Casual observers who happened to find themselves in a small hall at JFK Airport’s Terminal 4 on a bright Tuesday morning last week could have been forgiven for thinking they’d crashed a party: People of all ages milled about excitedly, with balloons in abundance and upbeat music blasting from loudspeakers.
It would have been difficult to suspect that those present were, in fact, on the cusp of uprooting their lives to start anew in a faraway land.
But the atmosphere ahead of the El Al immigration flight to Israel chartered by Jewish group Nefesh B’Nefesh, its 60th such venture, was unmistakably festive. The party vibe — which would continue upon landing — is very much part of the plan: The organization has for nearly two decades sought to ease the immigration, or aliyah, process for North American Jews, and that includes framing the chartered plane rides it offers as memorable and fun.
Organizers and Israeli state representatives stepped out onto a small stage that had been set up in the hall, congratulating the 242 immigrants and their families, and conveying the same message: the passengers were on their way home.
— Israel in New York (@IsraelinNewYork) August 13, 2019
Still, every one of the immigrants, or olim, was leaving a home as well, and as the time came for those flying out to depart, tears were in no short supply. As Nefesh B’Nefesh co-founder and executive director Rabbi Yehoshua Fass acknowledged jokingly in his comments to the audience minutes earlier, a few may have heard “a voice in the back of your head saying ‘What in the world did I just do?'”
Though making aliyah is doubtless a powerful experience, it is also one fraught with pitfalls, challenges and adjustment struggles. Nefesh B’Nefesh says its goal is to make sure that when people come to live in Israel, they want to stay. To that end it seeks to aid the new arrivals in finding housing and employment as well as providing them with a social support structure.
Stories on every corner
Later on the plane, Marc Kornblatt, 64, said he believed he would land on his feet, as he’s used to being on the move both geographically and professionally.
Kornblatt has spent much of his life in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife Judith, but has lived in various states. The couple decided to come live in Israel about two years ago, following in the footsteps of their two children who had made aliyah.
“I’ve been going to Israel since I was 16,” he said. He also went to a Jewish day school in his youth. “Very early on that connection was strong.”
But for many years that love for the Jewish state was not quite enough to make the leap. There were children to raise, careers to nurture. Marc, an actor, writer and independent filmmaker, noted that “if you’re a writer and you’re a performer, even if I speak halfway decent Hebrew, there’s not going to be work for me in Israel.” Judith, too, was busy with her work in academia.
But something changed when the two came to stay for a year in 2016. Marc had moved on to education. Judith had retired from her professorship.
“It was Saturday night and we were walking around Dizengoff Square [in Tel Aviv] and we’re seeing all these people,” he recounted. The couple suddenly realized that “we were really comfortable” being surrounded by Jewish people. “At the end of the day [in the US] we were always ‘other.’ And in Israel for the first time we were the majority.
“That felt very comfortable and [Judith] said: ‘Marc, what do you think?’ And it was a perfect connection.”
Marc said he and his wife see the move as an adventure, though they are coming with open eyes, and don’t expect the change to go without a hitch. These days he’s focused on a web series he’s created about the immigration process. A previous series he made during his time in Tel Aviv followed Israeli figures of interest and local stories.
“I’m looking for great stories and there’s a great story around every flipping corner in Israel,” he said.
He may have also inadvertently reawakened his somewhat dormant acting career, with an Israeli talent agent he chanced to meet offering him auditions for several parts. “It’s a smaller pond” in Israel, he said. “There are not that many types like me… basically they’re gonna be roles for English [speakers]. But just that possibility is kind of exciting.”
He added: “Am I expecting to get cast, am I expecting to make a living? It would be a wonderful thing but I’m not going with expectations. At the very least I’ll do what I’m already doing.”
Boots on the ground
For 18-year-old Lily Daroff of Potomac, Maryland, the decision to come now was not without its dilemmas. Daroff, whose parents are highly active in the Jewish community, had grown up with the idea of Israel and visited the country every summer. Zionism was in her blood.
And so after finishing high school Daroff began seriously considering moving to Israel to serve as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. “I was just thinking that I wanted to do something kind of bigger than going to college. I wanted to do something that would help people and not really to focus on myself,” she said.
Just as she was starting to move forward with that plan, Lily, who had for years dreamed of studying filmmaking, was accepted into the prestigious film school at the University of Southern California. But USC would not allow deferrals: It was now or, perhaps, never.
“I had to choose army or USC and that was definitely the hardest choice I’ve ever had to make,” she said.
