TEL AVIV — At just after 7 a.m., their 10-hour flight finally concluded, 233 weary soon-to-be new citizens of Israel staggered off an El Al charter.
As they walked down the makeshift steps to the Ben Gurion Airport tarmac, they were met by a phalanx of photographers. After posing for pictures — including a group shot of the 75 young men and women who will be joining the Israel Defense Forces in three months following a crash indoctrination course — they boarded buses and proceeded to a hangar set aside for the occasion.
The music picked up and the celebration began as the buses approached the hangar. Loved ones, friends and anyone else who wanted to come out at 7 a.m. were there to greet them.
To hug them.
To wave signs with individual and family names.
To wave Israeli flags.
On Aug. 17, a planeload of 233 people — including six from the Washington area — made aliyah via Nefesh B’Nefesh, the group that coordinates flights bringing hordes of like-minded Americans and a few Canadians to Israel each year.
“I remember being in Israel six months after my bar mitzvah,” said 23-year-old Jacob Zucker of Arlington, a graduate in Middle Eastern studies from Princeton University and one of several from the Washington area who’ll be joining the IDF.
“That first trip planted a love. I went back in 2011 with the Bronfman Youth Fellowships and then in my freshman year. Ultimately, I want to do diplomacy or academic work,” he said. “Coming to Israel, I have religious motivation. But it’s also at the heart of my intellectual passion.”
He’s taking the plunge and going into the IDF just like Sam Friedman, Alana Herbst and Yoni Subin. And just like them, 74-year-old Gene Berman and his 66-year-old wife, Tammy, feel it’s time to stop talking about their love for Israel and prove it by moving here from Potomac.
While many of them, like Friedman and Jacob Roshgadol of College Park, have family in Israel, those soldiers-in-waiting won’t get to spend much time with them. The IDF immediately puts these young men and women into a pre-training regimen on a kibbutz to prepare them for their induction.
“Once I arrive, I’ll have a ceremony with my group, [Tzofim] Garin Tzabar,” said Friedman, whose 21-year-old brother, Les, made aliyah with Nefesh B’Nefesh a few years ago, while Roshgadol has two older sisters who did the same. “After that, I go on a bus to my kibbutz for three months. I go to the ulpan, learn Hebrew and about the culture and what to expect. Then I’ll be enlisting.”
“I’ve got to protect my people — our country,” said 18-year-old Subin, who has dual citizenship and once competed in short-track ice skating for Israel in the IAAF World Championships in Athletics. “I’m not really worried or scared. It’s [the IDF’s] job to see that I don’t die. They have to train me properly.”
The Bermans may have thought about doing this on occasion, before finally taking action. Now they urge others to follow.
“How much do you want to pass the buck?” asked Tammy Berman, who used to own a travel agency and estimates she’s been to Israel 35 times. They bought an apartment in Jerusalem five years ago and now that Gene Berman, a lawyer, has retired, there’s nothing stopping them.
“We all love Israel,” she continued, “So it’s OK for only 18-year-old Israeli-born children to go in the army? It should be all Jews. We all have to take responsibility for our country. It’s the only place we can go where we won’t be persecuted.”
“It’s easier for someone like us to make aliyah,” conceded Gene Berman, who said both of them have been doing volunteer work for the IDF and other organizations for several years. “You don’t have to go in the army or find schools for your children. “These people with five kids, it’s much more of a challenge. For us, it is easy.”
Inside the hangar, the olim were welcomed home by President Reuven Rivlin.
“For nearly 2,000 years, the Jewish people have known exile,” he told the new arrivals. For you, dear new olim, that exile that began then ends today.”
Jon Marks is a staff writer for the Jewish Exponent of Philadelphia.