Once upon a time, not very long ago, “aliyah” — or Jewish immigration to Israel — was somewhat out of fashion. In fact, when my family decided to make aliyah back in 2000, friends thought we were doing something strange and could hardly relate. Luckily for us, Nefesh B’Nefesh was founded just in time and we were lucky to be a part of the inaugural charter flight in 2002. That was a game-changer for Israel, for aliyah, and for the Jewish people.
What I did not know then was that another organization was founded in 2002: Shavei Israel. (Full disclosure: I work for Shavei Israel, but this piece is personal…) Shavei Israel exists for literally one reason — to strengthen the ties between the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and the descendants of Jews around the world. Shavei Israel provides a wide range of assistance to a variety of disenfranchised communities of Jewish descent. In the case of the Bnei Menashe of India, a major part of this assistance is helping them make the dream of aliyah possible.
The Bnei Menashe claim descent from one of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel, who were sent into exile more than 27 centuries ago. Despite their isolation from the rest of the Jewish world, they continued practicing Judaism as well as they could, always waiting and praying for their return to the land of their ancestors.
When my family and I made aliyah on that historic charter flight nearly two decades ago, the excitement on the plane was palpable. But the moment we stepped foot outside the plane, to the cheering crowds, the reporters, the photographers and the celebrities, it was WE who felt like celebrities.
The culmination of all of our planning and effort combined with the cumulative anticipation of what we were about to embark on, starting this new life in our Homeland… It was extremely emotional. And it was incredibly gratifying to see so many people out there cheering us on, who were just as excited about this journey as we were.
Today, nearly 20 years after I stepped off of that airplane, I was one of the cheering photographers in the waiting crowd, as 235 Bnei Menashe emerged from an El Al plane, so similar to the one that brought me and my family home. Watching them come out of the plane, one after another, this incredible parade of smiling, happy, flag-waving people walking by, as if in a dream. Some bending down and kissing the ground. Young couples. Families. Teenagers. Small children. Babies in slings on their parents’ backs. The elderly. It was simply phenomenal. A truly, emotionally overwhelming experience.
One that I can’t wait to experience again.