On Board the Aliyah Express

A first-time observer describes the excitement, the romance and, yes, the mounds of luggage that accompany a planeload of new immigrants to Israel.

by Howie Sniderman


Rivka is 19 and from Memphis. She has curly blonde hair and blue eyes. She stands about four-foot, ten inches in heels and looks like she is 14. Upon arrival in Israel as a new immigrant, Rivka planned to join the Israeli Defense Forces, one of more than 2,500 North American Jews who’ve made aliyah over the past 10 years to do so. When I met Rivka, I couldn’t help hoping that most of those new IDF recruits were taller, but I also suspected that Rivka could have taken me down in a split second if she needed to. So I just wished her mazal tov and kol hakavod as I did to many of the other 237 people gathered at JFK Airport in New York last July for this special aliyah flight to Israel.

I was not making aliyah myself. Rather, I was at the airport on the invitation of Nefesh B’Nefesh, the agency that organizes aliyah for Jews from North America and Great Britain. Nefesh B’Nefesh invited me to accompany the group in my capacity as international vice president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. One of my portfolios includes USCJ’s Israel Committee, which works on strengthening connections between Israel and United Synagogue’s kehillot, congregations, in North America.

More than 4,800 Jews from North America and Great Britain made aliyah this past year. Nefesh B’Nefesh assists each of them through the process from start to finish – and the finish never really comes. The unique quality of this agency is the follow-up aid, services and programs that it provides all new citizens well after their actual arrival in Israel.

The purpose of having me join this flight was to observe and report on the aliyah process, in an ongoing effort to strengthen the many ways in which USCJ and Masorti Judaism worldwide connect and work with Nefesh B’Nefesh to smooth the journey to a new world and a new life.

There were a lot of mommies and daddies at JFK that morning giving last minute instructions to their children before sending them off to a new life with a final kiss and hug. There were a lot of families – moms, dads and their excited little children fairly bouncing onto the plane. And there were also adult children waving goodbye to their parents who, some at not such tender ages, were also headed off to the rest of their lives. Yep, there were a lot of tears shed.

It turns out that my wife, Debbie, and I were the only people on the EL AL charter Boeing 777 who were not making aliyah or who did not already live in Israel. Weird? A bit. It also meant that we were the only ones who didn’t cause their taxi driver at Ben Gurion Airport to weep when he saw the amount of luggage he’d have to lift and fit into his cab.

Nefesh B’Nefesh allows each new oleh – immigrant – to bring three pieces of luggage weighing up to 70 pounds apiece on the flight. Each of them did. We had no trouble finding the correct place to check in for the flight at JFK – it was the terminal hidden under luggage from floor to ceiling. Then again, imagine fitting your entire life into three suitcases.

Because we were witness to a continuation of the modern miracle that surrounds many facets of the birth and continued growth of the State of Israel, it is actually hard to put into words the enormity of what we have now been part of. And so I think it best to just give you my Top 10 Aliyah Flight Moments and leave it at that.

Top 10 Aliyah Flight Moments

10. 47 flights in 10 years. Esther Fass is the mother of Rabbi Josh Fass, executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh. She sat next to us at the arrival ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport. I had sat next to her son on the plane so we had lots of time to talk. He told me that this was the 47th aliyah charter flight since he co-founded Nefesh B’Nefesh 10 years ago at the tender age of 29. He’s been on each one of them. I mentioned to his mom that 47 flights from New York to Tel Aviv is a lot (considering that there had to be 47 others in the opposite direction first) and probably qualifies him for El Al Super Elite Status for Life (I think that means he gets all the felafel he can eat). She agreed.

9. An airplane turns into a kehilla. In the course of a 10-hour flight from west to east, we got to daven the afternoon Minchah, evening Ma’ariv and then the morning Shacharit services at the back of the plane. One guy wanted to know which way was east. Newbie. An acolyte came up to Josh prior to Shacharit to admit that he’d only really slept for 15 minutes and so he wasn’t sure if that meant he should be allowed to wear his tallit and tefillin for morning prayers. Josh assured him it did.

Debbie Sniderman and Rabbi Josh Fass, executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh, which helps people from North America and Great Britain make aliyah.

