Moving to Israel, by the planeload: Bay Area Jews join mass aliyah charter flight

A large, roped-off area in Terminal 4 at New York’s John F. Kennedy airport teemed with activity one Monday morning in July. A colorfully dressed man twisted balloons into animals for children who crowded around him. A man wearing his baby in a chest carrier davened quietly in the corner. People dug into two large cakes decorated with a Star of David and the words, “Mazel Tov From El Al to All Olim [immigrants].” Teary-eyed grandparents embraced their children and grandchildren.

This three-ring circus of celebration and farewells whirled around 221 people who had come to the airport from across the United States. Within two hours, they would go through TSA security and step aboard an El Al flight for a life-changing journey that would take them to Israel — but not back. These 126 adults with 95 children had decided to create a new life by making aliyah.

on the cover: Israeli soldiers welcome new immigrants at Ben-Gurion airport on July 14. (drew himmelstein)

Steven Duke, 51, a high-tech marketer, stood along the perimeter of the crowd with his wife, Fibi, their three children and 2-year-old poodle/terrier rescue dog, Kirby. After years living in San Francisco, the family was moving to Israel, he said, so the children could live in an “authentically Jewish” environment.

In the weeks before they arrived in New York, the children, ages 16, 13 and 9, had said goodbye to their friends at Bais Menachem Yeshiva Day School and Lisa Kampner Hebrew Academy. The family’s synagogue, Congregation Chevra Thilim, an Orthodox congregation near where they lived in the Richmond district, held a kiddush for the family, and the Schneerson Center, a San Francisco Chabad center, held a goodbye dinner in their honor.

“It was a terrible goodbye,” said Duke, a committed surfer who hit the beach nearly daily in San Francisco, where he was dubbed “the rabbi” by other surfers because he showed up wearing a yarmulke. “We love San Francisco; leaving there was wrenching.”

This year, about 4,000 people will make aliyah to Israel from North America, but only a few hundred of them will have a send-off quite like the one at JFK airport. Nefesh B’Nefesh, a nongovernmental aliyah organization, charters two flights a year from North America just for new immigrants. This reporter traveled on the July 13 charter; another flight is scheduled for later this month.

Aryeh Rendel of Queens, New York, hugs his daughter Deena Shulman before she boards the flight to Israel on July 13 photo/drew himmelstein

Nefesh B’Nefesh was created in 2002 to encourage and support aliyah from North America; the organization chartered its first flight to Israel that year. Up until that point, all Americans making aliyah went through the Jewish Agency for Israel, which has been promoting immigration to the Jewish state since 1929 and still handles aliyah for Jews from the rest of the world.

In 2008, Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Jewish Agency formed a strategic partnership. Prospective olim from North America file a joint application that goes to both agencies; the Jewish Agency determines legal eligibility for aliyah, while Nefesh B’Nefesh provides counseling and assistance with government processing and accessing benefits. Each new immigrant gets a free one-way flight to Israel and a number of benefits once they arrive, including financial assistance for six months, free health insurance for up to a year, 500 hours of free Hebrew lessons, university tuition assistance for qualifying students, employment counseling, tax breaks, housing assistance and free shipping of household goods.

Since its creation, Nefesh B’Nefesh has helped 45,000 Jews from North America and the United Kingdom make aliyah and has established special programs to recruit doctors and to encourage settlement in Israel’s less-populated North and South. In addition to the twice-yearly charter flights, Nefesh B’Nefesh buys blocks of tickets for olim on a flight to Israel every month; immigrants they help can also travel individually.

Having a designated flight for new immigrants eases the journey. Nefesh B’Nefesh staff walk families through the planning and application process in advance of the trip, then fly with them and even process their passports on board so they don’t have to stand in line for hours when they land. The idea is to remove as many logistical hurdles to aliyah as possible.

“They don’t have to hit any bureaucracy at all today,” said Tani Kramer, the associate manager for PR and communications at Nefesh B’Nefesh, who traveled on the July 13 flight. “If there are any bumps, we’re here with you.”

Serving cake provided by El Al airlines at JFK airport in New York photo/drew himmelstein

Plus, Kramer added, “It’s also an experience.”

