NEW YORK — They could easily have passed for Israelis: the clamorous crowd of several hundred Jews, many of them Orthodox, in a corner of the arrivals hall Monday, the teenagers in a frenzy to say their goodbyes, many singing or waving flags. The passengers on Nefesh B’Nefesh’s charter flight of olim, or immigrants to Israel, were gearing up for takeoff at a farewell ceremony at John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The dignitaries who addressed the 233-strong group, each sponsor and partner in the El Al flight eager to get a word in, emphasized its diversity — many couples and singles, professionals in a variety of fields; 75 children, the youngest of whom was eight months old — and the miraculousness of their return to their ancestral homeland.
“The entire spectrum of our nation is represented,” said Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, who, along with businessman Tony Gelbart, founded Nefesh B’Nefesh in 2002 to circumvent Israel’s byzantine bureaucracy and ease the integration — or, as Israelis call it, absorption — of American and British immigrants.
Fass hinted at that infamous red tape in his speech, saying the flight was a “miracle” not only in that it had brought together a diverse group of American Jews for a singular cause, but also in that the various Israeli sponsors of the flight were able to cooperate to achieve such an end. Those included the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish National Fund-Keren Kayemet Le’Israel and the Jewish Agency.
Another sponsor was the Israel Scouts’ Garin Tzabar, which provides a support system to young Jews who immigrate to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. In all, 68 lone-soldiers-to-be — 36 women and 32 men — were on board.
While most of the speakers shied away from politics, Israel’s consul-general in New York, Dani Dayan, said the new immigrants represented “233 mortal blows to the delegitimization of Israel” and would be a source of conversation far beyond the arrivals hall at JFK.
“They take notice of it in Tehran,” he said. “When Hezbollah threatens Israel, they know that you will defeat it.”
Turning to the future soldiers in the crowd, he added, “You are the commanders of the Jewish people… My young friends, you are about to join the first Jewish army in 2,000 years.”
One of those soldiers, 18-year-old Ron Yitzhak from Chicago, said he was eager to follow in the footsteps of his father and uncles and serve as a paratrooper in the IDF.
“Already at my bar mitzvah, I told my cousins that I would come to Israel and do the army,” he said, brushing aside any notion of concerns about risking his life to serve thousands of miles from home.
“I’ll get along,” he said, beaming, in accentless, nonchalant Hebrew, and predicted that after his release, he would settle somewhere in the south of the country, preferably Eilat, “because I love the beach.”
From Kennedy to Ben Gurion
When the plane touched down at Ben Gurion Airport, the olim broke out in thunderous applause, as Israelis do, and then in song. Afterward, on the stairs leading down from the plane, one man stopped and blew a massive shofar, or ritual rams’ horn, while below the future IDF recruits huddled, whooping loudly, for group pictures.
Among those waiting on the tarmac was David Friedman, the American ambassador to Israel, who had turned out to greet his 23-year-old daughter, a nurse, who will reportedly be settling in Jerusalem.
“We’re so proud of our daughter Talia. She always wanted to live in Israel, and she’s realizing her dream,” he told reporters after warmly embracing her. “Our whole family is very proud of her. We’re here just to greet her and give her a hug and wish her behatzlaha raba [much success] here in Israel.”
He added, “We just want her to be happy. This is something she always wanted to do. She loves Israel. We all love Israel. Our whole family loves Israel. And this is her dream. We’re very proud of her.”
Nearby, one of El Al’s hangars had been appointed with hundreds of lawn chairs, refreshments ranging from Elite coffee to lemon popsicles and a six-piece band playing a string of contemporary Israeli pop hits alongside more traditional tunes. There, the new arrivals were treated to a second round of speeches.
The most prominent politician on hand was Yair Lapid, who chairs the opposition Yesh Atid party. He spoke of his late father, a former minister in the Israeli government, who was an oleh to Israel 70 years ago, describing the move to the Jewish state as “a deep experience of the soul of the nation.”
“Israel welcomes you happily,” he said. “We need you because without you our family is incomplete. Welcome back. Welcome home.”
Natan Sharansky, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel, invoked recent events in the United States, drawing a parallel between the demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend, during which neo-Nazi chanted “Jews will not replace us,” and the Dyke March in June in Chicago, where participants were barred from displaying Jewish symbols.
“There are anti-Semites on the right and anti-Semites on the left,” he said. “Out best answer is what you’re doing: We continue to build together our home, the State of Israel.”
‘I want to do a service’
Like Yitzhak, Hannah Partney, 22, from Connecticut, said she was eager to join a combat unit, though, as opposed to him, she has no close family or roots in Israel.
She first spent time in Israel volunteering for a few weeks with World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, which facilitates food and lodging in exchange for farming work, and almost immediately began to consider the idea of immigrating and joining the military. “Then I went back and did a year of university in Jerusalem,” Partney said, to decide whether or not to go through with her plan.
“I’ve always been interested in military service,” she said. “I thought about the US military but ultimately didn’t go that way. I’m interested in the discipline and the challenges. I don’t want to live in Israel on a free ticket. I want to do a service. That’s really important to me.”
While her parents were accepting of her decision to go to Israel, they feared for her safety as a soldier, she said.
“There’s more risk in uniform, so yeah, they’re really concerned,” said Partney. “I think it has a lot to do with them not being familiar with Israeli culture… For them to see soldiers walking around with assault rifles is really a new sight. That’s not really something that they would look at and feel like it’s normal.”