NEW YORK/TEL AVIV (Jul. 20)
Susan Rubin held her 22-year-old son close, tears spilling down her cheeks while news photographers zoomed in on what an American Jewish mother looks like as she watches her son immigrate to Israel in the midst of war. "Just let me cry," she told her son, Stephen, who graduated college a month ago. But Rubin said her sadness comes not only from the ongoing fighting and her son’s intentions to join an Israeli army combat unit, but simply from how much she’ll miss him.
"People ask me, ‘How can you let him go?’ I say how can I not let him go?" said Rubin, an editor and researcher from Bala Cynwyd, a Philadelphia suburb. "We raise our children to go forth, but it doesn’t mean our hearts aren’t breaking."
Rubin’s son was one of 239 North American immigrants who left New York on Wednesday and arrived in Israel the following day on a flight chartered by Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization devoted to facilitating North American aliyah. The group helps ease the aliyah process by streamlining the immigration process and providing financial grants and social services.
Organizers expect to welcome the 10,000th immigrant from Nefesh B’Nefesh later this summer. The group’s efforts are funded predominately by a handful of philanthropic families, and it also receives funding and support from the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Against a backdrop of war and uncertainty, farewells were especially emotional as families and friends bid their loved ones goodbye at New York’s JFK Airport. Sisters parted from brothers, parents from children and grandchildren. Long goodbyes were punctuated with hugs, grasped hands and tears.
"I’ll miss them, but I’m proud of them," said writer Joe Rapaport, 64, as his son and daughter-in-law and their five children checked in suitcases and strollers piled high on carts.
Inbar Rapaport, 33, pregnant with her sixth child, stood at the check-in counter and said the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah had not deterred the family from making aliyah, as she and her husband had intended for years.
"I’m happy that they’re trying to get Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon," the Harvard-educated lawyer said. "I’d be happier if Israel was at peace, but it’s not."
Her immediate concerns are practical in nature: She worries that the shipment from the home the family just sold in Teaneck, N.J. will be delayed because the Haifa port has been closed due to missile attacks on the city.
Shachar, 9, the eldest of the Rapaport children, has been following the daily headlines.
"I was a little scared that we’re moving. I thought that coming in we might have to fly in the north of the country and that a rocket might hurt the plane," he said.
But he added quickly, "I think the plane has anti-rocket" equipment.
Nefesh B’Nefesh established a hotline after hostilities flared across Israel’s border with Lebanon last week. About 20 families who were planning to live in the North canceled their places on the flight, choosing to go a few weeks later, when they hope the crisis will have passed.
Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, Nefesh B’Nefesh’s co-founder and executive director, fielded dozens of calls and e-mails over the past week from anxious immigrants-to-be and their relatives. He commended those planning to live in the North who had delayed their immigration.
"It’s too traumatic to take children from stable homes to a shelter," he told JTA as the plane approached Israel’s coast.
Many of those who make aliyah with Nefesh B’Nefesh are part of large Orthodox families.
Fass, who immigrated on the first flight the group organized five years ago, said the immigrants’ determination to leave comfortable homes and lives in North America, especially with Israeli cities under rocket fire, sends a powerful message.
"It’s the ultimate act of solidarity," he said. "In their minds it’s not a conflict, it’s like the ‘for better or worse,’ it’s like marriage. They understand they’re getting married to Israel."
Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu greeted the immigrants in a festive ceremony at the airport.
"What’s the best answer to Hezbollah?" asked Netanyahu, who currently heads Israel’s political opposition as head of the Likud Party. "You are the best answer.
"It’s a testament to the Jewish spirit," he told JTA.
The immigrants were greeted like rock stars as they descended from buses to the welcoming ceremony. Guests, including friends and relatives, waved small Israeli flags and greeted them with cheers and applause.
Sara Goldstein, 41, from Merrick, N.Y., walked on the tarmac with her husband and four children. Her daughter Tali, 10, clutched the handle of a box containing the family pet, a Persian cat born around Purim and named Ahasuerus.
The fighting was no reason to delay her family’s plans, she said.
"We’ve been planning this for a while," Tali said, checking that the family’s belongings were all in tow. "We’re very comfortable here."
Charlotte Kolodly, 89 years old and about four-and-a-half feet tall, also wasn’t deterred by the missiles.
"It doesn’t keep me back because Hashem keeps his eyes over Zion," she said.
The European-born mother of seven, a grandmother and great-grandmother to dozens, had planned on making aliyah 25 years ago, but passed at the time because her husband had a heart attack.
On Thursday, she landed in Israel escorted by one of her grandsons.
"Now I can do it," Kolodly said, her small frame swallowed up by her airplane seat. "I don’t have to take care of my children anymore. My children have to take care of me."
Rubin said he first came to Israel on a birthright israel trip.
The current fighting had only strengthened his resolve to contribute to the country, he said. He will study Hebrew and work on a kibbutz in the North before joining the army in November.
"I know many of my opinions are pretty naive. I know I’m pretty idealistic," he said. "I guess I wouldn’t be doing this otherwise."