Aliyah during wartime

Aliyah during wartime

The Rubin family is all smiles at JFK International Airport before leaving for Israel. (Photo by Shahar Azran)
The Rubin family is all smiles at JFK International Airport before leaving for Israel. (Photo by Shahar Azran)

JERUSALEM — The Jewish state’s newest crop of immigrants had a real Israeli welcome last week, as they prepared to leave Ben-Gurion International Airport to embark on their new lives as Israeli citizens. They ducked for cover and fled an approaching rocket fired from the Gaza Strip.

Fresh off the special El Al flight chartered by Nefesh B’Nefesh that brought 228 new immigrants — including former Pittsburghers Raimy and Yocheved Rubin and their two children — from North America to Israel, many were loading up the free cabs provided by the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption when the air-raid siren’s high-pitched wail pierced the calm, morning air.

“Our kids didn’t even hear it,” former Baltimore resident Helaine Brenner, 45, said with a smile of her children, Lior, 13, and Tovia, 11. “We just ushered them to the shelter with everybody else and waited out the attack.”

The rocket, likely intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, came as part of a morning barrage July 22 that prompted the Federal Aviation Administration in the United States, responding to another rocket that exploded in the town of Yehud just one mile away, to ban all flights by American operators either arriving to or departing from Israel’s central airport for little more than a day.

In little more than a week, even more Americans will be making aliyah, uprooting their lives to enter what many back in the states view as a war zone. Rabbi Nosson Mark Sachs, a staff chaplain at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center-Shadyside, said on Monday that fear is the last thing on his mind.

“Not for a second have I had second thoughts,” said Sachs, a 31-year veteran of the U.S. armed services who will be joining an Aug. 11 Nefesh B’Nefesh flight with his wife Sara. “I’ve lived in battle zones. The sound of mortars was a companion in Iraq; not that it’s pleasant, but snipers, roadside bombs, I’m used to all of that that. Israel is peaceful.”

Late last week, as Brenner sat with her husband and children to receive their Israeli identity cards at a ceremony at Jerusalem’s international convention center, the former teacher painted a picture of life that, despite the threat of rocket attack, was more or less normal.

“Our second siren was … when we were in the rental car planning to grab something to eat,” she said. “We pulled over, walked into a shoe store, and the staff there helped us into the shelter.”

That Brenner could rattle off such details so matter-of-factly, might have appeared remarkable were it not for the similar experiences of so many others. William and Tanya Mann, a mid-50s African-American couple who converted to Judaism before deciding to make aliyah, told of scurrying to shelter the minute they arrived in their new hometown of Beersheba in Israel’s south.

“There were two rockets, and we had maybe 45 seconds. We didn’t even make it” to the bunker, said William Mann, formerly of Riverdale, N.Y. “We heard the boom” of the Iron Dome missiles intercepting the weaponry.

Before they left New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport last week, members of the immigrant group acknowledged the risk of making aliyah during a time of war. But according to Nefesh B’Nefesh founder Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, not a single person chose to cancel or even delay his or her plans after Israel embarked on its Operation Protective Edge to stop attacks from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.

The last time the private organization, which contracts with the Israeli government to coordinate all immigration from North America, brought a flight of immigrants during wartime was in 2006 during the second Lebanon war, said Fass. When the rockets from Gaza started falling, “we anticipated the extra jitters and that [the immigrants] would be bombarded [by family and friends] with extra questions, extra scrutiny; so proactively, we reached out to provide more strength and encouragement to them.”

Amazingly, added Fass, few needed the extra phone calls and emails.

Out of last week’s flight, which included 100 children, 26 immigrants were headed to homes in southern Israel, a region that has borne the brunt of the Gaza attacks. By contrast, Sachs’ flight will bring “close to 140” single immigrants destined for service in the Israeli Defense Forces, said Fass.

Former Rockville, Md., residents Ido Balely and Eyal Nave were on the Boeing 777 named “Kiryat Shmoneh” — honoring the northern Israel town that in years past was the target of attacks from Lebanon — last week. They were going straight into a pre-army program.

As they flew high above the Atlantic Ocean, neither Balely, 18, nor Nave, 20, said that if anything, the recent deaths of Max Steinberg of Los Angeles and Sean Carmeli of South Padre Island, Texas, who were among the IDF’s early casualties in the latest campaign, made them more determined than ever to contribute to the Jewish state’s defense.

“If people don’t join, then where would Israel be?” said Balely.

For his part, Sachs, a father of three and grandfather of six who is making aliyah to fulfill a longtime dream, cautioned that joining an army “is not something that one should consider lightly.”

“But I’ll say this,” he went on, “I say this as an American serving in the American army — only more so as a Jew serving in the Israel army — there is no greater honor, no greater holiness than to protect the Jewish people. I wish I was younger. I’d put the uniform on in a heartbeat and go with them.”

Although last week’s flight contained several “lone soldiers” who will serve in the IDF without the benefit of having their parents in Israel, the sheer numbers of children led organizers to dub it “the children’s flight.” At a ceremony at JFK before departure, their high-pitched voices sang “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem, and their presence drew Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky to speak optimistically of the future during a ceremony in Israel that had been reduced in size because of security concerns.

“This is very meaningful for us,” Sharansky told a small gaggle of reporters at Ben-Gurion’s old Terminal 1 as each immigrant family sent a representative to the government office upstairs to process the paperwork that would make them eligible for monthly benefits.

“In just the last few days, 1,000 rockets have been fired at us,” said Sharansky, himself an immigrant who moved to Israel decades ago after suffering imprisonment at the hands of the Russians. “But in the course of a week, 1,000 new immigrants have come from France, the United States and Russia.”

Still, the perception among many Israelis is that immigration from France and Eastern Europe — where anti-Semitism is arguably much stronger than in the United States — makes sense. Immigration from countries of comfort appears at first glance to be irrational.

Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau addressed that dichotomy by attributing to all immigrants a response against anti-Semitism. American immigrants to Israel, he said, fundamentally understood, like those fleeing France, that “there is no other home but Israel.”

“I came here as a child of 8 years, no father, no mother, no language,” Lau, a Holocaust survivor, told reporters at Ben-Gurion in between blessing new arrivals who came up to him. “What this home made for me will make for them.”

In his remarks later at the official welcoming ceremony, he said that the fact that a planeload of Americans moved to the Jewish state in the midst of a war was more than inspirational: It was emblematic of a defiant spirit in the face of Israel’s enemies.

“You are the eternal answer,” he said, “to those who deny the eternal right of Jews to stay in their homeland.”

Back in Pittsburgh, Sachs was just as philosophical, but kept his focus inward.

“Having been in the military, I’ve spent a lot of time in temporary places, which even when very nice are not home,” he explained. “Israel is home. … It’s where the air has the ambiance of [holiness]. Israel is where a Jew can be a Jew.”

Joshua Runyan can be reached at