Editor’s note: On July 24, Nefesh B’Nefesh chartered a flight to Israel with over 200 new olim. Accompanying the pioneers was Heidi Mae Bratt, a veteran reporter on special assignment from The Jewish Press to cover the journey and its heroes.
Loaded with luggage, Aviva Gottlieb of Brooklyn deftly navigated her cart. With her husband Adam and their five children, ages 12 to 4 in tow, she snaked her way through the throngs gathered at El Al’s departure hub at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens on a recent Tuesday morning.
“Do you know where you’re going?” a staff member asked in an attempt to avert confusion and help move the family from one part of the airport to another.
“To Israel,” Mrs. Gottlieb said without missing a beat.
That simple answer wasn’t exactly what the staffer expected. But her pithy response cut through the lines, the waiting, the anticipation, the anxiety, and even the excitement of that morning, and got straight to the point.
The Gottliebs were among 232 new people making aliyah on the July 24-chartered El Al Nefesh B’Nefesh aliyah flight, the first of two this summer. The flight included 127 children under 17 – the largest number of minors on a chartered flight since the non-profit that coordinates and facilitates Israeli immigration from English-speaking countries began in 2002 – 34 families, 18 singles, three sets of twins, and six future IDF soldiers. They hailed from all over – from Arizona to Quebec, Canada.
“Israel is a gift to the Jewish people,” said Gottlieb, who recently began using her Hebrew name. “When I think back on all the experiences I’ve had in the past, and look at where we’re going, I can see how all the dots connect together.”
Growing up secular, Gottlieb, who works as a grants administrator at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai – a position she’ll retain in Israel – became involved in Judaism as a young adult. As she learned more, her observance deepened. During her second Shabbat on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at the Carlbach Shul – fittingly Parshas Lech Lecha – she met Adam, a psychologist who will be working at a clinic in Beit Shemesh thanks to employment networking with Nefesh B’Nefesh.
When he was in his 20s, he made aliyah, served as a medic in the IDF, but returned to the United States “because he had to meet me,” Gottlieb quipped.
It was during a recent family tour of Israel when the aliyah seeds were planted – and replanted. “After visiting, I was just left with the feeling of, ‘Why aren’t we here?’’’ said Gottlieb. “I just knew that this is where I belong.”
Like many “Anglos,” the Gottliebs chose to live in Ramat Beit Shemesh, a community she described as “a soft landing socially,” especially for their children, Chani, Yael, Avinoam, Yocheved and Frayda. (Just one week into their aliyah, Gottlieb reported that her children already have made new friends.)
For Hani Lowenstein, the youngest daughter of former Connecticut Senator Joseph and Hadassah Lieberman, and her husband Dr. Daniel Lowenstein, a psychiatrist and rabbi, aliyah was always part of their future plan.
They, too, were on the charter along with their four sons, Akiva, 7; Binyamin, 6; Meir, 4; and Avraham Shmuel, 2. Sen. Lieberman and his wife were at JFK for the ceremony and sendoff. While the senator’s presence drew extra attention from the media, the Liebermans were just another set of parents and grandparents bidding their children an emotional farewell.
“We are very proud that Hani and Daniel are making aliyah,” Sen. Lieberman said. “We are grateful that we live in a time when our children can decide to go to Eretz Yisrael by choice. It’s a beautiful thing. Yes, life is easier here, but these two were so intent on making aliyah that they discussed it on their first date. We look forward to visiting them soon.”
Mrs. Lieberman added, “As a child of survivors, I stand here ready to cry as a grandmother with my youngest child and four grandchildren about to leave. But I will not cry. I’m watching them make a dream come true, not only for themselves, but also for my father, who wanted to make aliyah. I am very thankful.”
In acknowledging her own legacy as the granddaughter of survivors, Hani Lowenstein, who works for the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, said, “For us, it’s our dream to continue to build our family in Eretz Yisrael. We’re very excited to be a part of Jewish history and to be able to take advantage of the opportunity to live in Israel.”
The olim on the Nefesh B’Nefesh flight, who ranged in age from 6 months to 80 years, included the Siegels – Sharon, 74, and her husband Jacob, 75, from Brooklyn; the Halper family from Spring Valley, N.Y., and the Craimer family from Riverdale.
Spry and youthful, the Siegels were very excited about reuniting with two of their six children who had made aliyah 22 and 16 years ago, respectively.
“We’re ecstatic,” said Sharon Siegel from her seat during the 11-hour flight. “We’ve been missing out on a lot. It was difficult to leave our other children in the United States, but we thought that now it’s time to spend time with our children and grandchildren who are in Israel.”
Said Jacob Siegel, “Nefesh B’Nefesh has been absolutely incredible and makes it pretty seamless in terms of explaining things for aliyah. And this atmosphere? The big flight? This whole hullabaloo? It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
Transitioning to a new school, a new culture, and a new life would be daunting for most teenagers, but Ayelet Halper, 14, who was aboard the flight with her parents, Jonah, 37, and Rebecca, 36, and siblings, Zeke, 11, Shai, 9 and Hila, 4, is ready.
