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The New Aliya
Checking in at JFK
by Judy Lash Balint
Intermountain jewish News
September 10, 2007

"Here, let me give you a hand," the slight man in a smart dark grey suit insists as he helps an exhausted and slightly disheveled young woman balance her three huge duffle bags on a luggage cart in the arrivals hall at Ben Gurion airport.

Long after the cameras of the journalists covering the arrival of the last Nefesh B'Nefesh chartered aliya flight of summer 2007 have been packed away, Nefesh B'Nefesh co-founder Tony Gelbart makes it his business to stick around to make sure every immigrant is safely on their way to their new home in Israel.

Likewise out of the limelight, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, NBN's other co-founder, calmly handles a multitude of mini crises as the nervous and excited immigrants embark on their journey at New York's JFK Airport.

The co-founders' actions speak volumes about why the American-initiated organization founded in 2001 to encourage American aliya has been so successful.

There's a "can-do" attitude about the private initiative that has brought more than 12,000 N. American and British immigrants to Israel since 2002. Designed to streamline the entire immigration process, NBN operates with an energetic and youthful staff of 55 who deal with the myriad needs of English-speaking olim and minimize their interaction with Israeli bureaucracy.

Denver residents Carol and Paul Racklin Siegel credited NBN with bringing their two daughters to Israel in 2004, and facilitating their own aliya together with Paul's mother, Muriel Siegel, 87, who accompanied them on the NBN pre-Rosh Hashana flight.

Shortly after take-off, Carol, a Judaica artist and founder of the Colorado Jewish Arts Guild, breathes a sigh of relief and reflects on their move to Israel. "Everything just fell into place," she marvels as she recounts how the family had managed in the past few months to rent apartments in Jerusalem; sell their home in Denver and her mother-in-law's house in Oceanside, CA and get their son settled in college. "Now I just can't wait to get there," she exclaims.

For Paul, an executive with the Oracle software company, aliya means joining both family and the many Denver friends who preceded them on NBN flights over the past few years. "We were at a bar mitzvah in Tsfat hosted by former Denverites Laya and Yaron Jackson earlier this year and there were around 85 Denver families there, " Paul explains.

The Racklin Siegels are longtime members of the BMH-BJ Congregation where "everyone is very supportive of aliya," according to Paul.

Sitting right behind the Racklin Siegels on the flight to Israel are 96 singles of all ages. With the experience of 29 previous flights behind them, NBN knows to place the twenty-eight exhausted families with infants and pre-school kids together at the rear of the plane, while some dozen retirees get 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.

Using a special $10,000 portable scanner equipped with Israeli-developed software, NBN staff collects and scan all the passports during the flight eliminating the need for the immigrants to line up for Border Control checks at the airport. "It saves them hours," notes NBN Director of Resources, Avi Levine.

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 the weary olim.

This summer NBN brought 2,200 new immigrants from N. American and the UK to Israel on fifteen charter flights. Since the organization started operations in 2002, more than 10,000 N. American Jews have made aliya, including many from Colorado.

Nefesh B'Nefesh 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 taxis to a halt on the runway and the doors swing open to a bright Tel Aviv morning, a whoop of joy and singing breaks out from the cabin.

Many of the olim have tears in their eyes as they descend the stairs from the plane to the tarmac to the welcome of dozens of army recruits waving Israeli flags who came out to greet the last Nefesh B'Nefesh aliya flight of the summer.

For many, their first act as Israelis is to pose with the soldiers for a group photo.

A crowd of almost five hundred Israeli-Americans is on hand to greet the newcomers. For many, it was a chance to relive their own aliya experience. " There was nothing like this when we arrived," said Sarina Moskowitz who arrived in 1996, "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 York.

Some of the greeters, like former Texan, Ari Abramowitz who blows a massive shofar to welcome the new immigrants, were themselves Nefesh B'Nefesh "alumni" from previous years.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert receives polite but distinctly unenthusiastic applause as he enters the arrivals hall for the welcoming ceremony. Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Yafo, Yisrael Meir Lau, who immigrated as a child after the Shoah, bestows a blessing on the single olim, and Knesset Member Tzachi Hanegbi, whose wife made aliya from Florida thirty years ago, adds warm words of welcome to the new citizens.

The Racklin Siegels wait patiently for their luggage to appear before pushing through the airport doors to take their first steps as Israeli citizens, rejoining their daughters and their families for the drive to their new home and new life in Jerusalem.