Coming Home: New immigrants ponder a new future in Jewish state
Nefesh B'NefeshLargest group of minors in program history just made aliyah

Coming Home: New immigrants ponder a new future in Jewish state

With an increase in the number of young families, small families and recent graduates immigrating to Israel, the poster family for North American aliyah is changing.

The July 24 Nefesh B’Nefesh flight brought 127 children to Israel, a milestone for the nonprofit organization. (Photo by Shahar Azran)
The July 24 Nefesh B’Nefesh flight brought 127 children to Israel, a milestone for the nonprofit organization. (Photo by Shahar Azran)

In many ways, Dr. Daniel and Hana Lowenstein and their four boys, ages 7, 6, 4 and 2, are the newest poster family for North American aliyah. Deeply committed to the Jewish community — she works for the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus, while he’s a rabbi and psychiatrist — they decided to move to Israel after three years in Baltimore because there was never a question about making their permanent home anywhere else.

“We’ve been working toward this” for a while, she said last week from her seat on the first of two El Al flights chartered this summer by Nefesh B’Nefesh, the nonprofit organization that has taken charge of coordinating and facilitating Israeli immigration from English-speaking countries. “Even when we were dating, we knew we always wanted to make aliyah.”

Lowenstein’s father, former Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, confirmed his daughter’s account, taking a break from the departure ceremony at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to speak with reporters.

Even as a high school student at a Jewish day school outside Washington, D.C., said Lieberman, Hana Lowenstein “wanted to make aliyah. … When she was dating, on the first date, she would ask the guy, ‘Do you want to make aliyah?’”

Like most of the 34 sets of parents and 18 single adults on this particular flight to Ben Gurion International Airport, Lowenstein’s commitment was rooted in a sense of belonging and an expression of Jewish pride — more the product of a positive choice to embrace a potential reality than to flee revealed danger, as has tended to characterize recent waves of Israeli immigration from places in Europe. That these families were so determined that they decided to take 127 children — Nefesh B’Nefesh’s largest airlift of minors since the project began in 2002 — from their schools, friends and families to embark on a new life in a foreign country is a testament to their fortitude.

Rabbi Yehoshua Fass is the co-founder and executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh.(Photo by Shahar Azran)
“We are inspired to see so many children making aliyah,” Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, Nefesh B’Nefesh’s cofounder and executive director, said at the July 25 welcoming ceremony inside a giant hangar in a corner of Ben Gurion typically used by the Israeli military. “As Israel recently celebrated its 70th birthday, the country is now looking ahead to its future — an era that will be shaped by the ingenuity and passion of courageous and pioneering olim who are starting their lives anew in the Jewish state.”

But while the relative youth of the passengers aboard Flight 3004 garnered headlines in Israel last week, the fact is smaller families and more singles are moving from the United States with each passing year. This year, “we have 1,200 to 1,300 people who are single making aliyah,” Fass revealed during a post-flight briefing at the organization’s headquarters in the Givat Shaul neighborhood of Jerusalem. “Now, 70 percent of my families call themselves Orthodox, but even their families are shrinking.”

The latter observation tracks anecdotal evidence that the rising cost of Jewish day school education is putting downward pressure on the family planning decisions of couples committed to sending their children to such schools. But the increase in those either just out of high school or out of college choosing to establish themselves in the Jewish state is reflective of what Fass contends is a greater “concept of identity.”

“Their personhood was connected on Birthright,” he explained, referring to the hugely successful program that has sent more than 650,000 Jewish young adults on free 10-day trips to Israel. “That’s very beautiful, but very odd, because it’s just 10 days. [The other] expression we’re seeing is they were defending Israel staunchly on campus against” the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. “They look for that [continued] expression, and it usually leads them to aliyah.”

Hundreds of people, including Israeli soldiers, were waiting for the arriving immigrants at an area of Ben Gurion International Airport little used by the public. (Photo by Shahar Azran)
Israel’s emergence as a leader in the high-tech sector has also had an effect.

“These people are also looking for opportunity,” said Fass, whose organization partners with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth Le’Israel and JNF-USA to facilitate immigration through group flights and aid packages, and since 2017 has been encouraging settlement in peripheral communities in Israel’s north and south. “Israel is the next Silicon Valley.”

Perhaps emblematic of that appeal to those who have yet to establish their families is the phenomenon of 18-year-olds heading to the Jewish state for an immediate future of serving in the Israel Defense Forces. Shahar Bezherano was one of these future “lone soldiers” — IDF personnel without the benefit of immediate family in Israel — on last week’s flight. When asked why she was leaving her parents behind in suburban Washington, Bezherano said simply that she “felt like this was something I needed to do.”

“Because we lived so close to the Israeli Embassy, there were always families who came from Israel to visit,” said Bezherano, who was also active in Tzofim, Israel’s equivalent of scouting, in the United States. “I was raised in a very Israeli environment. [Making aliyah] felt right for me.”

Perhaps indicative of her youthful exuberance, Bezherano expressed zero apprehension about the move. If anything, recent events and the increased threat of violence from Palestinians in Gaza has caused her to “want it more.”

“I need to live it,” she said shortly before departing New York. “I can’t stand on the sides.”

Children from the July 24 Nefesh B’Nefesh flight pose for a photo. (Photo by Shahar Azran)
While they shared Bezherano’s enthusiasm, several of the parents juggling juice cups, headphones and books from their seats 40,000 feet in the air grudgingly admitted that they do have one worry: How will their children fare as new immigrants?

“We’re throwing our kids into the fire,” said Jordan Krizman, a father of two girls, ages 9 and 6, from Phoenix, Ariz. “They know Hebrew, but they’re not fluent.”

“It’s like a huge reality change,” echoed his wife, Rina Krizman, whose parents are actually Israeli citizens.

The Krizmans, like many immigrant families, did a test run on a pilot trip two years ago. Until that point, Rina Krizman “was the passionate one,” she said, although her husband, a graduate of George Washington University, had three years of yeshiva at Machon Shlomo in Jerusalem under his belt. “Then we went on this [pilot] trip — he was so awoke.”

Flanked by Hana’s parents, Hadassah and Joseph Lieberman, Dr. Daniel and Hana Lowenstein and their sons, Akiva, Binyamin, Meir and Avraham, pose for a photo at the El Al check-in area at John F. Kennedy International Airport before leaving for Israel on a flight chartered by Nefesh B’Nefesh. (Photo by Shahar Azran)
Like the Krizmans, the Lowensteins were “most apprehensive about [the] children fitting in, learning the language, adjusting,” said Hana Lowenstein, who will be living near Jerusalem. But, “we had some support — we had someone speaking Hebrew with them this year. So, I think everything will come together nicely in the end.”

Speaking in Hebrew, Sofa Landver, Israel’s minister of aliyah and integration, pledged her country’s assistance to the new arrivals during the welcoming ceremony. The ministry offers a basket of benefits to new immigrants, including financial payments, free language instruction and tax breaks.

“Thirty-nine years ago, I was also an immigrant,” said Landver, looking out at a crowd of more than 1,000 people, including soldiers, who had gathered to welcome the flight. “No one accepted us then.

“Thank you. We are continuing to a shared future together. Thank you for coming to Israel.”

For Hana Lowenstein, it was an easy choice.

“My parents are very much about living a meaningful life,” she explained. “I’m a very patriotic American. I care about America. But at the same time, for me, it’s wonderful to have a choice [where to live]. On my mother’s side, they were Holocaust survivors. … Aside from all the tears, all the loss, I wanted to help build that next generation. For me, [living in Israel] is the next step.” PJC

Joshua Runyan can be reached at Follow the Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter for the latest stories.

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