One hundred and ninety one reasons to get out of bed before 5am.Last Thursday, my wife Jody and I roused ourselves out of bed at the ungodly hour of 4:50 AM in order to arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, not for a trip to some exotic destination, but in time to greet an El Al flight of 191 new immigrants making aliyah to Israel. The process was inspirational and exhilarating. We were among more than 500 similarly minded Israelis who came to cheer, applaud and otherwise show their support for the new arrivals.
It made me think back to our own family’s aliyah. My, how times have changed.
When we arrived in Israel almost 13 years ago in October 1994, we were the only new immigrants on the plane. We told our flight attendant about our exciting new status and she merely shrugged her shoulders in a typically Israeli way (shades of things to come) while muttering a muted mazel tov (congratulations). There was no one at the airport to greet us. No flag waving. No enthusiastic hordes.
Instead we scrambled like everyone else to be first through passport control, then made our way upstairs to a cavernous hall that had been built to handle a planeload or two of Russians all arriving together. We had, in fact, been worried that we might come at the same time as a Russian aliyah flight and get stuck for hours in immigrant processing. Instead, we were shown into a small room where a perfunctory clerk stamped our papers and gave us our teuda oleh (immigrant ID cards) and temporary immigrant passports.
Flash forward 13 years. New immigrants from North America now fly together on a plane designated just for them where Ministry of the Interior officials walk up and down the aisles completing all of the paperwork from tablet computers.
Upon arrival, the new immigrants walk between two lines of cheering crowds waving flags, holding up hand-decorated signs and otherwise keeping up a remarkable amount of energy for so early in the morning. It reminded me of the “Shalom Kita Aleph” ceremony for first graders entering elementary school… only this time with adults.
The front rows of the two lines were reserved for a cadre of army soldiers; behind them were a gaggle of religious seminary girls wearing blue and white who’d painted their faces with Israeli flags and “I love Israel” in little hearts. A big bearded man blew a shofar as each busload of immigrants disembarked. A live band (well, a guy with a keyboard) played “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem” over and over. The arriving immigrants looked overwhelmed by all the attention after a 12-hour mostly sleepless flight.
Among the new immigrants on this flight was our cousin David Gilbert, a radio news reporter who, after nearly eight years living in Israel as a tourist, finally took the plunge to become a full-fledged Israeli citizen.
Once inside the arrivals hall, there was a large stage set up in front of the baggage claim conveyer belts for speeches. Dignitaries included representatives from various government ministries; Elazar Stern, the head of the army’s manpower unit; Danny Ayalon, former Israeli ambassador to the US; and Tal Brody, who years ago was a star basketball player for the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team and remains one of the best known North American immigrants to Israel.
The hoopla was choreographed by Nefesh b’Nefesh, an aliyah organization that has had a remarkable track record in boosting immigration from North America and the U.K. This was Nefesh b’Nefesh’s 31st chartered flight, the 18th of 2007. All together, Nefesh b’Nefesh has brought over 13,000 immigrants to Israel since its establishment in 2002, nearly 3,000 alone this year, and an 80 percent increase in the past five years.
Last Thursday’s flight included 82 singles, 32 families with 25 children, 30 future IDF soldiers and a former ballerina for the Zurich Ballet who made aliyah from New York with her husband and two children. The youngest oleh in the group was 3 months old, the oldest was 96. The flight also included six dogs and two cats. Pictures taken by long time aliyah advocate Jacob Richman can be seen at http://www.jr.co.il/pictures/israel/history/2007/a260.htm.
Nefesh b’Nefesh, which was started by Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and businessman Tony Gelbart, has been instrumental in the dramatic increase of immigrants from the West. The Jewish Agency, however, disputes Nefesh b’Nefesh’s numbers, saying that immigration from North America actually dropped seven percent this year and that aliyah from the UK is down 20 percent. The Agency claims that Nefesh b’Nefesh has deliberately inflated its immigration numbers to justify the group’s request for more funds from the state and from Jewish philanthropists. Nefesh b’Nefesh says it needs the money and claims to have a waiting list of some 20,000 Jews.
While North American aliyah may or may not be up, both sides agree with the Absorption Ministry which reports that the overall figures are down. In 2007, 19,700 immigrants arrived in the country, a decline of six percent from the previous year and the lowest number since 1989 after the wave of immigration following the fall of the Iron Curtain. The largest number of immigrants in 2007 still came from the former Soviet Union at 6,445. In second place was Ethiopia at 3,607. North America had 2,957 and France held strong at 2,659.
Israel’s total population is about seven million. Approximately 118,000 people have moved to Israel from North America since the founding of the state, and over one million have come from the FSU.
Nefesh b’Nefesh certainly puts on a good show and makes for a comfortable and supportive landing. But new arrivals eventually have to move past immigration and deal with the “absorption” part of the process where, I’m afraid, no cheering crowds or speeches by well-dressed dignitaries can properly prepare a new arrival for Israel’s plethora of crazy drivers, surly store clerks and questionable customer service.
But the fact that 191 new immigrants nevertheless chose this week to throw their lot in with the rest of us was good enough news for me – and reason to get out of bed in the wee hours of the morning.