The “experience” he’s talking about is making the most important journey of your life with a group of people who all share the same dream. At JFK airport, families said tearful goodbyes to the relatives they were leaving behind. Parents laid their hands on their children’s heads to bless them before they moved an ocean away. People made final phone calls to say goodbye to relatives who didn’t live close enough to come to the ceremony in person.

Still, amid the sadness, there was excitement in the air. People posed for photos with pre-printed signs that read, “Living the Dream” and draped themselves in Israeli flags to sing “Hatikvah” during the farewell ceremony.

Shirley Rendel held back tears as she stood with her husband listening to Israel’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Ron Prosor, and Nefesh B’Nefesh executive director Rabbi Yahoshua Fass speak about the importance of aliyah at a pre-flight ceremony. She was at the airport to say goodbye to her daughter, Deena Shulman, who, with her husband and two children, was leaving for Israel that day.

Shulman, 28, would be the Rendels’ fourth child to make aliyah; only their two youngest children remain in the U.S.

From left, Israeli government minister Gila Gamliel, Israel’s U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, and Nefesh B’Nefesh co-founders Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart with young immigrants at JFK airport photo/jta-nefesh v’nefesh-shahar azran

“We said, ‘We have to get our kids to go so we can go,’” explained Rendel, 59. She and her husband, Aryeh, went to Israel on their honeymoon 38 years ago and were ready to move then, but life got in the way. They instilled the same dream in their children and still envision aliyah in their future. Twenty years ago, Shulman said, the family stopped buying furniture they didn’t think would fit in an Israeli apartment.

The promise of reuniting with her family in the future didn’t make the goodbye any easier. With red eyes, Rendel tried to be upbeat for her 3-year-old granddaughter.

“There will be special, special ice cream stores in Israel!” she promised the girl.

Unlike immigrants from other parts of the world and other periods in history, who often arrived in Israel as refugees, these American Jews make the journey not due to need or necessity; they are motivated by their devotion to the Jewish state.

“You are following the Zionist dream,” said Gila Gamliel, a member of the Knesset and Israel’s minister for senior citizens, who made the trip to New York to speak at the emotional pre-flight ceremony. “You have chosen to leave the comfort of your life in the U.S. You have chosen to come to Israel of your own free will. Not because of anti-Semitism, not because of religious persecution, not because of poverty.”

“In Israel, there is much to change and improve,” Menachem Leibovic, vice chairman of the Jewish National Fund, told the New York crowd. “Hopefully, you can be among the builders and shakers of the Jewish state. Mend it and shape it with love.”

Former San Francisco residents Steven Duke and his daughter, Yael, at JFK airport photo/drew himmelstein

As the Duke family went through a special security line for the aliyah flight and found their seats on the plane, they were getting closer to the moment when their three children would not only move to a new country with a new language, but set foot in Israel for the first time.

“I was really opposed and against it before, especially the last day when I was hanging out with my friends and thinking this isn’t going to happen again,” said Duke’s oldest son, Aron, 16. But he also said he was looking forward to spending time with close family friends in Israel who hav e kids about the same age. Still, he will have a lot to learn. “I speak very poor Hebrew,“ he said.

“It’s horrible, completely horrible,” said his sister, Yael, 13, of her own Hebrew skills.

For Duke, a native of Durban, South Africa, the move to Israel will mark the third time he has been an immigrant. After college, he moved to London, where he met his wife and lived for 16 years. In 2004, the couple and their children moved to the U.S., first to Seattle, and then to the Bay Area.

“This is my last move,” Duke said.

Israel photographers take a group shot of the new immigrant children at Ben-Gurion airport on July 14 photo/drew himmelstein

Duke, who made his career in high-tech marketing, took a pilot trip to Israel in the spring before making the final decision to move the family. He is leaving his job but feels confident he can find another position in his field in Israel. Fibi will be able to keep her job with an independent energy consultancy based in the Pacific Northwest, working remotely.

Even though it’s hard to give up a good job, Duke said he’s glad he can make the move “from a position of strength.”

