LOD, Israel (Mar. 30)
It was nearly 5 a.m. Friday when five buses drove onto the tarmac of Ben-Gurion Airport and disgorged some 120 weary United Jewish Appeal leaders.
Hours earlier they had holed themselves up in a hotel banquet room for three grueling hours and raised $10.6 million among themselves for Operation Exodus, UJA’s special campaign to aid the resettlement of Soviet Jews in Israel.
But now it was time to help the Soviet Jews in another way — by giving a group of arriving immigrants a special welcome to Israel.
As they stepped from deluxe coaches into the chilly pre-dawn air, the UJA leaders were handed flowers and candy to present to the new arrivals.
There was hot chocolate to sip as an antidote to the nighttime breeze.
But what really seemed to warm the UJA leaders, as they awaited the arrival of an El Al jet from Budapest, were the Israeli songs that blared from the loudspeakers erected on the tarmac.
As the plane rolled in majestically, the song switched to “Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem” and the crowd pressed closer to the portable staircase that would enable the arriving Soviets to take their final few steps to freedom.
WANT TO KISS THE SOIL
And then, the cabin door opened, and a white-bearded, rabbi stepped off the plane, followed by a crowd of curiosity-stricken passengers. They looked a bit bewildered as the euphoric Americans tearfully pressed flowers and chocolate into their hands.
“I want to kiss the soil,” exclaimed a short, auburn-haired woman named Etta, who had traveled from Soviet Armenia.
“I hope everyone will be able to leave Russia,” she said, adding that the situation in Armenia was “quite bad” for Jews.
As it turned out, though, Etta was one of only 50 Soviet immigrants aboard a flight carrying 160 Israelis and Hungarian tourists from Budapest.
When the UJA group learned this, it caucused and immediately decided to await the next plane, which would arrive 30 minutes later with 170 Soviet immigrants aboard.
And so, as dawn began to break, the ritual was repeated. But this time there were no flowers or chocolate bars to present. The UJA leaders improvised, substituting the one thing they had plenty of: kisses and warm embraces.
This time, the Soviet Jews were not hard to find. Here was a woman from Samarkand, who said she had come to find a sister she had not seen in 45 years.
And there was a family from Minsk, whose two small children became instant celebrities with the amateur photography crowd.
A blond teen-ager from Tashkent named Leonid described the situation for Jews in the Soviet Asian city as “not so bad, but not so good.”
His curly-headed friend Misha said, “I like my people, I like my land. But the Uzbek land don’t like me because I’m Jewish.”