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First Person Seeing American Immigrants Arrive, an Oleh Reflects on His Year in Israel

Almost exactly a year ago today, I was one of 330 people aboard an aliyah flight sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency for Israel. I was the one with butterflies in my stomach as the plane landed, dreading the bureaucracy and dreaming of my future in Israel.

“Am I crazy for moving here?” I asked myself as I stepped off the plane. That thought disappeared as suddenly “Haveinu shalom aleichem” started playing in the background. All I could focus on was the cheering and flag-waving that awaited me in the hangar as hundreds of people gathered to greet the new immigrants.

As I approached the gate, I will never forget the older Sephardi woman with tears in her eyes who called out to me, “baruch habah, welcome home.”

Today I stood on the other side of the fence as the first of three Nefesh B’Nefesh planes this summer arrived with new immigrants.

Unlike last year, when I felt the anxiety of the question mark that! was my future in Israel, today was a different story.

As the nose of the plane pulled in and the flags flew and “Haveinu shalom aleichem” blared, I was filled with a comforting feeling: “Maybe I’m not crazy for making aliyah. I’m not alone in my dream of building a life in Israel.”

After speaking with a few people in the crowd awaiting the plane, I noticed that some were there to greet family or friends, and some had made aliyah themselves with the help of Nefesh B’Nefesh.

But I was surprised that many didn’t know anyone on the flight at all. They had come just to be part of the festivities and welcome all their brothers and sisters home.

Avichail Friedman, a former B’nei Akiva emissary who spent a year in the United States promoting aliyah, came from Jerusalem to show her support.

“I lived in the U.S. and I know all the challenges of leaving and how hard it can be to uproot yourself and your family. I just have to say ‘kol ha kavod’ ” — lots of respec! t — “to all those who are coming to Israel now,” Friedman said.

L iz Bernstein, originally from Los Angeles, came to enjoy the atmosphere of the celebration as well as greet a friend making aliyah. Bernstein has lived in Jerusalem with her husband for nine months, and though aliyah is on their mind, they haven’t yet made the commitment to take Israeli citizenship.

“To see all these people here dealing with the same issues of making aliyah, and overcoming them, it’s certainly inspiring. It gets the wheels turning thinking about if we’re going to stay or not,” Bernstein said.

“It is a little bit crazy to make aliyah now you know,” she added.

I agree: Standing there watching as hundreds of people schlep their bags down the runway and search frantically for their strollers, it does seem crazy. They’ve just moved halfway around the world to a country where they don’t speak the language and aren’t part of the culture, and where the government is in constant unrest.

But the Jewish people have never had a normal history.

One youn! g woman, a seminary student named Batia, took the morning off to attend the event. She was struck by the image of the families with their luggage on the runway, and said it reminded her of pictures of Jews being shipped off to concentration camps.

“But this is exactly the opposite,” she said. “It’s amazing. They are all coming home to Israel.”

The highlights of the welcoming ceremony were speeches by Prime Minster Ariel Sharon and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, focusing on the importance of aliyah for Israel’s future.

“Olim are the foundation of the future” of Israel, Sharon said. “I have faith in you, the State of Israel has faith in you, and we need you here more than ever. Welcome home. After 2,000 years of wandering, it has finally come to an end.”

Netanyahu told a story about how the co-founder of Nefesh B’Nefesh approached him with the idea for the program more than three years ago.

“Tony Gelbart told me about an idea of appealing to young co! uples and young professionals before they set down roots,” Netanyahu s aid. “He said ‘I’m really going to do it,’ and I said, ‘You’re crazy.’ And this meshuggeneh here, he went and did it.”

Maybe Gelbart is a bit crazy. And maybe just as misery loves company, so does insanity.

But that craziness connected all of the hundreds of cheering Jews in the hangar this morning, in the deepest places in our hearts.

New oleh Michael Rosenfelt, 26, from Columbia, Mo., explained the feeling with a simple analogy.

“Just like every type of plant has a certain region where it can grow the best, so too with the Jews. Eretz Yisrael is the place where we as Jews grow the best,” Rosenfeld said, using a Hebrew expression for the Land of Israel.

If I try and see how I’ve grown through my first year of aliyah, I can’t really get a handle on it. I know the best spot to overlook the Old City, and I’ve figured out how to complain to the bus driver when he closes the door on my foot as I try to hop on at the last second.

But those are just the small! details. Like those of a tree, a person’s roots grow underground and out of sight. And I think that’s the biggest difference from a year ago– those roots.

In so many ways I feel more planted in Israel today than ever before. I don’t feel crazy for uprooting myself and building my life here. I feel that all of us who have come are not only planning for the future, but that we will reap the benefits of our actions.

Today, with the help of the State of Israel, Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency, we’re digging our roots deeper into the illogical saga that is the Jewish people and their return home.

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