Israeli emissary flies to Alaska so unusual family can emigrate

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Chaya and Yisroel Khalsa braced for rejection when they turned to the Oakland-based Israel Center for help in immigrating to the Jewish state.

The Alaskan couple already had heard a resounding "no" last year from the Chicago center that coordinates aliyah. The reason: Not only were they both pushing 40, but their two youngest children were born with Down syndrome.

"I was devastated," Chaya Khalsa said of the refusal.

Instead of rebuffing the family, however, Israel Center director Kobi Sharon and associate director Elisha Wolfin decided to fly to Fairbanks this spring and stay with the family for five days.

"I found a really special family…a loving family," Sharon said.

As a result, the couple and their four children — ranging from age 2 to 7 — plan to permanently leave the "frozen chosen" for Israel in August.

The Khalsas weren't the only Fairbanks family who ended up taking advantage of the rare visit from a shaliach (Israel emissary). An Orthodox couple with a 7-month-old baby now plans to make aliyah in October. And two more families are considering immigration for 1996.

Nearly 4,000 Americans make aliyah annually, but it is rare for more than one Alaskan family to make the move each year because the Jewish population there is small. An estimated 2,000 to 3,000 Jews live in Alaska.

Sharon, the shaliach who coordinates aliyah in Northern California from his office at the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, said the trip to Alaska was unusual for several reasons.

Though his work occasionally takes him to Oregon or Nevada, Sharon had never trekked as far as Alaska because the Vancouver aliyah center usually handles the northernmost U.S. state. But because of administrative changes at the Vancouver office and because he was touched by the Khalsas' story, Sharon decided to handle the case himself.

Potential immigrants generally travel to the closest aliyah office for their application interviews. But to save the cost of six plane tickets to Oakland, the Khalsa family paid for Sharon's ticket to Alaska. Because Sharon wanted a second opinion, he paid for Wolfin's $250 plane ticket out of his own pocket.

During the visit, the pair met with Jewish families, visited the city's only synagogue, spoke to college students about Israel, and were interviewed on local radio.

Khalsa, a 39-year-old former teacher and principal, cannot contain her gratitude to Sharon and Wolfin, and doubts her family would be making aliyah without them.

"They are wonderful," she said.

She has dreamed of moving to Israel since she was 14, growing up on Long Island. Instead, Khalsa escaped her nine years of yeshiva study and Conservative upbringing by moving to Alaska when she was 18.

In Alaska, she explored spiritual alternatives to Judaism, including Sikhism, but eventually returned to her roots when she discovered the mystical traditions of Kabbalah. Her husband, born to a Catholic family, also became a Sikh later in life and adopted the surname Khalsa. Discovering Judaism through his wife about four years ago, he began studying for conversion and took on the name Yisroel.

Chaya Khalsa buried her dream of aliyah until 3-1/2 years ago when she gave birth to her son, Ongkar, who has Down syndrome. A year later, the Khalsas adopted Kirin, a baby girl with the same genetic disorder, as a companion for Ongkar.

Although some families look at such children as problems, Khalsa sees her two youngest as blessings.

"To us, these children are our joys," she said.

In the past couple of years, the couple began searching for a way to ensure Ongkar and Kirin wouldn't end up in a group home if something ever happened to their parents.

"We decided a kibbutz would be the best long-term solution for our children," Chaya Khalsa said.

But after considering the benefits of kibbutz life for their children, the Khalsas began opening up to the spiritual possibilities of life in the Jewish state.

"I hope we can get closer to God, closer to our roots," Chaya Khalsa said.

Even the simplest Jewish ritual in Alaska, such as lighting Shabbat candles, means waiting for care packages with candles from Chaya's sister on the East Coast and staying up past midnight for sundown each summer.

Despite Sharon and Wolfin's stamp of approval, the family still will face obstacles once they arrive in Israel.

Yisroel Khalsa visited the Jewish state earlier this year searching for a kibbutz that would accept his family. Only Kibbutz Harduf near Haifa would even consider them. So the family will head to an absorption center first, then live on the kibbutz for a trial period.

"We're making a big leap in faith," Chaya Khalsa said.

Nevertheless, Sharon said the Khalsas stand a good chance of succeeding in Israel and has decided that the trip to Alaska was worth his while.

Sharon believes he would have turned the Khalsas down if they'd visited his Oakland office for the typical one- to two-hour interview, especially because of their two youngest children. Instead, Sharon found a family who will be able to make a special contribution to Israel.

"People can learn from them how to treat kids with Down syndrome," he said.

Though he downplays the significance of his decision to travel to Alaska and pay for one ticket himself, Sharon acknowledges that his work — and Wolfin's — is a commitment, not just a job.

"I think what we did is a mitzvah," he said.