Finally Calling Israel Home: Columbia Heights Resident Makes Aliyah During Israel-Hamas War

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Andrew Keene. Photos courtesy.

After about 50 visits, Andrew Keene, 29, can finally call Israel home. The former Columbia Heights resident made aliyah on Jan. 1, undeterred by a war with Hamas and a hostage crisis that grips the Jewish nation.

“I wondered if it was safe and a wise time to go,” said Keene, an independent digital technology consultant. “When it became clear that this was not going to be a short war, I asked myself, what am I waiting for?”

Keene is not alone in a conviction that Diaspora Jews, like himself, are needed in Israel in the wake of the Hamas massacre on Oct. 7.

In the last quarter of 2023, 4,175 individuals and families from North America applied to make aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh, a nonprofit Israel immigration service. The statistics – 720 since the onset of the war – mark a 142 percent increase over last year’s aliyot during the same time period.

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Keene received immigration services from Nefesh B’Nefesh in partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, The Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and Jewish National Fund-USA.

“Israel has always been a place that felt like home,” said Keene, who was a member of the Reform Temple Sinai in D.C.

The past several weeks reinforced his decision. “I see the incredible resilience and role of civil society in the country, people stepping up to support each other and support the country,” Keene said.

Keene started the aliyah application process last July at a coffee shop in Jerusalem. It seemed overwhelming, but Nefesh B’Nefesh and its partner organizations helped him every step of the way. “They make it as easy as possible. They really are with you from the moment that you fill out the application until even after you get there.”

Raised in Milwaukee, Keene was active in NFTY, the Reform Jewish youth movement. He ultimately served as North American president. He attended Drexel University in Philadelphia where he majored in business and entrepreneurship.

Keene currently serves on the management committee of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and is a deputy board chairman of the Shlichut Committee of the Jewish Agency for Israel Board of Governors. He is also a member of the Expanded Executive Committee, representing the Reform movement for the World Zionist Organization.

On a WZO leadership mission in December, Keene surveyed Kfar Aza, a kibbutz near the Gaza border which was ravaged by Hamas terrorists. “We saw firsthand the level of destruction and devastation that took place there. I had been there several years ago, and I remember thinking just what a beautiful place it is, just a lovely community … It was really hard to imagine that this was done by people. It looked like a natural disaster.”

Keene had met Ofir Lipstein, head of the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council, who was killed in Kfar Aza in an exchange of fire with terrorists on Oct. 7.

“Several years ago, we met with him to hear about the peace activism they were doing and his vision for the region. He was a warm, incredible person. So being there a few weeks ago and knowing that he was the first to be killed was another dimension of heartbreak.”

Keene volunteered to pack boxes of supplies to soldiers and communities in need. He also pitched in on farms, picking produce because many foreign workers had left. “There’s a lot of groups coming to Israel to volunteer, which has been amazing to see.”

On Sept. 29, Keene left for a mission in Ukraine with the World Union for Progressive Judaism. The organization raised $3 million to support nine Jewish communities across the country. The money aided rescue efforts to get people out of unsafe areas. The funds also supplied food, heating and some semblance of Jewish ritual life.

“It was a really special experience. The Ukrainian people, like the Israelis, are incredibly resilient. Their commitment to Jewish life and being in a Jewish community was really quite inspiring.”

On Oct. 7, Keene was on a 16-hour train ride from Kiev and Warsaw. “All of a sudden, our phones started going off with news from friends in Israel, people that we worked with. We were confined in this train car watching it develop in real time. We were with a number of Israelis who were supposed to be flying back to Tel Aviv from Warsaw … It was a surreal experience going from one war zone in Ukraine to living vicariously through our Israeli friends and colleagues who were with us.”

Keene believes that criticism of Israel’s bombardment of Gaza is disingenuous and not rooted in facts. “There are definitely undertones of antisemitism, but when it’s done thoughtfully there is room to criticize any government, especially in an instance of war.

“On the one hand, I think that Israel has a moral obligation to defend itself and at the same time to wage war in a way that is moral. I’m not sure it’s the best time to evaluate that. But the world community is doing just that. It’s the reality.”
For information on making aliyah, visit nbn.org.il.

Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer.

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