There was a great deal of enthusiasm and just a minimal amount of concern as 228 people waited patiently at JFK Airport on Monday for their 2 p.m. flight to Israel. The group of disparate individuals and families were making aliyah, setting out on the last leg as well as the first step of what is usually a well-thought-out and arduous process of making Israel home.
The usual welcome at Ben-Gurion Airport on the other side of this equation was canceled for Tuesday. Nefesh B’Nefesh and the Israeli government did not want to have a large number of people traveling the roads to the airport as rockets were still being indiscriminately fired by Hamas terrorists from Gaza at the Israeli heartland.
The next day, on Tuesday, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered all American carriers to stop flying in and out of Ben-Gurion Airport because a Hamas rocket had landed a few kilometers from the airport that morning. Though it was couched by the agency in safety terms, it was seen as a political move by the Obama administration to squeeze Israel into a cease-fire by cutting her off from the rest of the world.
Here in New York, as we milled through the crowd of multigenerational families on Monday, there were looks of excitement and frowns of resignation—usually on the part of those family members staying behind. Mostly, determination and fortitude were on display as apprehension or fear don’t seem to be ingredients found anywhere in the mix of people determined to make Israel home, regardless of circumstances or U.S. State Department warnings about staying away.
Jeremy Jacobs of New Hempstead (near Monsey in Rockland County) grimaced as he stood with his wife and four children. He explained that he was going to Israel alone on this day and that his wife and kids would join him in their new apartment in Ramat Bet Shemesh in about a month. “Considering what is going on there right now,” his wife said, “we decided it’s best that Jeremy go ahead and set things up and that once things settle we will join him,” she said.
The group getting ready to board included almost 100 children. Baby strollers and packages of diapers were at the feet of just about every family. That is, except for the 20 or so young men and women who were traveling as a separate group with plans to immediately join the Israel Defense Forces. The group—Garin Tzobar—features 18- and 19-year-olds with an assortment of plans for their future in Israel. Eighteen-year-old Liat Siata from Boca Raton, Florida, was traveling with her friend Eden Mishele from Miami Beach. Upon arrival in Israel, they will enter a three-month program that prepares them for IDF service. Liat said she wanted to go into leadership in the military; Eden said he was interested in combat in a special-forces unit.
Near the young soldiers-to-be stood the Heinberg family, with two grandmothers tending to the small children, two of whom were in carriages, near a mountain of suitcases and boxes. The young mother in a headscarf with an 18-month-old child in her arms talked about her and her husband’s dream of aliyah. “We discussed it when we were dating,” she said. “It is something we always planned and wanted to do.” As for her feelings about the action taking place in Gaza and rockets still being fired at Israel, she said she thinks about it but is not overly concerned. “We just trust in Hashem,” she said.
The aliyah group gathers these days in a corner of Terminal 4 at JFK. Above the area is netting and around it high Plexiglas walls. Rabbi Bennett Rackman of the International Synagogue at JFK was beaming and proud that the airport shul was being used as a hub for the group. If you have not been at this terminal in a while, you will notice that things have been moved around. The El Al counters and passenger line used to be right inside the main entrance doors. Now, to get to El Al, you have to walk deep into the terminal. This has been done for security reasons.
As we walk through the group making aliyah on this day, we hear announcements about flights boarding on Emirates Air to Abu Dhabi and a JetBlue flight taking off to California. In here, everything seems fine and serene—the way things should be.
The NBN representative then takes the microphone to issue some special instructions to the group. Amongst other things, she announces that so far this summer, 2,000 people have made aliyah from the U.S. It’s an amazing thing. Those actually going are dealing with something real; those of us visiting or seeing others off are just flirting with a peripheral reality.
I knew that if I looked around enough I would see someone I know. Then I ran into Tova and Dan Plaut. Tova and Dan live in Cedarhurst and were at the airport to see their newly married children, Raquel and Matt Firestone, off to Israel. The children were married two weeks ago and now they are off to set up their lives together in Israel. They will be moving to an apartment in Netanya for now, as they begin to put the pieces in place to set up their young lives as Israelis. Matt, who is 23, already served two years in an IDF intelligence division, so though he is still in the reserves, for now his army service is done.
Tova, who is a trustee on the Lawrence School Board, said that she is of course conflicted about seeing the newlyweds off, but that this has been their dream, so at the same time she is happy to see this aspiration of theirs being realized.
It has been a rough few weeks for Israel. Hamas is not just a terror group with a wrongheaded agenda; they are, simply stated, cold-blooded killers. Their leaders, who do not reside in Gaza because it’s not safe, only use religious zealotry as a smokescreen. Their agenda is not even Islamic fundamentalism, but rather the extortion of billions of dollars from countries around the world, with only a small portion of those billions trickling down to the people. The leaders live in opulent settings in places like Qatar and Kuwait. They are evil and corrupt, and the world knows it. Maybe the events of the last few weeks have inched the world a bit closer to this realization. Probably not, but just maybe.
The young families in the airport earlier this week are a long way from the battles in Gaza, but there are nevertheless similarities between the two settings. Both parts of the world—over there, in the heat of battle in Gaza, and here, in the humdrum quiet of the airport, there are similar types of courage on display. Both are focused on Israel and the future of the Jewish people, and in both places people are willing to make sacrifices to fulfill their personal dreams as well as the dreams and hopes of the Jewish people.
A friend of mine has a 22-year-old nephew who is an IDF sharpshooter in Gaza. He called his uncle the day before he went into action and then the other night came out for a few hours of rest. He called his uncle again to say he was okay, that he was going in again in a few hours, that it was a wild scene in there, and that his uncle should tell people that they need our tefillos.
As I think about that young man’s words and pray for his safety, I also think of the soft-spoken Ms. Heinberg standing with three children in the airport, ready to board her flight in these difficult, challenging, and rapidly changing times: “We just trust in Hashem.”
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