November 18, 2018

Episode 104 – Back in the USSR

In the 1990’s the Iron Curtain finally came down, making it possible for approximately 1 million Russian Speaking Jews to flee and immigrate to Israel. It was the biggest single immigration wave in Israel since the 1950’s.

But many things have changed since Israel began accepting immigrants – or Olim as they are called in Hebrew, in the golden years of the 50’s. Then, the concept of the melting pot, embraced by Ben Gurion in the hope of creating one homogenous Israeli culture – kept the Israeli society from disintegrating into secluded factions, by enforcing severe pressure to erase the past completely and assimilate at any cost.

But that policy has dissipated over time. The result was, and in many ways still is – a cultural chaos.

Amidst this chaos enters Alex Rif, a daughter to Russian-speaking parents. Alex was raised as an Israeli, but realized that something inside her longs for her ancestors’ Russian culture. She formed the group Generation 1.5, in the goal of bringing new life to the Russian-Israeli culture. Alex joins 2NJB to speak about her struggles, hopes and initiatives.

Young olim won’t feel alone

When Avital Avraham, 17, of Sherman Oaks arrived in Israel earlier this month with plans to make aliyah and join the Israel Defense Forces, she said she was “honored that Israel is opening their arms to me even though I wasn’t born here.”

She wasn’t alone. Avraham was one of 331 North American and British immigrants to Israel — including 12 from the Los Angeles area — whose arrival here was celebrated Aug. 13 during a ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport. Israeli Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar was among those welcoming the olim, or immigrants under the Law of Return, with words of praise.

“You [make] the biggest and most important decision — to leave your familiar home in different places to immigrate to Israel,” he said vehemently. “This is the core of Zionism.”

The olim arrived from New York on a flight chartered by the organization Nefesh B’Nefesh, which supports aliyah efforts, and they were greeted by more than 1,500 supporters. The audience waved Israeli flags, cheered and even danced as they listened to notable guests. Singer Rami Kleinstein, himself an oleh, also performed.

Avraham, who speaks Hebrew and whose father is Israeli, said she chose to enlist in the IDF because she feels she should contribute — “just as every Israeli would.”

Danielle Tubul, 17, of Tarzana, who is considering remaining in Israel for college and beyond, said she believes it is her “duty” to complete her Israeli army service.

Like both women, Ofir Elkayam, 17, of Oak Park acknowledged the challenges they will experience as Israeli soldiers who are foreign-born. Still, Elkayam, who hopes to be accepted into Shayetet 13, Israel’s version of the Navy SEALs, said he believes the whole process of making aliyah is one big challenge.

“We left our jobs and our families behind, and what could have been a very successful college career,” he said.

This is not to say these teenagers are all alone. Israeli Scouts (Tzofim), for example, has a program called Garin Tzabar that is meant to create a support network for these teens. Tzofim offers lone soldiers, or soldiers whose families live outside Israel, the opportunity to be placed in a group together, or Garin.  The idea is that a Garin becomes a surrogate family for each of the oleh soldiers as they are acclimating to Israel and the army together.

A West Coast branch of Garin Tzabar organized seminars in Los Angeles for these olim with the goal of mentally and emotionally preparing them for military service and life in Israel. Elkayam said these seminars created a familial bond among participants even before they left the United States.

“We all got to know each other at the first seminar we had. Everybody connected,” he said. “It’s been a family ever since. We’ve been hanging out every day.”

Noam Harari, 18, of Agoura Hills said he already feels incredibly close to his Garin. For the next three months, this group from Los Angeles will live together on a kibbutz, where they will acclimate to Israeli life, go through ulpan (a Hebrew study program) and begin being evaluated by the military. Once they are in the army, the kibbutz will continue to be their home, where they can be together on weekends.

It was through the West Coast branch of Garin Tzabar that Harari heard about Nefesh B’Nefesh. Not only does the latter organization charter flights to Israel for olim,  they also aim to provide all types of support for them while they make aliyah and afterward.

Its founders, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart, established the group in 2002 after Fass learned that many American Jews decided against making aliyah because of the financial, professional, logistical and social obstacles involved. Among its partners is the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Nefesh B’Nefesh isn’t just for immigrants who are enlisting. On this recent flight alone, it also sponsored physicians, lawyers and 41 families. There were physicists who are settling in the Negev.

Fass, during his speech at the Aug. 13 ceremony, said all of these olim are “heroic” for leaving their lives abroad to contribute to Israel.

“I saw a sign that said ‘Welcome Home Heroes.’ I think that encapsulates the whole day,” he said.

The event marked several milestones for Nefesh B’Nefesh, including this flight being its 50th.

Gelbart said afterward that making aliyah will not only benefit the immigrants personally. They, in turn, make Israel a better country.

“It sends a message to the enemies of Israel that people are always coming because they’re coming to Israel. To friends of Israel and people that love Zionism, it gives them adrenaline,” he said. “It gives them power to continue.”

