In my lifetime, I am proud to say that I have “gone home” many times. Home of course is Eretz Yisrael – which translates into “the Land of Israel.” “Of” is a possessive. It denotes ownership. Anyone disputing the Jewish claim of ownership of this real estate can refer to the Bible, arguably the oldest legal document in existence. A quick perusal clearly shows that the Master Builder of the universe, the Landlord of all on this planet, gave the Jewish people permanent procession and ownership of this land. And all though, through the centuries many Jews have been “abroad” – willingly or not – there were always a few of us stubbornly situated on the land. There was always a Jewish presence at home, in spite of the very best attempts by numerous conquerors to get rid of us.
In1948 the Jewish homeland was officially recognized as being, well, the Jewish homeland. Eretz Yisrael became the state of Israel, and ever since, Jews from the four corners of the world have packed their bags, shut off the lights and made their way back home.
Which brings me arguably to a trip to Israel many years ago that was totally different from all the others, including the many I took subsequently. For while my other sojourns home were joyful and full of discovery, this one was magical. I was on one of the first Nefesh B’Nefesh flights as a reporter.
Unfolding before my eyes was a cacophony of color and sounds and movements as over 250 men, women, children, babies, seniors, porters, reporters, security officers, ticket agents, cameramen and photographers, with assorted luggage, suitcases, briefcases, carts, carriages, strollers, wheelchairs, cell-phones, earphones, spoke, shouted, whispered, called out, cried, laughed, whistled, sang, crooned and even danced as they went about their business of taking the last bureaucratic steps that would put them on a plane that was finally bringing them home – for good.
The group was comprised of families, singles, religious and secular, who had made up their minds to take the giant leap forward and make aliyah and return to Israel. These North American Jews were closing their personal book of exile, and were embarking on a new chapter in their lives. And their journey was being facilitated by Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that was created in 2001 to help new olim, immigrants to Israel, navigate endless, strangling red tape, and rampart misinformation.
Nefesh B’Nefesh provides logistical, financial and emotional support and assistance whose value is immeasurable. Any move is a daunting and draining experience under the best circumstances. Uprooting oneself and/or one’s family and going to a country thousands of miles from everything familiar to you, both culturally, socially, linguistically and physically is a 1,000 times more complicated and overwhelming. Nefesh B’Nefesh tries to minimize the immense stress and works to ensure that the initial move and adjustment is the best it can be.
I looked at the mother and fathers and bubbies and zaidies and siblings and friends and neighbors who came to say goodbye. Their tears and their smiles competed as their immense pride and admiration in their loved ones’ imminent departure was at odds with their intense sense of loss and the searing awareness that the “day to day’” sharing of their lives – the weekly Shabbat dinners, the family Chanukah parties, seeing the grandkids in the school plays – was coming to an indisputable end.
The passengers on this special flight to Israel were as diverse yet as similar as snowflakes. From a distance, flying snowflakes seem alike and have the same destination. The ground. Yet no two are alike. So too the new olim on this flight were headed to the same place, had the same goal – living in Israel – but each single, each couple, each family was unique and special in their own way.
And then it was time to go and that last, desperate hug, the ‘I want to hold you forever’ embrace fueled by the cold fear that flitted just beneath the surface of their tumultuous feelings, suppressed, but not totally subdued. “Will I ever see them again?” “Will I wake up one morning to the news of a suicide bombing on a bus – and call a cell-phone that just rings and rings and remains unanswered?”
They are all heroes, I thought to myself, those who go – and those who let go.
Through the glass wall reaching to the sky was the glistening metal fin of an airplane , emblazoned with the blue Star of David, the symbol of the Jewish people and the state of Israel. I was looking at an El Al airplane – the airline of the state of Israel – standing like a majestic yet maternal eagle, waiting with pride but impatience for its brood to climb onto its wings and be transported above the clouds to the welcoming nest awaiting them.
How miraculous I thought to myself as I wondered if a schecheyanu prayer was called for – the prayer recited in gratitude for reaching a holiday or a momentous occasion. A third of the Jewish population had been wiped out just decades earlier; the lone Jewish state attacked numerous times over the years of its short existence by forces with more war machinery and greater numbers and yet (thank G-d) we prevailed and a state of Israel airliner was bringing home these new citizens of Israel. How sweet, how appropriate – how “ in your face” that a jet of the Jewish homeland is taking hundreds of Jews out of exile and flying them to their new lives in Israel. With the tune of Am Yisrael Chai, ringing in my ears – I boarded the plane.
Flying on El Al is like having a geographic appetizer, an early taste of Israel that whets your appetite for more. El Al – translated from Hebrew means “to G-d.” What a perfect name for Israel’s national airline, bringing as it does Jews the world over to the Holy Land – and to G-d.