“I’ve gone to a school [ASHAR in Monsey, N.Y.] that teaches us about Israel and how cool and amazing it is,” said Ayelet. “It really works on teaching us a love of Israel and there is some event every month promoting Israel. Now we’re moving and not just visiting Israel. It’s crazy!”
The Craimer family of Riverdale, too, is realizing their dream of making aliyah after living and working in the United States for the last 15 years. Shim and Ruchie, both 40 and originally from England, and children, Uri, 15, twins Eli and Ben, 14, and Mia, 10, will join extended family living in Modiin.
“This is a new chapter in our lives,” said Shim, who has worked as the chazzan at the Riverdale Jewish Center, and will continue, flying in occasionally, as well as pursue other music opportunities.
Early Wednesday on July 25, when the charter landed at Ben Gurion International Airport, Nefesh B’Nefesh’s 57,000th oleh walked off the plane to rousing cheers, the trumpeting of shofars, and an exuberant reception. People cried as they deplaned, bent down to kiss the ground, and took in what was the beginning of their new lives.
“Today is a celebration in your honor,” Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, Nefesh B’Nefesh’s executive director and co-founder with Tony Gelbart, told the olim gathered inside a giant hangar typically used for the military at the airport. “It is a celebration of your decision, of your courage, your conviction, your clarity of vision, dedication, and devotion to Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael.”
He followed with a recitation of the Shehecheyanu, the prayer said to give thanks for reaching new experiences.
“We are inspired to see so many children making aliyah today with their families,” Rabbi Fass said. “As Israel recently celebrated its 70th birthday, the country is now looking ahead to its future — an era that will be shaped by the ingenuity and passion of courageous and pioneering olim who are starting their lives anew in the Jewish state.”
Sofa Landver, minister of Aliyah and Integration, also addressed the olim – in Hebrew – and promised help, which includes benefits for new immigrants such as financial payments, language instruction, and tax breaks. Nefesh B’Nefesh partners with the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayameth Le’Israel, and the JNF-USA to facilitate immigration through group flights and aid packages.
Since 2017, the organization and its partners have also been encouraging settlement in the north and south of the country, offering incentives for qualifying families of up to $20,000.
At a press briefing held the following day at the Nefesh B’Nefesh headquarters, located in the Givat Shaul section of Jerusalem, Rabbi Fass spoke about the 365-day “complete customer service approach” Nefesh B’Nefesh offers olim – from pre-aliyah preparation to post-aliyah support. For example, Nefesh B’Nefesh recently introduced a Skype homework program for olim school children to interface with Bnot Sherut (young women who do National Service) at Nefesh B’Nefesh.
The organization will also make sure to set the stage for an influx of new school-age children. If, for example, there are 60 school children coming into a community, Nefesh B’Nefesh will meet with the municipality, school principals, and teachers to help prepare the system for these students and their transition.
In an effort to make the integration process smoother, Nefesh B’Nefesh last year also opened a Hub in Tel Aviv, a free co-working space staffed by NBN professionals that aims to serve the professional, community, and social integration of the younger, single olim population.
Within the last decade, noted Rabbi Fass, the trend in aliyah has been toward younger, single olim, ages 18 to 30, who are not necessarily coming to Israel for ideological or religious reasons. Rather, Rabbi Fass said, “these people are looking for an opportunity. They see Israel as a ‘start-up nation.’ They’re moving here because this is the future of high-tech. It’s the new Silicon Valley.”
In response to such trends, Nefesh B’Nefesh is also establishing a presence on 35 college campuses, offering its services and aliyah as an option.
Nefesh B’Nefesh will lead its second summer flight on Aug. 14 with 239 olim, including 57 soldiers.
Among some of the more poignant stories from the July charter is that of Rabbi Kenneth Brander, of Teaneck, who has taken the reins from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin as the new president and rosh yeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone.
Making aliyah with his wife, Ruchie, and their 13-year-old son, Yitzhak, Rabbi Brander brought with him a seven-pound, U.S. Army-issued suitcase. That suitcase had belonged to his father, Rabbi Aaron Brander, a Holocaust survivor from Rimanov, Poland, who now lives in Far Rockaway, N.Y.
As a 12-year-old in the Ulm Sedan Kaserne DP camp, Rabbi Aaron Brander also received a copy of Mesillat Yesharim, an ethical, spiritual self-help text composed by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto. The volume was passed around and studied in the DP camp. When Rabbi Aaron Brander came to the United States, that volume was packed, along with his meager possessions, into the light green suitcase.
Now, more than seven decades later, the book and the suitcase have landed in Israel, brought by his son, Rabbi Kenneth Brander.
“My father was given hope in the form of this book, and it symbolized for me the power of his persistence and courage to search for renewed obligation and purpose in this world,” said Rabbi Kenneth Brander. “My father packed his entire life into this one metal suitcase, but my family sent 300 boxes by sea in a lift. This is the way in which we are completing the journey. The circle is being closed as these items accompanied us on our aliyah journey to be part of a thriving Jewish nation in the modern Jewish state.”