Olim land in Israel on eve of Chanukah

Some 76 new immigrants from North America arrived in Israel on the eve of Chanukah.

The new immigrants arrived Tuesday morning on a Nefesh B’Nefesh group Aliyah flight organized in conjunction with the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption and
the Jewish Agency. They will kindle the first Chanukah light in Israel.

Eyal Marx from the United States brought two menorahs with him explaining that they “have been in my family for generations and I inherited them from my parents when they passed away. Each one of these menorahs, in a way, represents the light they still shine on me from above. Tonight I will have the privilege of lighting my first Chanukah candle as an Israeli citizen.”

1,000 new immigrants set to arrive in Israel

The final 1,000 new immigrants for 2010 are arriving in Israel.

The immigrants coming from 25 countries will arrive in Israel through the end of the year on special flights arranged by the Jewish Agency for Israel, the agency said in a statement. Some of the flights and the reception of the new immigrants are organized in cooperation with Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption.

New immigrants from South Africa and Australia on Wednesday were scheduled to receive their national identity cards in a ceremony near the Western Wall.

The new immigrants will be arriving from many countries including France, Italy, Belgium, Great Britain, South Africa, USA, Canada Mexico, Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Spain, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Australia, Germany, Georgia, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.

“The new immigrants contribute to the strength of Israeli society and the strength of the connection between Jewish communities of the Diaspora and the State of Israel,” said Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency. “Every new immigrant is a bridge linking his/her Diaspora community with their old-new land—Israel. We welcome every new immigrant who has decided to come live in Israel and build their future and their children’s future here.”

Fishel to Play Key Falash Mura Role

John Fishel took his seat on the jetliner and glanced across the aisle. Seated near the president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles was an Ethiopian woman. Resplendent in traditional garb, she cradled an infant in her arms and looked lovingly at her toddler son seated beside her.

Fishel smiled. Everywhere he looked, he saw the excited, nervous, expectant faces of nearly 150 Jewish Ethiopian olim, or immigrants, on their way to Israel to begin their new lives.

When the plane landed at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel after the 4 1/2-hour flight from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, the olim and the 100 American Jewish federation members accompanying them erupted into applause. Some of the immigrants cried; others kissed the tarmac as they exited the plane.

“It was very emotional,” said Fishel, whose work on behalf of Ethiopia’s Jews has helped put their plight high on the agenda of United Jewish Communities (UJC), the umbrella organization that represents 156 Jewish federations and 400 independent communities across North America. “Jews must help each other whether they live around the corner in Fairfax or around the world in Addis Ababa or [the Ethiopian city of] Gondar.”

This month, the delegation that included Fishel took a whirlwind trip from Israel to Ethiopia and back to witness the dire situation of the Falash Mura — Ethiopians who have ties to Jews either through relatives or their own ancestry. Others on the trip included Ada Horwich, co-chair of the L.A. Federation’s annual campaign; Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, and other professional and lay federation leaders from around North America.

During the UJC-sponsored five-day mission, federation members visited health clinics in Ethiopia run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). They saw JDC distribute meals of carrots, potatoes and beans to hungry Falash Mura, who were eating, perhaps, for the only time that day. The delegation also saw families living in one-room, windowless huts without electricity or running water, adjacent to raw sewage-flooded streets.

The visiting Americans then took the emotional trip with 148 olim to Israel. In Israel, mission members watched the newcomers welcomed with sandwiches, shekels and smiles in absorption centers.

For Fishel, the recent journey brought back memories of his first visit to Ethiopia nearly two years ago. Traveling with four members of the UJA-Federation of New York, the delegation saw the myriad difficulties faced by the thousands of Ethiopians waiting to make aliyah — immigration to Israel. Then, as now, Fishel wanted to help.

After the trip, UJC leaders asked the L.A. Federation leader to co-chair a group to recommend how North American federations can help the estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Falash Mura remaining in Ethiopia.

It was partly at Fishel’s instigation that the UJC launched Operation Promise. The ambitious campaign hopes to raise $160 million over the next three years, with $100 million for Ethiopia and $60 million to help Jews of the former Soviet Union.

The Ethiopian funds would go toward Jews waiting to emigrate, for the construction of temporary housing and other needs. It also would pay for new absorption centers in Israel, as well as for improving educational opportunities for young Ethiopians living in the Jewish state.

“John helped keep [the plight of Ethiopian Jews] on our map and put it strong and center with his strong advocacy,” said Howard Rieger, president and chief executive of the United Jewish Communities.

Fishel has long been interested in the work of supporting struggling Jewish communities abroad. In the past five years, Fishel has visited Argentina, Central Europe and the former Soviet Union. Fishel, who holds two degrees in anthropology from the University of Michigan, said Africa’s cultural diversity and migration patterns have made the continent particularly fascinating to him.

