Having spent earlier sabbaticals here in Israel, I knew the subject of aliyah loomed as a background issue but hardly expected the untold ways it would recast itself.
Jerusalem’s stylish German Colony, where we rent a furnished apartment, has seen an influx of French-speaking olim – so much so that when one of the Hildesheimer Street shul’s Simchat Torah honorees came forward, a chorus of “La Marseillaise” rang out. I once heard the congregation’s black-frocked rav trying to explain a complex Talmudic point and then wondering aloud in Hebrew whether he should add some French to his vocabulary.
The aliyah theme surfaced again in a friend’s e-mail announcing he planned to arrive the following month on a flight sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN), the aliyah service organization.
“Scary,” he wrote, “but better scared than sorry.”
After making a mental note of his December 27arrival date, I was reminded once more of aliyah at the premiere showing of the film “Refusenik” at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival. This moving account, showing both the heroic Jews trapped in the Soviet Union desperate to emigrate to Israel a generation ago and the daring activists in the United States who took up their banner, held personal meaning for me.
In 1968, I wrote one of the first books on their struggle (The Unredeemed: Anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union), and on three occasions visited these Prisoners of Zion. Whatever tears I shed during the movie were dwarfed by how I felt when Sharansky, Levin and some fifty other survivors of the Gulag (some now aided by canes and walkers) came onstage afterward to a five-minute standing ovation.
As though some master plan were at work, the next morning an ad appeared in newspapers inviting readers to welcome NBN’s 31stchartered aliyah flight at Ben-Gurion Airport.
Two more experiences underscored the theme of aliyah. Less than a week before the trip to the airport, the Daf Yomi class I attend at the Hildesheimer shul finished the tractate Ketubot, the last few pages of which glorify the land of Israel to the extent of allowing husbands and wives to divorce spouses who refuse to settle there.
The world of the dreamers who trekked across Europe three centuries ago to board boats sailing to the Holy Land came alive, only a day before the NBN welcoming ceremony, during a tour to Tiberias run by the Orthodox Union’s Israel Center. I saw the shul founded by the followers of the Baal Shem Tov, and in the city’s old cemetery, the tomb of Rav Yisroel of Shklav, one of the students of the Vilna Gaon who made the precarious journey.
It was 5 a.m. and still dark when my wife and I boarded one of three chartered buses parked in front of Jerusalem’s Binyanei Ha’uma for the ride to the airport. Among the passengers, many of whom carried homemade signs, were joyous teenagers, teenagers and twentysomethings, parents with infants in tow, and Shulamith and Yehoshua Neaman, the seventyish couple who had led the previous day’s Tiberias tour.
We sat behind alumni of an earlier NBN flight – a couple from Portland, Oregon, and their three babies – who’d made aliyah as they were becoming more religiously observant, because to their mind the choices were either a larger Orthodox community in America’s Northwest or Israel. They were traveling to the airport to welcome a 21-year-old woman from Seattle who had just finished a pastry chef’s course.
Arriving at El Al’s Terminal 1, I went upstairs where a minyan was underway. What impressed me was the relatively large numbers of boys in the room who were in their early teens. I learned from their madrich (guide) that these 120 students from Kfar Saba’s religious high school had set out early in the morning to fulfill the mitzvah of greeting Israel’s newest arrivals.
At 7:30, the crowd of about one thousand ran outside to the tarmac and formed two parallel lines abutting the makeshift gate where the olim would pass. Fifty chayalot (female soldiers) waving Israeli flags stood at the front of the rows under the bright sun. Israeli music blared, a young man blew into a long, curbed shofar, hand-drawn signs bobbed up and down, guitars sounded. Everyone was pressing to get a glimpse, or touch, or reunite with the new arrivals. It was a scene of joyous, triumphal pandemonium.