Thirty-three-year-old Russian refusenik Boris Kochubievsky wrote in a 1969 letter: “I am a Jew. I want to live in the Jewish State – I want to live in Israel. This is my dream.”
Oppressed in Soviet Russia, many wished to immigrate to Israel to escape persecution. Kochubievsky explained, “This is the goal not only of my life, but of the lives of hundreds of generations preceding me that were expelled from the land of their ancestors.”
Clarifying his desire to immigrate to Israel and resulting in his three-year imprisonment in Siberia, Kochubievsky continued, “As long as I live and as long as I am capable of healing, I will do all I can to be able to leave for Israel and if you find it possible to sentence me for this, all the same. If I live to my release, I’ll prepare to go to my homeland of my ancestors even if it means going by foot.”
Standing in front of 239 North American to-be Israeli immigrants on August 15, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, co-founder of Nefesh’B Nefesh – the organization facilitating the group’s aliyah (immigration to Israel), read this letter aloud.
As the olim (immigrants to Israel) hugged and kissed their loved ones goodbye at their JFK airport send-off ceremony, Fass told the immigrants, “We’ve been born into a generation in which the State of Israel is a given and sometimes we are numb to the miraculous times we live in.”
But, he maintained, “We share the same drive. We share the same inspiration. We share the same courage and we share the same miracle.”
Much like refuseniks of the past, modern Israeli immigrants are motivated by the Biblical, political and historical desire to return to the Jewish land after years of exile.
Indeed, the uniqueness of this immigration trend lies in the fact that the land of Israel has been home to the Jewish people, yearned for thousands of years – a return prophesied in the Jewish Bible.
Exiled from the land in various Diasporas as foretold in the Jewish Bible, since the 19th century and even more so since the establishment of the modern State of Israel, Jews from the four corners of the earth are returning home. Every Nefesh B’Nefesh flight that brings new immigrants to Israel embodies kibbutz galuyot, the prophesized ingathering of exiles back to the Jewish land:
“and you shall declare to them: Thus said Hashem: I am going to take B’nei Yisrael from among the nations they have gone to, and gather them from every quarter, and bring them to their own land.” (Ezekiel 37:21)
New immigrant Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer, 44, told Breaking Israel News as she sat on the floor of the terminal with her two young children, “It is the Jewish dream to return to the homeland of the Jewish people and make a life there, contributing to the State of Israel and I view this as a miracle – the ingathering of the exiles from the exile that occurred 2,000 years ago – and we are blessed to be able to return.”
Growing up in the Midwest, Steinbauer experienced anti-Semitism and always felt like an outsider. Even after starting a family, she still had an aching sense that she was not at home. “In Israel, I felt home – in my own skin – for the first time.”
Many other Jews find that Israel immediately feels like home, leading to more than 57,000 Western olim to seek out assistance from Nefesh B’Nefesh – the only private foundation in the world outsourced by a government to promote immigration – in the last 16 years.
After returning immigrants to the land, the aliyah organization supports olim post-aliyah, making life in Israel viable for all ages. Since the organization’s existence, the ‘failure rate’ of aliyah has declined from 60 percent to 10 percent, Doreet Freedman, Vice President of Partnerships at Nefesh B’Nefesh, told Breaking Israel News.
Nefesh B’Nefesh 59th charter flight was sponsored by Denver, Colorado local, Heidi Rothberg in coordination with Jewish National Fund USA and was facilitated in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah & Integration, The Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel (KKL), JNF-USA and Tzofim-Garin Tzabar.
Also similar to Kochubievsky and many refuseniks, the average age of the new immigrants on the flight was just 30 years old.
But unlike Western Jewish immigrants of today, traditionally and historically, aliyah has been a movement of refugees to Israel – of Jews persecuted or kicked out of their homeland.
The young immigrants and lone soldiers on the flight spoke of deciding to move out of choice rather than persecution. For them, aliyah is not a matter of survival, but of finding meaning in the Jewish story.
