Immigration’s a bitch, and immigrants — whether they be Mexicans crossing the Rio Grande or Russians flocking to the promised land — endure numerous hardships in their new homes. One source of relief for weary wanderers is immigrant aid organizations that help people acclimate to their new countries.
Last week I boarded a Nefesh B’Nefesh charter flight from New York City to Israel which was packed to the gills with hopeful new immigrants to the Jewish state. Two days earlier I visited Ellis Island, through which millions of new immigrants had passed into the United States. Among the names engraved on a steel monument outside the museum I found those of three of my great-grandparents. Passing through the registry hall helped to put my experience as an immigrant to Israel (and beneficiary of Nefesh B’Nefesh), and the experiences of last week’s passengers, into perspective.
A century ago, nearly to the day, 18-year-old Salomon Reuben Helfner landed at Ellis Island after an 11-day transatlantic voyage in steerage from Bremen, Germany. He was my great-grandfather. He hailed from a small town in Latvia called Jakobstadt (modern Jekabpils), which, 100 years later, holds almost 26,000 souls.
Salomon’s experience at Ellis Island was similar to that of most who passed through. He disembarked amid a cacophony of tongues, all foreign to him. He spoke little or no English and had not a penny to his name. He lied about his profession and said he was a shoemaker — but ended up becoming a wallpaperer and painter.
Salomon was subjected to a battery of medical examinations to ensure he was physically fit, mentally stable, and free of contagious diseases. If he was fortunate he would have been processed and cleared within a few hours. Some newcomers, however, were quarantined for days or weeks; a few were shipped back to their countries of origin.
After leaving Ellis Island, it was years before my great-grandfather could vote.
The assistance provided by immigrant welfare organizations, like the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, was a boon for the “tired,” “poor,” “huddled masses,” and “wretched refuse” — taking the form of secondhand clothes, warm food and English lessons. In order to get by, hard and often menial labor was necessary.
One could draw parallels from the experiences of modern American immigrants to Israel to those of my great-grandfather and his generation. Most of his family, friends and familiar faces remained in Jakobstadt; the olim aboard Nefesh B’Nefesh’s flight last Wednesday also experienced the anxiety of leaving loved ones behind. Salomon arrived without the language skills to communicate fluently. Nearly all the Americans arriving on Flight 3004 expressed concern about their Hebrew skills. Salomon must have struggled initially to find work, and most of those flying to Israel wondered how and when they’d receive their first paycheck.
What obviously sets the two experiences apart is that aliya through Nefesh B’Nefesh is luxurious compared to the Ellis Island experience. It’s “a quick process, especially compared to [moving to] the United States,” bride-to-be Melissa Carr of Brooklyn, New York, reminded me before boarding. The aid organization has streamlined the immigration process from North America since completely taking it over from the Jewish Agency and Israeli government in 2008. It expedites and manages the bureaucratic procedures of gaining Israeli citizenship and documentation for new immigrants. As of a few years ago, Nefesh B’Nefesh began scanning immigrants’ passports on the flight to Israel so that the entire planeload could clear customs control in 20 minutes instead of an hour.
By the time the newcomers exited Ben Gurion International Airport last Thursday morning, they had national ID cards, health insurance, a pocketful of shekels, and a taxi waiting to take them to their new homes.
Moreover, the organization provides new immigrants with “financial support which enabled making aliya,” said an ebullient 18-year-old Rivka Rumshiskaya, from Brighton, MA, with the amount determined by financial need and particular qualifications.
Moving to a foreign land is never simple, but there is no comparing the immigrant hardships of generations past to the inconveniences of modern-day olim. Today’s new immigrants enjoy a support infrastructure that offers a lifeboat to weather the choppy waters of aliya, helping even people like Traci Siegel, who shocked me with her certainty that “everything will be difficult,” to transition more easily from West to Middle East.
It may not be a perfect system, but nobody handed Salomon Helfner a check at Ellis Island. Israel’s newest immigrants appear to be ahead of the game.
(The writer’s flight was paid for by Nefesh B’Nefesh)