But Israel won out. Lily, along with 40 other young men and women on last week’s flight, is immigrating under the Garin Tzabar program for lone soldiers. They will spend three months learning Hebrew and going through the bureaucracy and aptitude tests that make up the IDF’s draft process, before entering the army in November for a full period of service — in the case of women, two years.
Lily said she hopes to be accepted into the military’s spokesperson unit — specifically either the film unit or social media branch (which also relies heavily on video materials), where she believes her talents would be best used.
“Being in the arts world, at home I had so many friends who were so negative on Israel,” she said. “Uninformed. Just kind of believing what their Twitter says. And I think films can speak a lot louder than words because if you’re showing real events, you’re showing real people, I think you can change a lot of opinions.”
Lily added that finally being on the plane after waiting for it for so long is “surreal… it’s really hard to comprehend it’s really happening.” But more than anything she’s excited to begin. “I just want to get into it.”
Joely Metz of Long Island, also 18, will be joining Garin Tzabar’s framework for religious young men and women.
On the plane she admitted to having pre-flight jitters. “I was so nervous this morning. I was like ‘Oh my god.’ Everyone has cold feet. And then I sort of went and I did it and I [thought] ‘This is my life now.’ It’s hard to wrap my head around the fact that I’m not gonna be back for two years.”
But she firmly believes that “this is where my life is taking me right now and that’s where it’s supposed to go.”
Joely said she started thinking about the possibility of moving to Israel in ninth grade. “The more I actually looked into it the more [I thought] ‘Oh, this is something that I really would love to do and I would love to give of myself to Israel… I feel like Israel’s already given so much to me and Jews as a whole.”
With experience as a medic in New York State, she hopes to serve in that capacity in the military and later move on to medical school, either in America or in Israel.
“I’ve always wanted to help people and my dad’s a doctor,” she explained.
Joely, an only child, said her parents were very proud when she told them of her plans, though saying goodbye was difficult. “But my mom hopes to make aliyah in the next few years.”
Unlike many of those making the trip, she’s got quite a bit of emotional support in Israel “Most of my family lives there: my grandmother, my cousins, my great aunts. I’m very lucky.”
She said she feels she been very well prepared for the army and for aliyah. Still, she smiled, “I never know what to expect. It’s Israel.”
Bringing ’em all
Siblings Yoni Ausubel and Miriam Hulkower were on the plane together — each with their own family in tow. Ausubel has three children, as does Hulkower.
Yoni said their grandfather started the “umph” of aliyah, having lived in Israel for 20 years before passing away last year. Another brother and sister are already in the country, and the siblings hope to draw a fifth sister and the parents — who have always wanted to immigrate — to take the plunge as well.
“We’re bringing ’em all,” Miriam declared with a smile.
“They always said to us ‘Can you guys choose one side of the ocean?'” she said. “So if we can get all of us to be here, they’ll be really happy.”
Unlike high school graduates or people at retirement age, many young or middle-aged adults on the flight had to choose between their ideals and their career trajectory.
Miriam has just completed her radiologist training and has a job lined up with an American company in Israel. Yoni is a clinical psychologist who works with children and families. He hopes to eventually open a private practice in Israel.
Yoni admitted that “it is a bit daunting to leave a license in New York [and] New Jersey… to start all over again, sort of fresh, mid-career, but exciting too.”
Miriam said that for her the switch was somewhat easier as she was between phases. But her husband Raphy, a practicing endocrinologist, will need to transfer his license.
“He’s really enjoyed practicing as an attending and he’s excited to do that and help Jews in Israel, so he’s excited to transfer that practice, but it was definitely harder to be more settled and then start again,” she said. “At the same time he had the ability to be comfortable in his field and then move, whereas I never got the ability to practice as an attending before I get to do it all [in Israel] starting as one.” So “there’s pros and cons.”
The children are sad to leave their friends but also happy to be moving nearer their cousins in Israel, they said.
Miriam noted that as a parent, “not being able to help them along, really navigate the system with them, for them, in a way that we would have been able to do if we had stayed is kind of the most nerve-wracking.”
Asked about the state of their Hebrew, they laughed. “Looking forward to improving it,” Miriam said. “We have the foundation but we need to do more.”
The siblings said they are realistically expecting some hardships along the way but, Yoni noted, “We have family, we have our professions, we have our faith, we have our communities, so I think that will be a big help.” In the end they firmly believe that “this is the place that we should be.”
A Times of Israel correspondent, along with other members of the press, was flown to New York and back to Israel by Nefesh B’Nefesh. Nefesh B’Nefesh made no requests from The Times of Israel regarding coverage of the flight.