Fay Goldstein, 27, told Breaking Israel News, “My life in the U.S. was fantastic. I had friends I loved and an apartment I was sad to leave. But I got too comfortable and needed more to grow and expand.” After sharing an intimate moment with her mother as she said goodbye, she called her surroundings, in the packed terminal of to-be new immigrants, “a display of beautiful, raw love for the sake of Israel” that also inspires growth within each individual.
Jessica Goldman, 19, said, “I went to Jewish day school my whole life in New York, learning what it means to be Jewish early and loving Israel from afar.” With her mostly-approving father sitting on a nearby couch, she told Breaking Israel News, “Now I want a different experience. I want to dive into Israeli culture and be with Israelis – I saw this for myself and knew it was right for me.”
Shira Weisman, 18, admitted, “I wasn’t ready to go back to school again.” Her father, a native Israeli who moved his family to the U.S. 15 years ago, she maintained, “I really believe in what Israel stands for. It’s a country for Jewish people to live and be free. Doing so hasn’t always be easy, so I want to support this ideal any way I can.”
Gavi Benchabbat, 19, who is joining the army with his twin brother, said, “I went to Hevron for Sukkot and felt it was our land and we need to protect it from any threats. It’s nice to do a gap year program in Israel, but the only way the system works is when people defend the country.”
At the ceremony, Consul General of Israel in New York, Dani Dayan, reflected on his own aliyah from Argentina when he was 15 years old. He said, “The moment I stepped on the plane, I never looked back. Not because I couldn’t look back but because there was no reason to look back. Aliyah is the most amazing adventure of the Jewish people.”
Signs decorated the departures hall that read ‘Living the Dream.’
Ron Werner, a senior lay leader of JNF USA, a partner in bringing the immigrants home, explained to Breaking Israel News, “In our comfortable world of America, when we say ‘living the dream’ it’s generally referring to a car, a second home or a vacation.”
But this dream, he said – the dream that olim are living – is a dream of thousands of years for the Jewish people. “This is a dream that goes back to our liturgy when we talk about ‘by the waters of Babylon we laid down and wept,’ ‘if I forget thee oh Jerusalem’ and ‘next year in Jerusalem’ every year at the end of our Passover Seder,” said Werner.
“Now, it doesn’t have to be next year,” he continued. “We live in a time where any Jew around the world may freely travel to or immigrate to the land of Israel – where we can build a strong and a safe land of Israel.”
He told the olim, “We are here – hinenu. Keep living the dream.”
Upon arrival to Israel, the group alighted the plane, greeted by dignitaries, soldiers, family and friends. Several spoke to the immigrants at the arrival ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport, including: Yehuda Scharf, Director of the Aliyah, Absorption and Special Operations Department of the Jewish Agency; Yoram Elgrabli, Managing Director of El Al North America; MK Dr. Michael Oren, Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office; MIN. Sofa Landver, Minister of Aliyah and Integration; and Nefesh B’Nefesh Executives.
“What other country welcomes immigrants in this fashion?” posed Fass. At the arrival ceremony, he explained that in Hebrew, the word for citizenship (ezrachut) shares an etymological root with words that describe light, such as clarity and luminescence. “When a person announces and declares their citizenship, they announce their principles to the world of what they strongly believe in,” he said.
“Today you broadcast your belief, you communicate your conviction and declare your devotion and hopefully share your inspiration.”
After the speeches, the 239 olim gathered with their friends, family and Israel’s leaders and sang Israel’s national anthem, HaTikvah, The Hope: “As long as in the heart within a Jewish soul still yearns, and onward, towards the ends of the east, an eye still gazes toward Zion; our hope is not yet lost – the hope two thousand years – to be a free nation in our land – the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”
And with 2,000 years of hope in their eyes, the olim departed by taxis, filled to the brim with their belongings, to begin their lives as Jews in the Land of Israel.