Last week, I was privileged to accompany the first Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) flight of the summer 2014 “Aliyah season,” the 51st such flight chartered by the Aliyah assistance organization since its inception in 2002. With rocket fire from Gaza increasing daily and the Israel Defense Force’s “Operation Protective Edge” morphing into a full-scale war, the flight, which carried 228 immigrants from the United States and Canada, including 100 children, became a symbol of defiance and hope.
Though the initial send-off at JFK International Airport in New York was appropriately celebratory, the proceedings were tempered by an uneasiness regarding the dangers that the new immigrants might encounter upon their arrival in Israel. It is important to clarify that the anxiety was mainly exhibited by the families of those boarding the historic flight – the new olim themselves exuded confidence and a remarkable clarity of purpose.
Every family on this historic NBN charter flight was given a full briefing regarding what lay in store on the other end, yet every last one of them decided to charge forward with their Aliyah plans. Nothing, not even war, could delay their homecoming for even one second longer.
Due to security concerns, the NBN ceremony at Ben Gurion airport was scaled down considerably. Just prior to the flight, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, the Founder and Executive director of NBN, sent an e-mail to all of the new immigrants explaining that, following advisories from Israeli security agencies, the ceremony would not include the usual pomp and circumstance. Instead, it would be a more intimate affair.
Though the usual, jubilant crowd of 1,600 was pared down to a mere 50 and there was no shofar blowing or festive dancing, NBN’s Aliyah ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport on July 22 was quite possibly its most meaningful yet.
(1) Our unbreakable spirit – As mentioned above, the tense times transformed this Aliyah flight into a declaration of unwavering nationalism. Moving to a new country is complicated enough without the fear of looming hostility, but this exceptional group of olim proved that there is no looking back and no second guessing once you have formed a true bond with the Land of Israel.
Aliyah is a birthright that cannot be denied and those committed to the endeavor cannot be dissuaded – they will do whatever necessary to lay their roots in Israel to ensure the security and vitality of the land and its people. This sentiment set the otherwise heavy mood on its ear, making it clear to all that the Israeli spirit will never be broken as long as exuberant new imports continue to return home.
(2) A light in the darkness – Though the security concerns forced NBN to drastically reduce the size of the ceremony, they had no intention of diluting the entire experience. In addition to the organization’s understanding that there were certain personalities that the new immigrants expected to see there, the VIPs themselves felt compelled to join the proceedings – many on their own initiative – as a display of gratitude and support.
Minister of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption Sofa Landver, Chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel Natan Sharansky and several Members of Knesset, including Rabbi Dov Lipman, greeted the new arrivals at Ben Gurion. In addition, former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau was in attendance and made a point of interacting with the crowd. The attendance of the former Chief Rabbi was especially meaningful because there was an understanding that the current Chief Rabbis were tending to certain crucial matters – they had spent much of their time over the previous days at the funerals for the IDF’s fallen heroes. In addition to serving as a welcome reprieve from bad news and burials, the ceremony served as a reminder of Israel’s bright future.
(3) We are family – As Rabbi Lau made his way through the crowd, a young boy approached him and struck up a conversation. For several minutes, Rabbi Lau focused his attention wholly on his new friend. When they were done speaking, Rabbi Lau placed his hands on the young boy’s head and gave him a blessing. As I watched this episode unfold, I realized that the intimate setting had turned the ceremony into a warm familial experience, so much so that a Former Chief Rabbi of Israel could relate to a young boy as he would to his own grandson.
While one might compare NBN’s first 50 ceremonies to bear hugs, its 51st was more of a warm embrace – a very personal experience that reminded everyone in attendance just how interconnected we all really are.
(4) The magic moments – I am always touched by the back stories of the new immigrants on every Aliyah flight, the details hidden just below the surface that make each successful absorption into Israeli society that much more thrilling. This time around, I was particularly moved by the story of an 88 year old gentleman who was finally realizing his dream of returning home to Israel. As a Holocaust survivor who had conquered the unimaginable cruelties of the Auschwitz concentration camp, his journey had been especially arduous.
As the group deplaned and the heroic octogenarian reached the tarmac, he dropped his cane, fell to his knees and kissed the ground of the Holy Land. Though he gave everyone quite a start, he simply couldn’t help himself – he had waited his whole life for that moment. We rarely stop to think about the miracle of the modern State of Israel, but the sight of a Holocaust survivor reuniting with his Homeland while a war raged on in the background provided a moment of unprecedented clarity.
Over the years, I have celebrated and helped spread the triumphant Aliyah stories from several NBN flights. In my opinion, each one of those flights was a pivotal moment in modern Jewish history. But for the reason enumerated above, and so many others that I have yet to process, this most recent flight outranks every flight that came before it – it was “the little flight that could”…inspire a nation.
You can view the official Nachum Segal Network photo album from this historic Aliyah flight here.