NEW YORK (Jul. 9)
Howard and Dora Green were inside Jerusalem’s packed Sbarro pizzeria last August when a suicide bomber blew himself and more than a dozen others to bits.
The Greens suffered personally from the terrorist attack — their niece still rests in a coma in Tel Aviv — but it prompted the couple to emerge stronger and more dedicated to preserving the Jewish people.
The “best way to fight back” said Howard Green, is to make aliyah.
Nearly one year later, the Orthodox couple from New York has moved to Israel.
They were among nearly 400 North American Jews — 150 under the age of 12 — who made aliyah in what is believed to be the largest group of North Americans to immigrate at one time to Israel.
Israel was “always a dream we could never fulfill” for financial or other reasons, Dora Green, 51, said as she prepared for her departure from JFK International Airport on Monday.
But now, with her husband’s retirement benefits and a financial boost from a new organization dedicated to easing the financial burden of aliyah, the Greens are officially new immigrants.
In fact, the group that helped the Greens, Nefesh B’Nefesh, which means from soul to soul in Hebrew, was founded by someone dedicated to replacing lives lost to terror with new Jewish immigrants.
After his cousin was killed in a 2000 terrorist attack in Israel, Rabbi Joshua Fass of Boca Raton, Fla., wanted to “come stand in his stead.”
Describing his inspiration to others, the 29-year-old Orthodox rabbi found a burgeoning group of like-minded prospective immigrants whose only impediment was finances.
In November, he resigned from his congregation and joined local businessman and congregant Tony Gelbart to launch the group.
They placed ads in Jewish papers across the country and urged the North American offices of the Israel Aliyah Center to direct prospective immigrants their way.
Nefesh B’Nefesh raised $3 million to send and integrate its first planeload of new immigrants, which arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport to great fanfare on Tuesday morning.
Of the total, $2 million came as a grant from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which raises money primarily from Christian donors.
Nefesh B’Nefesh offered the new immigrants from $5,000 to $25,000 in grants, averaging $20,000, to ease their move to Israel.
The group includes Jews from 23 states and Canada.
Three-fourths of the group are Orthodox, according to Fass, who went with his wife, Batsheva, and three small children.
But others among them said a secular Zionism propelled their move.
Mike Lewin was leaving his best friend and family behind in Cleveland to begin a new life in Israel.
“I’ve always been a strong Zionist,” said Lewin, 28, who describes himself as a Reform Jew in America and a secular one in Israel.
It’s a feeling that’s grown, he said as he was leaving on Monday, since his first visit there as a 16-year-old on a federation-sponsored teen tour.
“Not every Jew needs” to make aliyah, but those who are “ready to make a commitment should go,” he said.
Stuart Schwartz, 50, a Florida businessman and Reform Jew also described a growing love for Israel with each visit there.
“I feel a bond to Israel,” said Schwartz. It’s a “return to the homeland.”
He said financial assistance from Nefesh B’Nefesh was the key that allowed him to actually move, he said.
One of the main reason American Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, don’t make aliyah is because they can’t afford the expense of relocating, believes 63-year-old Stan Rabinowitz, a ba’al teshuvah, or someone who has newly embraced Orthodox Judaism.
Indeed, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, says that if Nefesh B’Nefesh proves that to be the case by continuing to raise the numbers of American aliyah, then American Jewry must address the issue.
Eckstein, who himself recently made aliyah, said, “This aliyah happened because Christian Americans helped make it happen.”
Their support comes because they want to “help bless Israel and the Jewish people” at a time of need and to strengthen ties between Christians and Jews in America.
North American aliyah has steadily decreased by 15 percent every year for the last five years, with slightly fewer than 1,200 North Americans making aliyah last year.
But this year, Dan Biron, executive director of the Israel Aliyah Center, which handles immigration to Israel by North American Jews, expects an increase of 20 percent due to the work of Nefesh B’Nefesh.
For its part, Nefesh B’Nefesh plans to continue operating out of Florida and Israel with 130 more scheduled to depart later this summer, and another 1,200 immigrants next year.
Unlike immigrants from other countries who come to Israel fleeing danger or persecution, the beauty of this group is that they are choosing Israel purely for ideology, said Biron.
Rabinowitz admitted that leaving wasn’t easy.
“Boca Raton, Fla., is like being in paradise,” he said, describing the kosher restaurants and idyllic ocean near his home.
But Israel is “our true home,” said Rabinowitz, who was making aliyah with his wife, a convert to Judaism.
Meanwhile, before boarding the plane to Israel on Monday, Fass moved swiftly through the eager and anxious crowd, handing out tickets and searching for his own, shaking hands with the new immigrants and handing his cards to others seeking future passage to the Jewish state.
Looking like the mayor of aliyah, Fass said his plane of new immigrants is an “infusion of life, light and hope.”
This should be the “biggest morale boost to Israelis. To have 100 families move at time like this” is “an act of heroism,” he said.
For their part, the Greens believe that bringing their bodies and support to Israel at such a difficult time helps bring courage to Jews in Israel and, therefore, survival to Jews everywhere.
Israel, a country that has absorbed so many into so few, is an “amazing story,” said Dora Green, the daughter of Holocaust survivors whose mother and children are also making aliyah.
“I want to be a part of that.”