I sit down in my seat on the El Al flight leaving Newark Airport for Ben Gurion, seat 30A. I put my bag under the seat in front of me and settle in for the ride. While I am settled in my place and ready to go, I can’t say the same for my fellow passengers. I’m on board a Nefesh B’Nefesh group flight with 64 other olim chadashim, amidst a planeload of passengers heading to Israel. Now, imagine getting onto a Lufthansa or Swiss Air flight. Passengers proceed in an orderly fashion to their assigned seats. No one complains, nor would the flight attendants allow for many changes before takeoff, if at all. These airlines are known for their timeliness and precision. Not so on an El Al flight filled with Members of the Tribe. Observing this game of musical chairs, I notice one religious gentleman and his young son who have seat assignments next to women—they couldn’t sit next to women. Putting the feminist rhetoric aside on this issue, the seat shuffle begins and passengers and crew-members alike try to solve the issue. People start getting out of seats, moving about, trying to find a new arrangement that would accommodate everyone’s needs.
After about forty-five minutes of reorganization, we seem to have figured it out. As the final passengers take their seats, two flight attendants begin their trek down the aisle, pouring red wine for passengers. I had a cup, and it was good. Hour one.
Amidst this movement, seat switching, accommodating each passenger’s personal needs, getting a glass of water for the gentleman who needs to take a pill before takeoff, finding places for bags and baby car seats, and guitars, I truly feel for the El Al flight attendants. You poor people. You have to deal with planeloads of us Jews, who, like it or not, will always make these types of moves and requests (and sometimes demands). Then I realize the implications for myself. I am moving to a country that is full of these people, a country that is run somewhat like one all -encompassing Jewish non-profit organization. Am I nuts?
Then, I reflect back on my morning. I had arrived early. Five hours early. A generous friend agreed to drive me out to Newark before driving another hour back to her work. With a tearful goodbye and few quiet moments to ponder my decision, the reality of uprooting my North American life for something a little further east than New York City begins to sink in. However, I don’t have much time to dwell on this, as another passenger on the flight takes a seat next to me and we begin to chat.
“Are you making aliyah?” I ask.
“No, I’m Israeli, but I guess you are? Where are you from?”
“Canada.” I respond.
“Well, no one’s perfect. Mazal tov on the decision to leave this 3rd world country for Israel. I can’t even get wifi in this airport.”
As we begin our conversation, a few other young passengers join in, and a small cohort begins to form. Myself, the Israeli who had been in America lecturing high school students about Israel, another young Berkley grad with a History degree (who, in fact, knew the Israeli from previous Israel advocacy work), another young woman who had been a Birthright participant just nine months ago and decided to move to Israel and pursue her PhD studies, and finally another college age girl from Tennessee who had also been drawn to Israeli life after participating in Birthright this past June. After checking our baggage, we took out a guitar and started playing a few songs as we waited for the gate to open. Once the gates were finally opened, we moved through airport security as a group, waiting for each member to gather and continue to the next spot.
As we are seated at the gate, the representative from Nefesh B’Nefesh calls the olim over. We give her our attention. “Unfortunately, the representative from the Misrad Hapnim (Ministry of the Interior) is not going to be able to come on the flight.” We murmur to each other, wondering how this will impact our aliyah processing. “She is sick, and needs to be cleared by a doctor before flying. This means that we may take a little longer than expected to process you when we arrive in Israel. But don’t worry, if there are any complications, we will make sure to take care of you, and mail whatever documentation you are missing.” Despite the minor inconvenience, we mostly shrug our shoulders and say, “Welcome to Israel,” recognizing that the situation is out of our control, and grateful that at least we know the reason for the potential delay. (Once we arrived in Israel we did find out that the representative was doing better).
Sitting in my seat on the plane, I strike up a conversation with a lovely couple sitting next to me. They are also olim who already have several children and grandchildren living in Israel. Originally from Morocco, he is kind and gentle, and she nurturing, offering to bring me a cup of tea. Having moved to Montreal many years ago, we connect on our Canadian backgrounds. We begin to discuss our respective hometowns and soon realize that the woman seated in 30C taught a woman from my community when she lived in Montreal–Jewish geography prevails yet again.
So, why is it that I am sitting on a plane amongst these people who need to change seats, to make accommodations for one another, who under no circumstances can simply accept what has been given to them? Because, I am sitting on an El Al flight to Israel, and these people are my people. We are all interconnected, we take responsibility for one another, we understand that sometimes people fall ill, and most of all, we are all sitting on a flight that represents not just an airline, but also a country and a people, where we really feel at home. I breathe a sigh of relief as I hear the head flight attendant calling to some passengers who are standing up as the meal service begins, “Tzaddikim [righteous ones], please find your seats,” and I understand that here on El Al we are Hachi Babayit Ba’olam.