Holy Landing

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Ezra Friedman with some new friends.

The 127 young men and women from American Jewish homes posed in their olive-green T-shirts at JFK Airport, arms around each other’s shoulders, already comrades. They all are making aliyah and joining the IDF.

“The army is the most important organization in Israel,” said Meir Fox of Teaneck, 23. “It’s important to have a military background as a citizen because it’s something everyone does. It opens a lot of doors in employment and companionship. I’m excited to join.” (Fox is the son of Steve Fox of Fox Video Productions in Teaneck. For a father’s view, see the elder Fox’s article, A parent’s reflection on this son’s aliyah.)

“I’m a true believer in the idea of the State of Israel,” said Ezra Friedman of Riverdale, 19. His father, Rabbi Charles Friedman, is the chaplain at Englewood Hospital and Medical Center. “I feel more ‘me’ there than anywhere else. Nothing speaks more to me in defending and being part of the Jewish people than serving in the army and living in Israel.”

With their immediate families thousands of miles away, Fox, Friedman and their peers qualify as lone soldiers. Many will be participating in Tzofim Garin Tzabar, a program run by Friends of the Israel Scouts for diaspora Jews who choose to serve in the IDF. More than 2,700 lone soldiers from around the world serve in the IDF — more than 900 from North America, 625 from Russia, 390 from the Ukraine, and 250 from France.

This group of lone soldiers was part of an August charter flight of 350 new olim that was coordinated by Nefesh B’Nefesh, whose purpose is to revitalize aliyah by removing or minimizing financial, professional, logistical, and social obstacles. NBN works in cooperation with the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, and Garin Tzabar.

NBN and Friends of the IDF have been providing comprehensive assistance for lone soldiers, but this year, the two organizations have expanded their partnership internationally. Now, lone soldiers from around the world will have access to Nefesh B’Nefesh services during the aliyah process, during their army service, and through their post-army acclimation into Israeli life.

Many of the soldiers-to-be on the August flight have been contemplating aliyah for years, often motivated by Zionist schools and camps and a gap year in Israel. Friedman, for instance, did a year of “mechina tzva’i,” Israeli military preparation, after his graduation from the modern Orthodox SAR high school in Riverdale. The military is a longstanding tradition among members of his family, who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces for four generations. His uncle joined the Israeli paratroopers 20 years ago and still lives in Israel. His paternal grandparents are Holocaust survivors.

Although the parents at the departure ceremony at JFK airport said they were largely proud and supportive of their children’s decisions, as takeoff time approached tears fell freely. “I deal with death every day as a chaplain at Englewood Hospital,” said Friedman’s father. “I can make it through any situation but this is tough. Every parenting bone in my body says ‘Hold on to him!’ I’m a little worried.”

“I think it’s brave,” Ezra’s 14-year-old brother, Eli, said.

For his part, what with threats against Israel from Syria, Iran, and Egypt, Fox called this an “interesting time in the military history of Israel,” but repeated that “this is what my country requires of me. It’s not easy but it’s necessary. I’m going with conditional idealism.” He said he will miss his twin brother, Moshe, his sister, Aliza, and his parents, Steve and Chary. “The ‘lone’ part of being a lone soldier is that my family is 6,000 miles away,” he said. “But their constant support and encouragement will help me through.”

Camp Moshava, a B’nei Akiva camp in Honesdale, Pa., sparked the idea of aliyah for Fox. After graduating from the Frisch School in Paramus, he studied at Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh in Jerusalem, then received his degree in English and business at Queens College. He is going to live in Givat Shmuel in the Tel Aviv area with a friend from high school. Because he wants to serve in the IDF for a year and a half instead of the two years required through Garin Tzabar, he is enlisting on his own.

Every unit in the army has its own profile and functions as a brotherhood, Fox said. But sisterhoods can’t be ruled out, either. On the August flight, 57 of the soldiers were women; 70 were men. Sixty-five came from Conservative homes; 44 from Orthodox, and 18 from Reform. “My biggest connection to Judaism has always been Israel,” said Ilana Rosenzweig, 21, the daughter of an Israeli father and American mother who live in Oradell. During her gap year in the Conservative program Nativ, she was inspired by a talk by the parents of Michael Levin, a lone soldier originally from Pennsylvania who was killed in the Second Lebanon War in 2006. “I was moved and touched,” said Rosenzweig, a Solomon Schechter graduate and USY alumna who hopes to be a shooting instructor in the army.

