland on Yom Hashoah.

“We have come here today to remember. But it is easy to forget,” Sharansky said at the beginning of the march at the Auschwitz concentration camp on Monday, Holocaust Remembrance Day. “It is easy to say that the lessons of Auschwitz have been learned. It is easy to say those two magic words: Never again. The hard part is giving those words meaning. That is our challenge. That is your challenge.”

Participants from 45 countries, not all Jewish, took part in the march. Black ribbons were attached to Israeli flags carried during the march as a demonstration of sympathy to the Polish people on the loss of their president and many of the country’s leaders in a plane crash on Saturday.

Israel’s top-ranked tennis star, Shahar Pe’er, was scheduled to join the march accompanied by her grandmother, who is a survivor of Auschwitz.

A siren sounded throughout Israel for two minutes on Monday morning in honor of the victims of the Holocaust. Following the siren, memorial ceremonies began at Yad Vashem, where wreaths were laid, and at the Knesset, which held a ceremony during which the names of Holocaust survivors were read.

Defending Identity


Natan Sharansky’s previous book, “The Case for Democracy,” changed the world. It inspired a generation of U.S. policymakers and influenced President GeorgeW. Bush in his decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein.

So when Sharansky’s second book, “Defending Identity,” came out this month, I thought I’d better read it, quick.

I did last Saturday, so that by Sunday, I could sit down with Sharansky and ask him about it.

I met Sharansky at his hotel on the Westside. The former deputy prime minister of Israel, who is now director of the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, had just arrived from Israel and was napping when I knocked on his door. He rubbed the sleep from his eyes, grabbed my hand and pulled me inside. Sharansky is half my height and twice as commanding, a pierogi body with basset hound eyes.

A mutual friend offers to call down for coffee.

“Yes,” Sharansky says, “a cappuccino.”

That a man who spent nine years in a Soviet gulag might one day find himself in a sumptuous hotel room, specifying a foamy hot coffee drink, vindicates, if not God’s eternal justice, then at least Her dark sense of humor. And Sharansky’s. He takes a moment to tell how he once excused himself from wearing a tie to meet then-President Bill Clinton.

“I told him, Mr. President, in Israel we have a law. Anyone who spends nine years in the Soviet gulag doesn’t have to wear a tie. And he said, ‘That makes sense.’

“So, later, Putin says to me, ‘Why no tie? Is that a protest?’ And I say, ‘No. First, in Israel we have a law that anyone who spends nine years in the Soviet gulag doesn’t have to wear a tie. And besides that, the president of the United States said it was OK.'”

Sharansky is awake now, and it’s time to talk identity.

In “Defending Identity,” Sharansky argues against the idea, popular among some of the intelligentsia and on many college campuses, that a strong sense of identity among social groups is the source of friction and war. As Sharansky explains “post-identity” thinking: “Identity causes war; war is evil; therefore, identity is evil.”

Sharansky’s book is an extended argument against that premise. Although identity can be “used destructively,” he writes, it is also a force for good.

Strong identities, Sharansky argues, “are as valuable to a well-functioning society as they are to secure and committed well-functioning individuals. Just as the advance of democracy is critical to securing international peace and stability, so, too, is cultivating strong identities.”

Sharansky co-authored the book with Shira Wolosky Weiss. But the source of its deepest insights are drawn from Sharansky’s own life.

“I have been extremely lucky — twice lucky in fact,” Sharansky writes. “I was deprived of both identity and freedom, and then I discovered them both simultaneously.”

The first third of Sharansky’s life was spent as a loyal Soviet citizen in a state that had outlawed and crushed expressions of cultural and religious identity. “The only thing Jewish in my life,” he writes, “was anti-Semitism.”

The Six-Day War awakened Sharansky, as it did so many others, to his Jewish identity. “I started realizing I was part of a unique history … that carried a unique message of community, liberty and hope.”

In 1978, five years after Sharansky applied for a visa to immigrate to Israel, the promising mathematician was arrested by the Soviets, tried for treason and spying and sent to the gulag. He spent 16 months in prison and nine years in a forced labor camp in Siberia. Throughout this ordeal, Sharansky became both leader and symbol of the Jewish immigration movement and the Soviet dissident movement.

A massive international protest on behalf of all Soviet dissidents led to Sharansky’s release in 1986. Upon his release, he flew to Israel, reunited with his wife, Avital, and has lived the third part of his life as an activist, writer and politician.

It was, Sharansky writes, his deep sense of identity that enabled him to fight the Soviet empire.

“I discovered that only by embracing who I am … could I also stand with others,” he writes. “When Jews abandon identity in pursuit of universal freedom, they end up with neither. Yet when they embrace identity in the name of freedom, as Soviet Jews did in the 1970s, they end up securing both.”

While Sharansky’s biography makes his case especially compelling, others have made the same point. Consider the biblical story of the Tower of Babel, in which all the people spoke the same language and therefore couldn’t see their own sinfulness. Judaism has long held to the now-subversive belief that difference needn’t be divisive. Most recently, the chief rabbi of England, Jonathan Sacks, in “The Dignity of Difference,” wrote that “universalism can also be deeply threatening.”

Where Sharansky goes further is in alloying identity with democracy. When I point out to him that Muslim extremists don’t suffer from a lack of identity, he leaps forward in his chair.

“Exactly!” he says. “Their identity is not bad; what is bad is their lack of devotion to democracy.”

In that sense, this book on identity follows naturally Sharansky’s now-classic one on democracy.

“Identity, if it is not connected to democracy, it becomes fundamentalist, totalitarian,” he says. “But freedom and democracy without identity means freedom becomes decadent, powerless, meaningless, without any commitment. Exactly what John Lennon said. Let’s have a world in which there would be nothing to fight for. And then a small group, with a strong identity and without any obligations to democracy, can destroy this wonderful world of freedom.”

I am finding myself nodding as one of my heroes — Sharansky — trashes another — John Lennon. But if Lennon sang — with a bit of irony — about utopia, Sharansky is explaining the real world.

“The free world is in a big, big danger,” he says, “because we are in a conflict with fundamentalists, and what they are saying is they have something to fight for, and we don’t.”