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From Ballard to Raanana
New immigrant Martin Pittman greeted at Ben Gurion Airport
by Judy Lash Balint
JT News, Seattle
September 13, 2006

A few weeks before he immigrated to Israel, Martin Pittman, 49, of Ballard made sure he took part in the Support Israel rally that took place on a sweltering late July afternoon in Luther Burbank Park.

There, he had a brief conversation with one of the volunteers on the organizing committee. He proudly told her about his impending move to Israel, and she wished him well and said aliya was something she admired.

Six days later, Pam Waechter was shot to death at her office in the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle. Pittman carried the program for Waechter's memorial service as he sat on the plane last week among 229 other N. American Jews on their way to new lives in Israel courtesy of the Nefesh B'Nefesh (NBN) organization and the Jewish Agency. "It's the only way I could think of to honor Pam," he said quietly as he slipped the ivory paper with Pam's picture back into the pages of his Hebrew-English vocabulary book.

Amidst the excitement of the new immigrants seated all around him, Martin tried to describe his feelings as the countdown began to his arrival at Ben Gurion airport. "Both times I was in Israel before this, I felt so much at home," he said. "Now, it's hard to believe that I'm actually going home!"

For Pittman, 49, a longtime Ballard resident, the idea of making his home in Israel came about as a result of a slow awakening of his long dormant Jewish identity.

"I'd always loved Israel, I just didn't know very much about it, " Martin related during the 10-hour flight from New York to Tel Aviv on an El Al jet chartered by NBN and the Jewish Agency.

Martin talks about his previous life as a waiter in Maui for 12 years; the years he worked as a waiter and wine steward at some of Seattle's finest restaurants, and his community involvement as Block Captain and volunteer for the NW Trails Association and Sustainable Ballard.

In 2003 personal circumstances pushed him to find out more about Israel. His niece, a student at Evergreen College in Olympia, began to express negative feelings toward the Jewish state, and his mother, who had always wanted to visit Israel, passed away. Martin decided the time had come to get some answers about his Jewish heritage.

The tall, affable community activist from Ballard started attending classes at Congregation Shaarei Tefillah and quickly decided to make his first trip to Israel. Less than a year later, he was back—this time on a serious two-week fact-finding trip to determine if he could make it in Israel.

After scouting around, Martin, a self-described "blue collar guy," discovered that there was a market for a business idea he'd been dreaming about in Ra'anana, a pleasant, well-kept town 20 minutes north of Tel Aviv. Like many of the olim who arrived on the September 6 flight, Martin plans on attending an intensive Hebrew ulpan before setting out in the business world. (Martin is reluctant to share the specifics of his idea for fear that someone might steal the concept while he's occupied with his ulpan studies).

Amongst the olim on the flight from New York, there's nothing but praise for the practical help provided by Nefesh B'Nefesh. Marcia and Steve Gardner, a retired couple from Monsey, N.Y credit counselors from the organization for easing their way into aliya. "We had so many questions, and there was always someone available to help us. We always got prompt answers," says Marcia.

A Wallingford man, Alex Howard, 24, seated a few rows away from Pittman on the NBN flight made his first trip to Israel through birthright in 2005. Returning to Seattle, Howard signed up for Hebrew classes at the University of Washington and expects to serve in the Israel Defense Forces after ulpan in Jerusalem. "Nefesh B'Nefesh got me all the information I needed to make this become a reality," he commented. Howard was among 70 young singles on the NBN flight that were seated together. With the experience of 21 previous flights behind them, NBN knew to place the forty-five exhausted families with infants and pre-school kids together at the rear of the plane, while some thirty retirees got to know each other in the comfortable business class seats.

NBN tries to smooth bureaucratic procedures for new immigrants as much as possible. Instead of waiting in a long line to get their Israeli I.D cards at the Ministry of Interior office in their first days in the country, NBN olim have their paperwork processed on the flight to Israel. Thanks to innovative software developed by NBN, staff members circulate through every row of seats on the plane helping the immigrants to fill out the official paperwork on a computer think pad. As soon as the flight arrives, the memory card is handed to a Ministry of Interior official who runs off to print out the data. By the time the welcoming ceremonies at Ben Gurion airport are over, immigrant certificates are ready for Seattleites Alex Howard and Martin Pittman and the other weary olim.

This summer NBN brought 3,000 new immigrants from N. American and the UK to Israel on seven charter flights. Since the organization started operations in 2002, almost 10,000 N. American Jews have made aliya, including around a dozen from Washington State.

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

As the plane taxied to a halt on the runway and the doors swung open to a bright Tel Aviv morning, Martin reported his first "huge butterflies." But his nervousness seemed to dissipate as he descended the stairs from the plane to the tarmac to the welcome of dozens of female army recruits waving Israeli flags who came out to greet the last Nefesh B'Nefesh aliya flight of the summer.

In fact, Martin's first act as an Israeli citizen was to pose with the women soldiers for a group photo.

A crowd of almost five hundred Israeli-Americans was on hand to greet Martin and Alex and the other newcomers. For many, it was a chance to relive their own aliya experience. " There was nothing like this when we arrived," said Dena Abrams who arrived in 1994, "but it's just great to see people arriving in greater numbers today," she added, as her eyes scanned the disembarking passengers for a relative from New Jersey.

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.

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."

Three days after the excitement of his arrival, Pittman finds himself sitting in ulpan class at the immigrant absorption center in Raanana struggling to keep up, since the class started the previous week. His fellow students are mostly French and South American immigrants. Pittman, now known by his Hebrew name, Gad Ben Rosen, is determined to succeed in his new home. "However difficult it is right now, it's still the fulfillment of a dream," he enthused.

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