ASHKELON, Israel (Jul. 14)
It was 8:45 a.m. on Sept. 11, 2001, when Henry Fuerte, a systems analyst at a large U.S. insurance broker, stepped into an elevator on the 78th floor of the World Trade Center’s north tower. The Brooklyn native was late for work and had caught the express to 78, where a local elevator would shuttle him and other stragglers to the 95th-floor offices of Marsh Inc.
He never got there.
Just as Fuerte entered the elevator, American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the building, between the 93rd and 98th floors, tearing a gaping hole in the giant skyscraper — killing everyone onboard, along with 355 of Fuerte’s colleagues at Marsh, among the thousands who died that day.
Seventeen floors beneath them, Fuerte recalls, the force of the impact blew up the elevator he was standing in. Shrapnel lacerated his eye and he injured his back and knees — but he survived. That, says Fuerte, a 33-year-old in a yarmulke, was thanks not to luck but to God.
Three years, 10 months and a day later — on July 12, 2005 — Fuerte joined some 500 other Jews from the United States and Canada who immigrated to Israel in the biggest single-day aliyah from North America in the history of the Jewish state.
Sept. 11 “was an impetus to me for aliyah, because I didn’t want to die in New York,” said Fuerte, sitting toward the front of an El Al 747 packed with about 300 new olim, or immigrants, on their way to the Jewish state. “Terrorism is all over the world. That being the case, I’d rather be in a place I can call home.”
The notion of Israel as home was echoed frequently aboard the flight. Despite the material comforts of America and the potential dangers in the Middle East, many said that they never felt more at home than when in Israel. The flight was sponsored by Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization that helps North American Jews make aliyah, and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
The Jewish Agency has been the primary facilitator of aliyah for many years. In 2002, Nefesh B’Nefesh was founded specifically to encourage immigration from North America.
Both organizations say they expect 3,200 immigrants to arrive in Israel from North America this year, the first time since 1983 that the figure has topped 3,000.
The groups’ initial goal has been to identify people whom Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Charlie Levine calls the “low-hanging fruit” — Jews who want make aliyah but for some reason thus far have found the move untenable.
By year’s end the group will have brought more than 6,700 North American immigrants.
The aim is to smooth the process so that aliyah becomes a more realistic option. In this vein, Nefesh B’Nefesh provides immigrants with financial assistance, employment resources, social services and guidance through the governmental absorption process.
Several representatives of Israel’s Interior Ministry aboard the aliyah flight went from seat to seat finalizing immigration papers. The process, which could have taken months in Israel, was done by the time the plane landed.
When Rabbi Joshua Fass, who co-founded Nefesh B’Nefesh along with Tony Gelbart, picked up the plane’s loudspeaker, he told those onboard, “Welcome home.”
Indeed, generations of Jews have looked upon Israel as a spiritual — and sometimes physical — homeland. Many of those on the flight had been planning to make aliyah for years. Their arrival in Israel was the culmination of years of saving, working and dreaming.
But what now? What do olim do once they finally arrive in Israel?
As Rabbi Mark Smilowitz, 35, who was immigrating with his wife, Michelle, 29, and their three young children, asked: “What am I going to do tomorrow morning?”
Answers varied among those in the latest wave of North American aliyah. Smilowitz, a former yeshiva teacher from Seattle, was heading to the home of relatives in Beit Shemesh.
There he and his family will wait six weeks for their personal belongings to arrive from the United States. Once their packages arrive, they’ll move into a house they bought two years ago.
“When you’re coming from America, you want to bring that comfort with you,” Michelle Smilowitz said, holding her three-month-old baby in her arms. “Making aliyah is hard enough. You need to do everything you can to make it easier.”
But as for tomorrow and the next day and next week?
“Getting a driver’s license is a big priority,” she said. “You have to get around.”
In addition, she said, they’ll enroll their 5-year-old son in a Hebrew-language program for youngsters. But as far as the first year in the country is concerned, the Smilowitzes said they’ll take the time to slowly get acclimated.
Dan Brotman, an 18-year-old from Boston, had another plan: to join the Israel Defense Forces and possibly a combat unit, as part of the Tzofim Garin Tzabar program, in which young people from North America move to kibbutzim and serve in the military.
“It’s a bit nerve-racking,” he said, sitting with two young female friends who were also preparing to enlist. “I won’t be able to go back to the U.S. for a visit for a year and a half because of the army. But I think we’re going to be fine. We’re going to integrate.”
After the flight landed, a Canadian, Ryan Paddock, 19, was the first of the new immigrants to be presented with an aliyah certificate in a large ceremony in a hangar just off the Ben-Gurion Airport tarmac.
“Seeing all of you here today is like a dream for me,” said the former Winnipeg resident, who also plans to join the army soon.
At the ceremony, the olim, along with family and friends, heard from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon — with whom Fuerte shook hands — Foreign Minster Silvan Shalom, Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres and the new Jewish Agency chairman, Zeev Bielski.
Each immigrant was then given an aliyah certificate, an envelope of cash, and a taxi voucher to get to his or her new home.
For Aharon Horowitz, that new home would be in the Bakka neighborhood of Jerusalem. In late March, Horowitz stood before the Columbia University gates and addressed media and students on the morning that a faculty committee investigating charges that university professors bullied pro-Israel students issued its findings.
The report was a whitewash, Horowitz and his friends insisted, and many students had not been given a legitimate hearing. The next day, a large photo of Horowitz appeared on JTA’s Web site and in The New York Times.
Horowitz — who studied political science and Arabic — moved to Israel with his wife. The couple rented their Jerusalem apartment based on a series of blurry, wide-angle photos taken by a friend and were planning to head straight there from the airport.
As for what he planned to do the day after arriving, Horowitz didn’t have much choice: He had arranged a job at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based think tank, working on a new project to launch student journals on Jewish thought on five American college campuses, and the center wanted him to start right away.
As for Fuerte, he caught a shared taxi to Jerusalem and unloaded four or five heavy suitcases at Ulpan Etzion, where he planned to spend the next five months living and studying Hebrew, along with immigrants from 27 countries.
Once his time at the Ulpan Absorption Center is up, Fuerte hopes to find a job in the high-tech industry. In the meantime, there are more pressing needs: A shower, a quick nap, and then he’s off to an Israeli television studio to tell his story yet again — from Sept. 11 through his aliyah — on a current-affairs program.
Fuerte has been in the country about three and a half hours, and already he has met the prime minister and scored a prime-time slot on TV. It’s not a bad start to his new life as an Israeli.