Her parents, Gershon and Marissa, were “a little surprised,” she said, because she had kept her thoughts to herself during the past two years as a student at Rutgers University. But, she said, they “never shut me down. They saw how passionate I was, and with a lot of family there they know I’m in good hands. They felt confident in me, and since then I haven’t wavered. I need to grasp my life and do what I want to do with it.” The army, she said, will mold her into the person she will become.

Hanna Erdfarb, 19, of Teaneck, said she didn’t have one specific moment of epiphany. “It’s a big decision at this age,” she acknowledged. “I want to live up to the responsibility I have and give back to the place and the people who gave me so much. Zionism is a dream built on hope and the idea of what the human spirit can achieve and accomplish. The more I understood the magnitude of that in the creation of the state the more I feel I have to be involved.”

Erdfarb attended Ma’ayanot Yeshiva High School for Girls in Teaneck, volunteered on a kibbutz, and studied in an Israeli yeshiva. She worries about her level of Hebrew and what job she will be assigned in the army, where, she said, choices are more limited for women. She might request foreign relations or intelligence. It’s scary, she admitted, but “I took a jump and I’m here.”

NBN and FIDF encourage the soldiers to come on aliyah as a group in order to interact and develop a support group, says Noya Govrin, director of NBN’s Lone Soldier program. And, in fact, the palpable excitement on the plane already seemed to have cemented friendships. In Israel, Garin Tzabar places the soldiers in a hosting kibbutz that becomes their home away from home throughout their army service. Erdfarb, for instance, will be on Kibbutz Ma’ale Gilboa, a religious kibbutz in the north. When Garin Tzabar was founded 20 years ago, it brought 20 new soldiers to Israel. This year it will bring 360.

Lone soldiers receive financial aid, emotional support, quarterly care packages, and adoptive families. The most important part of the program, Govrin said, is that the soldiers don’t feel alone. NBN has representatives on call 24/7, offers advice on what to expect, and organizes social events from Friday night dinners to pub nights. When they are ready to be released from the army, olim can participate in workshops on career-building, employment, higher education, and the transition from the army to real life, which can seem almost like a second aliyah, Govrin added. Parents, too, receive information and support through monthly webinars and parlor meetings that provide emotional and practical guidance.

At Ben Gurion airport, the new olim received a joyous heroes’ welcome from the hundreds of people who gathered at the terminal. Several soldiers broke into almost ecstatic impromptu dancing, waving the Israeli flag and singing Eretz zavat chalav u’dvash against the backdrop of the El Al plane painted with the words, “Soldier Aliyah Flight 2012.”

The crowd cheered and waved placards: “I woke up early to greet the hot new chayalim [soldiers],” Veshavu banim ligvulam” [The sons will return to their borders],” and “Kamah tov shebata habaytah” [How good it is that you have come home]. Judy Yazersky, who made aliyah 20 years ago, was at the airport to greet her nephew Yonatan Weisinger, 18, of Teaneck. “He was named after [Entebbe hero] Yoni Netanyahu,” she said. His mother, L’via, was 9 years old when the rescue took place, and vowed to carry on the heroic name.

By the time Weisinger was 4, when he realized who his namesake was, he said he wanted to become a soldier in the Israeli army. Since then he was never without something related to the IDF—hat, shirt, dogtag—and decorated his room top to bottom in an IDF theme. He raised money for victims of terror at his seventh birthday party. His parents instilled the value of aliyah in their five children, but illness in the family prevented it from becoming reality. When he was 15, Weisinger traveled to Israel alone and has since been staying with family and friends; he could not officially make aliyah until age 18. Weisinger wants to be a special forces soldier and make an impact in the army. His parents hope to join him soon.

Within 15 minutes of landing Weisinger and the other olim had their new identity cards and were ready to be welcomed officially by a host of dignitaries, capped by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Each of 350 people who made aliyah decided to link their future to the state of Israel and Jewish future,” Netanyahu said. “But you,” he added, turning to the soldiers, “have decided to defend the Jewish future. This is a great transformation, that we can regain our destiny and defend our future. You’ve decided to practice this personally. Today we see a virulent new anti-Semitism and we need to defend ourselves against that. I’m proud of you and the whole State of Israel is proud of you.”

The ceremony, of course, ended with Hatikvah.