Going forward, Fishel said he plans to spotlight the problems faced by Ethiopia’s Jews to raise $8.5 million for Operation Promise over the next three years. Much is at stake.

“Through pictures, through words, we will now begin to publicize a lot more aggressively the needs of Jews in that part of the world,” he said.

Without aid from American Jews, Fishel added, the plight of the Falash Mura “could become even more desperate.” These Ethiopians “want to come to Israel, and they have the potential to become an extremely important human resource for the country.”


Temple Still Stands

“Yonah has a question and I thought that you would have the answer.” This was the father’s sentence that broke the silence of my learning in the empty beit midrash in Jerusalem some five summers ago.

Yonah and his father had wandered into the beit midrash a few moments before, seeking information about the community and the neighborhood, since they were potential olim. I was alone in the building and had no choice but to be welcoming and helpful to them. I answered their questions about rent, shopping, demographics and even kindergarten possibilities for Yonah (things every rabbi needs to know). I blessed them with safe travels and fruitful decisions and prepared to return to my learning.

Then they were back. “Yonah has a question and I thought that you would have the answer.”

For a brief second I tried to avoid what I heard. You can tell adults anything (we rarely hear what is really being said to us), but children can only be told the truth. Children and teenagers both listen and hear; anything less than the truth is sinful. My anxious face cracked a smile as Yonah looked up at me and said, “Mimi, every day we pray for the rebuilding of the Mikdash [the Temple], and this morning my father took me to the Kotel [the Western Wall] and the Mikdash isn’t there. Mimi, why isn’t it there?”

I stared at Yonah thinking to myself, “Ribbono Shel Olam [Master of the World]. I am sitting in front of a child who actually believes that You listen and answer prayers. Thank you for the gift of sitting in his presence.”

And to Yonah I said in dismay, “What? It’s not?!”

“No, it isn’t,” was his immediate response.

“Yonah, can you please do me a favor,” I said to him, while inside I begin to pray like never before. He nodded. “Can you please close your eyes for a moment?” I asked.

Yonah obediently closes his eyes.

“Can you see it now?” I asked/prayed. He stood motionless. I waited and prayed, not knowing what he was seeing and what he would say, not knowing what the next step we would share was.

He smiled: “Yes, I can see it now.”

“Now Yonah, I want you to open your eyes and I want to tell you a secret.”

He stared into my eyes with trust I have rarely seen. Truth and trust are related, so I have learned.

“There are some things, Yonah, that you can only see with your eyes open. When you walk in the street you need to keep your eyes open because it is very important that you see where the sidewalk ends and where the street with the cars begins. You have to keep your eyes open in the street. But then there are things that are very close to our heart and very important to us. If we want to see these things, we can see them, but only with our eyes closed. If you want to see the Mikdash you can see it, but only with your eyes closed, not with your eyes open.”

Yonah’s smile reappeared and I began to breathe again. Yonah had taught me what I had come to the beit midrash to learn that morning and had failed to find in the books.

Vaetchanan is one of the few Torah portions that have a fixed time in the year for it to be read. It is always read on Shabbat Nachamu (“to be consoled,” named after the opening words of the haftarah that we read this Shabbat) — the Shabbat after Tisha B’Av — after we have mourned the destruction of the Mikdash. Moshe beseeches God, endlessly, so much so that God has to tell him, “Enough!” Many sources work with the numeric value of the word “Vaetchanan” (515) saying that Moshe prayed 515 prayers or that he sang endless prayers to God (the Hebrew letters of the word shira, meaning song, also has the numerical value of 515). Moshe teaches us to never stop praying regardless of what our ears might or might not hear, regardless of what our eyes might see. Moshe reminds us that reality simultaneously includes and transcends facts when God is part of the equation of our life. And though Moshe was told that he would not enter into Eretz Yisrael so early on in the journey through the desert he truly understands that being in a relationship with God is about being able to stand in God’s presence and pray, and request and beseech, regardless to the Divine response. Being able to hear the One and Only say “No” every day, or even hearing the supernal silence is also a gift from God.

“Nachamu, nachamu ami yomar Hashem Elocheichem” (Y’sha’ayahu / Isaiah 40, 1) “Be consoled, be consoled my people says Hashem your God.” It is asked in the name of one of the Chasidic masters, why nachamu (be consoled) is repeated twice. He answers that the first nachamu reflects God consoling us, the second nachamu is us consoling God. The ability to be consoled by God and the ability to console God come from the wisdom that Moshe withheld while standing on the top of the mountain peeking into Eretz Yisrael and Yonah withheld while seeing the Mikdash as standing in that beit midrash.

Standing in the presence of God enables one to see oneself within a personal promised land — despite the objective physical distance. Standing in the presence of God enables us to believe that our prayers are heard and our personal Mikdash has never been destroyed — regardless of what our senses reveal.