Menu JTA Search

What drives an Israeli immigrant?

Jonathan Udren pauses on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv shortly after arriving in Israel on July 9. (Brian Hendler)

Jonathan Udren pauses on the tarmac at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv shortly after arriving in Israel on July 9. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, July 9 (JTA) — Today we are 330 new olim who stand as one. Clutching massive black binders from the Nefesh B´Nefesh organization, complete with cell phones and precise absorption instructions, all of us wearing small blue-and-white buttons that read "I´m making aliyah today," we are standing together as one. We have packed our lives in duffel bags big enough to transport ourselves inside — children and parents, singles and newlyweds — but we are not fleeing: We are not running away from America but rather running toward home, toward Israel. So many people have asked a simple question about my aliyah, the answer to which still eludes me: why? When Israel faces not only a serious security problem but challenging economic issues as well, why would I leave? In America I speak the language, know the culture and can practice Judaism in any manner I please, so why is Israel the only answer that will satisfy? Surely among my 329 other new Israeli brothers and sisters we can forge an answer. I anticipate a little more clarity when a five-cart train of animal cages rolls up to the Nefesh B´Nefesh greeting station. Above each of the five wheel-mounted dog cages sits a cat box. "I had to custom-build this train to bring my five dogs and five cats," Dori Gould says. "So many people told me that I should find other homes for them, but they´re my babies, and I´m not going to leave without them." Surely a woman who would transport her circus-like entourage must hold the secret for what drives a Jew to move to Israel today. I ask why she went to such trouble. "Well, I was with a solidarity mission with my congregation in November, and when I came back I just felt like I wanted to go back and I wanted to live there," says Gould, 36, who hails from upstate New York. "Aren´t they going to be hot in Israel?" I ask of the animals, trying to appeal to logic. "Well, two of the cats I adopted in Egypt when I was working there as an archaeologist," Gould says, "so it´s like they´re coming home too." I think to myself that her emotional connection to Israel goes beyond logic; it´s clear something deep lives beneath the surface. Of course, I also understand that tugging toward a land that feels more like a warm companion than sharp rocks and coarse desert sand. But what is that feeling? I want to capture it, articulate it, hold it in the palm of my hand. I hope that the spiritual leader and co-founder of Nefesh B´Nefesh, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, could help me. A man whose organization will, by summer´s end, have sent approximately 1,500 North American Jews to Israel in a little over a year surely can answer the question. Addressing the crowd at the send-off at New York´s Kennedy Airport, Fass says: "The first question that reporters are asking today is why. There was one child who said something remarkable: ‘I want to connect to that indescribable emotion and feeling of living in the land in which the history of our people is rooted, and where the prayers and the thoughts and the hopes of every Jew is directed.´ " As if that answer hasn´t left me perplexed enough, Israel´s housing minister, Efraim Eitam, piques my curiosity even further. "We´ve heard a lot about the ‘road map´ over the last few weeks," he says, referring to a U.S.-backed peace plan, "but I think you all represent the real road map. In the soul of every Jew there is a call to come back home. It is beyond the physical senses, but it is valid." Not long afterward, the plane lifts off to applause and cheers throughout the cabin. I turn to my right and introduce myself, hoping to probe more deeply into the reasons behind aliyah. Sitting next to me is Warren Blumberg, a 24-year-old from South Africa by way of Houston. "Israel is the only destination where people clap when they´re taking off," he says. I ask him for a specific "Israel moment," hoping it will help me pin down this evasive attraction. "One time I hitchhiked home in a garbage truck from north Tel Aviv to the center of the city," Warren says. "It was so great that the garbageman wore a kipah, and that we spoke Hebrew the whole way back." Matt Zalen, 22, who is sitting on my opposite side, overhears us and chimes in. "Once I went to the barber and he asked me what kind of haircut I wanted," he says. "I started to explain it, but then he just started cutting away and said, ‘Ah, what does it matter anyway?´ " I chuckle at their stories and, after trading a few more Israel experiences, move to the front of the plane to catch up with my friend Moshe Gross. "What´s really driving this aliyah for you?" I ask as the rest of the passengers begin to nod off. He tells me how his Judaism comes to life in Israel; it feels vibrant, dynamic, and alive. I relate to that, because for me the most important moments in Israel are those where I take a deep breath and appreciate my existence, and the gift of being in Jerusalem. Suddenly, memories of Shabbat walks on late spring afternoons, when the flowers are bursting in Jerusalem´s German Colony, pop into my head. As the wheels finally touch down on the tarmac, the cheering and singing momentarily drown out the questions in my head. I am bursting with pride for all of the Nefesh B´Nefesh olim, because today we are all brave. Maybe tomorrow we will wake up in a cold sweat, questioning ourselves about this intangible emotion that has led us to Israel, but today we are heroes, for ourselves and for those back home who love us. As the plane door opens we are greeted by cameras of all sizes. I smile and wave, hoping that my family and friends, and all my new Israeli bothers and sisters, will see the fire in my eyes, even if I can´t explain it. As my feet set down on the ground of my ancestors, I realize that the royal treatment has only begun. Looking toward the hangar I´m shocked at the crowd that has gathered, waving Israeli flags. "Haveinu Shalom Aleichem" starts blasting over the speakers, and the applause and cheers grow as we approach the crowd. "Welcome home," an older woman yells to me from the behind the gate. I don´t answer her; I can only smile back. We can see the tears welling in each other´s eyes, and know that we are connecting on a level beyond words. In that moment I think I finally get it: Words are too clumsy to capture something as deep as the nature of the Jewish soul. When that spark surfaces it becomes a magnet that pulls you, beyond the constraints of logic. Soon Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon welcomes us to the Jewish homeland, "the place where Jews can live as Jews." "I´m talking to you as Jew," Sharon says, "and for me to be a Jew is the most important thing." I see that now it is not only the 330 new olim who are one, but that all of Israel, and every Jew across the world, are one. We all have this intangible fire inside of us — and today 330 Nefesh B´Nefesh olim have returned to our homeland to express that flame at its source.Jonathan Udren, 27, a freelance journalist and editor, is from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He will be living in Jerusalem.

NEXT STORY