Chasya-Uriel Steinbauer, 44, sat on the floor of terminal four at John F. Kennedy International Airport earlier this summer with her two young children. She was minutes away from boarding a plane to Israel that would change the course of her family’s life; the Steinbauers were not just visiting Israel, but making Aliyah – immigrating to Israel.
“It is the Jewish dream to return to the homeland of the Jewish people and make a life there, to contribute to the State of Israel, and I view this as a miracle,” said Steinbauer. “This is the ‘ingathering of the exiles,’ from the exile that occurred to the Jewish people 2,000 years ago. We are blessed to be able to return.”
The August 15, 2018 Nefesh B’Nefesh flight – the 59th Nefesh B’Nefesh official charter plane since 2001 – carried 239 new immigrants from across North America. The organization was founded to make the Aliyah process easier.
As the plane prepared to take off, Nefesh B’Nefesh Co-founder Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, read a letter by 33-year-old Russian refusenik Boris Kochubievsky from 1969:
“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. But in his letter, Kochubievsky explained, that the dream of Aliyah was not just his own, based on the circumstances in which he lived.
“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,” he wrote. “As long as I live […] I’ll prepare to go to my homeland of my ancestors even if it means going by foot.”
Kochubievsky spent three years in prison in Siberia fighting to come to Israel before he ultimately made it to the Jewish state.
“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,” said Fass. “But we share the same drive. We share the same inspiration. We share the same courage and we share the same miracle.”
The new immigrants (olim, in Hebrew) hugged and kissed their loved ones goodbye with great emotion. Much like refuseniks of the past, modern Israeli immigrants are motivated by a Biblical, political and historical desire to return to the Jewish land after years of exile. Indeed, the uniqueness of immigration by Jews to Israel lies in the fact that the land of Israel has been home to the Jewish people for thousands of years. And, even in exile, the Jewish people yearned for a return to their homeland, prophesied in the 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 is 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)
Steinbauer grew up in a town called Livonia outside of Detroit, Michigan. She said she 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,” she recalled of her first visit to Israel at age 31 in 2005.
Many other Jews also find that Israel immediately feels like home, which has led more than 57,000 Western olim to seek out assistance from Nefesh B’Nefesh. Once these new immigrants arrive in Israel, Nefesh B’Nefesh helps support their integration into Israeli society.
According to Doreet Freedman, vice president of partnerships for Nefesh B’Nefesh, the “failure rate” of aliyah has declined from 60 percent to 10 percent in the last 16 years, while the average age of Aliyah continues to decline, as well. The average age of the new immigrants on the August 15 Nefesh B’Nefesh charter flight was 30 years old.
An Immigration of Choice
But it was not always like this. In contrast to today’s Western Jewish immigrants, 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.
“My life in the U.S. was fantastic,” Fay Goldstein, 27, told Breaking Israel News, “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 she attended a Jewish day school in New York throughout her childhood. At school, she learned early on what “loving Israel from afar” means.”Now, I want a different experience. I want to dive into Israeli culture and be with Israelis.”
Gavi Benchabbat, 19, was making Aliyah and joining the army with his twin brother. He had been in Israel the year before, over the Sukkot holiday. He said while in one of Israel’s ancient, holiest cities he “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.
“The moment I stepped on the plane, I never looked back,” he said. “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.”
Upon arrival to Israel, the group alighted the plane, greeted by dignitaries, soldiers, family and friends.
“What other country welcomes immigrants in this fashion?” Fass asked as the immigrants congregated in the entrance hall.
At the arrival ceremony, Fass 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.”
Just before the new olim left the airport, they gathered together in a chill-inspiring rendition of Israel’s national anthem, HaTikvah, The Hope: “As long as in the heart within a Jewish soul still yearns, and onward, toward 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.