Duke had a fairly secular childhood in Durban, where he usually chose surfing over observing Shabbat. When he and Fibi had kids, they started to become more observant — though, he said, he had some trouble at first convincing his wife, who was raised observant, to return to traditional practice. Duke, who identifies as Orthodox and wears a tallit katan with tzitzit, the fringed garment donned by observant Jewish men, is comfortable in both the secular and religious worlds. But it’s important to him that his children grow up in a Jewish context.

“I want them to be in the environment where they’re surrounded by people with similar beliefs,” he said.

Israeli soldiers greet the new arrivals at Ben-Gurion airport photos/drew himmelstein

Many families on the Nefesh B’Nefesh flight identified as Orthodox; women kept their hair covered with hats or scarves and men formed minyans in the back of the plane to pray.

But not everyone on the plane was coming to Israel for spiritual reasons. Nikol Bekerman, 17, of Sunnyvale, was two weeks shy of her 18th birthday and planning to join the Israeli Defense Forces upon arrival. She had lived in Israel as a child and always wanted to return; she felt it was important to serve in the military before going to college because it’s such a formative experience for Israelis. She gave up a spot at Cal Poly, where two of her friends will be attending college in the fall, and plans to attend college in Israel after her military service.

“My friends came to the airport, and they all started crying,” Bekerman said. Her friends urged her in vain to reconsider and come with them to college in San Luis Obispo. “I’m really happy with the decision I made to go to Israel,” she said.

As the plane prepared to land in Israel, the oldest new immigrant on the flight, 90-year-old Sue Friedman, said a Shehechiyanu prayer over the loudspeaker. When the wheels touched the ground, a cheer rose up from the passengers. And when the new Israelis were able to make their way off the airplane onto shuttle buses and to the terminal, they were greeted with a party. To music from a live band, they walked through a throng of soldiers, friends, relatives and well-wishers who were dancing and exuberantly singing Jewish and Zionist songs like “Shalom Aleichem” and “Am Yisrael Chai.”

“Welcome home,” the olim heard, over and over again. “Welcome home.”

The Dukes’ friends were in the terminal to meet them, and a welcome program commenced for the tired travelers, complete with speeches by Israeli politicians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had originally been scheduled to greet the group, but he didn’t make it — it seemed he had a lot on his plate with the Iran nuclear deal announced that day.

After a joyful reunion with their dog, Kirby, the Duke family eventually headed to their new home in the West Bank town of Karnei Shomron. Duke posted a photo on his Facebook page showing his children on the tarmac at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport; friends immediately posted their congratulations, saying, “Mazel Tov Dukes! Love you guys!!” and “May it be with tremendous success!”

A few weeks later, Steven Duke said the family was adjusting well. They’d traveled a bit around the country, and the kids had already made friends. They chose to live in the West Bank not for ideological reasons, Duke said, but because it was affordable and their friends live there. It already seems like a good fit, he said.

“The community here has been exceptionally kind and welcoming,” Duke said. “It’s a really soft landing for us in a lot of ways. We arrived and the apartment had food in it, and Shabbat dinner and lunch for the next six weeks is all organized. That felt good.”

There have been a few speed bumps. A refrigerator delivery person left boxes littered everywhere; Duke later learned he had tipped him too soon and should have waited until the man completed the job. That’s how Israelis handle it. A car salesman was so unhelpful that Duke stormed out of the dealership, only to have the salesman call him the next day clueless about what had gone wrong. Again, a cultural miscommunication.

The work situation is unsettled. Duke is networking and isn’t yet in a rush to find a job, but said that if he has no prospects within a couple months, he’ll get “antsy.”

One of the things he likes most about his new life in Israel is that because their town is small and connected, he and his wife feel comfortable giving their kids the freedom to explore and get to know other kids on their own.

Karnei Shomron, about 30 miles from Tel Aviv, is a town of about 2,000 families, according to Nefesh B’Nefesh. Many families who live there are immigrants from English-speaking countries. It’s been easy for Duke’s kids to make friends, and the family feels comfortable among others who are, he said, “like-minded.”

“On our first day here, my wife and I fell asleep before the two oldest kids came home,” Duke said. “I would never do that in San Francisco, but I knew they were safe.”

Drew Himmelstein of J. traveled on the July 13 flight to Israel courtesy of Nefesh B’Nefesh.

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.