On Monday, August 11, the minor scale of Israel’s national anthem “Hatikva” wove its way through the departures lounge of JFK airport in New York City. The traditionally melancholy melody was especially fitting for the occasion, as 338 North Americans prepared to board a plane to make aliyah and immigrate to Israel, leaving the life they knew in America behind them.
Though this was Nefesh B’Nefesh’s 52nd charter flight to Israel — organized in cooperation with Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael (the Israeli arm of the Jewish National Fund) and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry — this one felt significant with 108 new immigrants set to join the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) as lone soldiers in the Garin-Tzabar program amid a major Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip.
Looking around the airport at the excited young men and women, comparing whose digital watch is the coolest of their friends and arguing about which hummus place is the best in Tel Aviv, it was clear the separation was hardest on their parents. Mothers stood, draped in their pearls and nice clothing, weeping quietly while clutching their children, gingerly adjusting the yarmulkes on their sons’ heads, as their children stood and nodded with a teenager’s typical embarrassment.
Yet through their grief, the parents verbally expressed their pride at their children’s courageous decision to defend their homeland. This is in many ways the entire idea behind Nefesh B’Nefesh: In 2001, head of NBN Rabbi Yehoshua Fass’s teenage cousin was killed in a suicide bombing, a tragedy that made him resolve to create an organization that would enable others to stand in his stead.
Knowing that her daughter would be serving a noble cause made it easier for Shirly Kaplan-Mavans to let go of her daughter, Natasha, 19. “Of course it’s hard, but are our children more valuable than their children?” she asks, referring to those who are already defending the state in combat. “The IDF represents the strength of the Jewish people.”
For Saul Rothman, 21, solidarity in numbers is also a value that he was taught in his Zionist household where he learned “all too well what can happen when Jews are scattered all over the world.” And yet when Rothman told his parents his decision to make aliyah and join the IDF, his mother burst into tears.
“When I first told her, she cried, ‘Are you ready to die for you country?,'” Rothman said. “But then I told her, ‘It’s not like that. The IDF, they value life.’”
Like many of the other new immigrants, Rothman has a great deal of confidence in the measures taken by the IDF to protects soldiers from harm (“Israeli culture is centered around preserving and giving life,” his female friend said to back up his claim. “It’s all ‘L’chaim’ this and ‘L’chaim’ that.”)
And while Rothman says he is aware of the dangers, he nonetheless believes armed service will bring his life a greater meaning than what he was doing before — attending college in Oklahoma — ever did or ever could.
In interviewing dozens of soon-to-be soldiers, the underlying narrative of their motivations became markedly similar. Like Rothman many are driven by the desire for a greater sense of purpose. Others long for a stronger sense of community, the kind of close-knit “family” composed of young adults striving for the same goals that, for many, only the armed services can truly provide. And others want to break out of their sheltered existences and experience life more richly — even if that comes at the expense of unhappiness, discomfort or even suffering.
‘I had a very privileged life in New Hampshire, so now I want to struggle more so that my experiences have more weight’
As David Cohen, 22, put it, “I know there are going to be some bad times, I know that. But I had a very privileged life in New Hampshire, so now I want to struggle more so that my experiences have more weight.”
Given that many come from strong Zionist households, some may say they have been “brainwashed” into joining the army.
One immigrant responded by comparing the American ideal of democracy to Zionism. “…Who is to judge whether that ideology is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than the ideology of Zionism? I fully admit that things like Birthright are brilliantly calculated trips, and that I’m not immune to the ‘propaganda’ either. But, at the same time, ideologies are all we have to give our lives meaning and to drive us forward. If you don’t have something to die for, then why live?” said another soldier who preferred to remain nameless.
Other had a more simple but logical approach, like Jared Goldberg, 19, who shrugged his shoulders and replied, “It’s hard to understand a strong belief in something if you don’t have one.”
Father Joel Burstein saw his son Oren off. “My kids grew up in a Zionist household, but other kids did as well and they didn’t make aliyah, so in the end it’s their decision and they’re doing this out of their free will. When you’re young, it’s important to be idealistic, and the decisions you make at 19 are not the same ones you’ll make at 30 or 40,” he said.
Burstein was also being flown out to Israel to see his other son, Ariel, who is in an IDF unit that’s having a party to celebrate a successful Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. His sergeant collected donations to help bring the fathers of the unit’s three lone soldiers over to Israel as a surprise.
These initiatives on the part of Nefesh B’Nefesh and Garin-Tzabar, the IDF organization that supports lone soldiers, allow soldiers separated from their families feel at home and are pivotal for so many of the immigrants who decided to join the program (which requires two years of service). The idea is that by joining the “garin” or close-knit group, a soldier is not leaving his or her family, but rather gaining a much greater one: the State of Israel.
The concept, far from being abstract, is consistently put into practice, most recently with the two American lone soldiers killed in Gaza whose funerals were attended by a reported 30,000-50,000 Israelis.
This sense of family was abundantly felt at the welcoming ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport upon arrival. As the lone soldiers walked out of the airplane onto Israeli soil, all 108 wearing matching olive-colored T-shirts, they posed for pictures in front of dozens of photographers, and shook the hand of President Reuven Rivlin who came to personally greet them at the 7 a.m. landing.
A sea of happy people stood waving Israeli flags, cheering, clapping their hands, grinning widely
But the festivities did not end there. As the shuttle-bus from the plane wound around to the airport terminal, the tired and bedraggled teens suddenly looked shocked, and one girl shouted, “Who is that?!”
A sea of happy people stood waving Israeli flags, cheering, clapping their hands, grinning widely, and holding up signs of saying “Welcome Home” in both Hebrew and English, to the merry song of “Shalom Aleichem” that blasted on an endless loop through the crowd.
When the immigrants got off the bus, friends and relatives immediately sprang over to wrap them in a tight embrace. Some wore custom-made T-shirts with pop culture references like “‘Cause I’m happy, clap along if you feel like making aliyah’s what you want to do.” One elderly woman in a wheelchair touched the arms of each of the new arrivals while saying, “Congratulations and thank you.”
The immigrants walked through the procession in a celebratory daze, clutching at their hearts and tearing up, clearly overwhelmed at this outpouring of emotion from total strangers. Where the pre-boarding ceremony was symbolized by tears of sadness, the opening ceremony was marked by tears of joy.
In the lengthy speeches that followed by several Nefesh b’Nefesh representatives, the president of Israel, and a televised message by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the speakers consistently emphasized how significant it was that all of them had made aliyah in spite of the current warfare, and how important it was that they all stand united.
As I picked up my bags from the terminal along with the other press that accompanied the immigrants on the plane, one of the soon-to-be soldiers asked where I was going to stay later in the week.
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “I don’t really have friends here. I’m here alone.”
He picked up my bag and invited me to stay at his grandmother’s house.
“You still don’t get it,” he said, smiling. “In Israel, you are never alone.”