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Coming Home
Ray Walker comes home
by Judy Lash Balint
NY Jewish Week
December 29, 2004

Ray Walker's first act as an Israeli citizen was to dance with the Israeli Navy officers who came out to greet the 85 year old New Yorker and her fellow North American immigrants who arrived today on the first Nefesh B'Nefesh winter flight.

The diminutive Walker, a long time New York City resident, was among two hundred people who arrived at Ben Gurion airport to start new lives in Israel courtesy of Nefesh B'Nefesh, a privately funded group, and The Jewish Agency for Israel.

Walker, a retired adjunct professor at Kingsborough College, skipped down the tarmac lined with flag-waving Israeli Army and Navy personnel to a hangar filled with hundreds of waiting friends, relatives and government officials eager to greet the new immigrants.

Carrying stuffed animals, live animals, and an assortment of other remnants of their former lives, the new immigrants who arrived on a charter flight from New York are part of the new American aliya movement bringing hundreds of North American Jews to Israel.

In 2004, Nefesh B'Nefesh organized five planeloads of more than 2,000 North American Jews, bringing the total number of North American immigrants to almost 3,000, a 20-year record high, noted Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz. "It conveys a message to Jews in other countries, " Jankelowitz added. "It means that Israel can't be so bad if 3,000 North Americans are coming."

Nefesh B'Nefesh partnered with the Jewish Agency has succeeded where official Israeli efforts to encourage Western aliya had previously failed to persuade significant numbers of N. American Jews to make the move to Israel.

A key element encouraging this wave of immigrants is financial assistance and personal support. Employment counseling, match-ups with veteran immigrants and assistance dealing with immigration bureaucracy all help ease the way for successful absorption.

At the airport welcoming ceremony, Nefesh B'Nefesh coordinator Duddy Starck told the immigrants their prime obligation should be to "live well, endure and prosper." Nefesh B'Nefesh co-founder Rabbi Yehoshua Fass said the American aliya sent a strong message to Jews around the world as well as to Israel's enemies. Florida businessman, Tony Gelbart, the other Nefesh B‘Nefesh co-founder, pointed out that, "most people never make history in their lives."

Octogenarian Walker called her arrival in Israel "the most incredible day of my life." With no close family in Israel, Walker will live in temporary housing in Jerusalem while she pursues volunteer opportunities and Jewish learning to "brush up on my Judaism."

Her decision to immigrate came after a visit to Israel last year. "After I left, I felt that I was home in body but not in spirit," she said.

Today's flight also included many young singles from all over the U.S. Josh Winter, 27, from Stoughton, MA gave up a marketing job in the educational travel industry to make aliya to Tel Aviv. Winter, a self-described cultural-traditional Jew, said the move completes a circle of Jewish history.

An emotional Winter explained that thoughts of his Holocaust survivor grandparents went through his mind as he joined in singing Israel's national anthem at the close of the welcoming ceremony. Winter's father was born in Poland and had lived in Israel for a short period as a child.

Like many of the olim, Winter plans on attending an intensive Hebrew ulpan before setting out to find work in his field. Winter credited Nefesh B'Nefesh with making everything about his aliya "fall into place."

A crowd of several hundred Israeli-Americans was on hand to greet Winter and the other the newcomers. For many, it was a chance to relive their own aliya experience. "We didn't get this kind of hoopla when we arrived," said Shalom Abramowitz who arrived in 1994, "but it's just great to see people coming in greater numbers today," he added, as his eyes scanned the disembarking passengers for his cousin from Long Island.

Some of the greeters, like former Texan Ari Abramowitz who blew a massive shofar to welcome the new immigrants, were themselves Nefesh B'Nefesh "alumni" from previous years. Others, like a group of nine women students from Midreshet Moriah in Jerusalem came to be inspired. "We think this is incredible. We really want to live here one day," said Nicole Bodner from New York. Ailie Cooper and Laura Fruchter nodded, but admitted they would be heading back at the end of the academic year to finish college in the US because of parental pressure.

Several of those arriving made the traditional gesture of kissing the ground as they stepped off the plane. Others arrived draped in Israeli flags.

For Shosh Pava, 20, the arrival of the El Al flight provided a unique opportunity to propose to her boyfriend, Kenny Berg. Pava held up a colorful sign reading, ‘Kenny Will You Marry Me?' as Berg, 23, from Belle Harbor, N.Y ran towards her on the tarmac to readily accept. Delighted onlookers including El Al personnel and the IDF soldiers burst into traditional wedding song as the couple disappeared into the crowd.

At the other end of the spectrum, social workers from a Jerusalem assisted living facility were on hand to welcome Irma Haas, 97, and sister Hilde Meyer, 94, The two sprightly women have lived in New York City and Englewood, N.J for the past fifty years. Born in Germany, the sisters were inmates at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Both their husbands perished and the sisters relocated to America, where they remarried, but neither woman had children. The two had harbored a lifelong dream to live in Israel.

Many of the younger olim joined with the soldiers and family and friends in spirited dancing led by the IDF Rabbinic Band. Men with knitted kipot clasped hands with bare-headed students in jeans; veteran immigrants pulled new arrivals into the circle, and someone grabbed the large Israeli flags off the stage and passed them around to those dancing.

Israel Defense Forces Manpower Division chief Major General Elazar Stern, strode up to the podium and told the olim his men were overwhelmed by the immigrants who saluted them when they arrived. "In the name of the IDF, we're here to salute you," Stern said. Continuing in his heavily accented English, Stern concluded by thanking the olim for "renewing the feeling that we're not only the army of Israel, but of the entire Jewish people."

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