Debbie Sniderman and Rabbi Josh Fass, executive
director of Nefesh B’Nefesh, which helps
people from North America and Great Britain
make aliyah.

8. Luggage lessons. Josh told me that Ariel Sharon, while prime minister, was to meet one of the flights upon arrival. The flight was 90 minutes late leaving New York. To avoid embarrassing themselves by making the prime minister wait, El Al left all the luggage behind at JFK (it arrived on a regularly scheduled flight leaving two hours later). This allowed them to reduce the flight time to just over seven hours! Moral of the story: Only take carry on luggage; you’ll get there faster.

7. The next generation of Israelis is on board. The oldest person on the flight was 86 years old. The youngest was six months. Overall, there were significantly more strollers than walkers. This is a good sign. Of the singles under 35, over 70 percent identify with non-Orthodox streams of Judaism. Also a good sign.

6. JDate in the air. There have been 640 marriages and over 4,000 babies from those marriages from the 32,000+ North American Jews who have made aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh, including six marriages from couples who met for the first time on the aliyah flights and one couple that became engaged on the flight itself.

5. Making new Israelis – literally and figuratively. This includes the marriage proposal made by the Israeli girl to her boyfriend, Kenny, at the airport upon his arrival. A very straightforward people, these Israelis, don’t you think? To help induce this sort of thing, the Nefesh B’Nefesh staff arrange seating on the flight strategically. Young families sit at the very back of the plane (more washrooms are located there). The young singles sit together in the middle of the plane. They get to see and hear the babies behind them but don’t actually have to touch them. This apparently works well and gets the appropriate juices flowing so that they can hit the ground running, as it were.

4. Passport control is on board. The business class section of the plane became an Israeli passport control office. All passports were collected and processed during the flight and all those making aliyah were issued their new Israeli ID cards upon arrival. Debbie and I were issued Nefesh B’Nefesh IDs for the flight. Debbie misplaced hers and was given an Olah Chadashah (new immigrant) sticker to wear instead. Guess I would be making the return flight alone. And they said she’d never make aliyah! More on this point later.

3. Let’s have a party and all dance the hora! Paparazzi were everywhere upon arrival at Ben Gurion. Our family back in Canada and the U.S. watched the streaming live webcast to see us walking down the stairs to the tarmac. There were a few thousand people waiting to greet us. There was cheering and there were children waving flags and “Welcome to Israel” signs and music and soldiers singing and TV cameras and reporters and politicians and a guy blowing the longest shofar I’ve ever seen. And it  was brilliantly sunny and 28ºC (82ºF) at 6:30 AM.

2.Welcome home. Among others, Natan Sharansky, chair of the Jewish Agency, charged with overall responsibility for aliyah to Israel, welcomed us on arrival. He asked, “How many of your grandparents and great grandparents dreamed of this? You are closing the circle.” He also noted that “there is no difference between the ancient history of the Jewish people and the lives of those living in Israel today. Israel is not a country built by others, but rather, together, we are all building the state.” Aside from that poignant reminder, the message from all of those greeting us was the same: Eat
lots of shawarma and for God’s sake, it’s hot out there so please wear a hat! (Or something like that).

Howie Sniderman, international vice president of United Synagogue, and his wife, Debbie, arrive in Israel with a planeload of people making aliyah.

Howie Sniderman, international vice president of United Synagogue, and his wife, Debbie, arrive in
Israel with a planeload of people making aliyah.

1. Everyone has a story. Debbie and I were deputized by Nefesh B’Nefesh as honorary staff. We were asked to perform two of the most important functions during the course of the flight: hand out coloring books and crayons to the children just after lift-off and then distribute an aliyah baseball cap to everyone just prior to arrival (see above re: For God’s sake, wear a hat!). It was through these tasks, in all seriousness, that we got the chance to meet and talk to many of the new olim. Each of them has a story to tell. The stories are all over the map. Each is fascinating and heartwarming and each
is entirely personal.

Well, those are the Top 10 Aliyah Flight Moments. There are about 100 more but I’ll save those for later. Except one:

Debbie and I had a meeting with Josh Fass and his Nefesh B’Nefesh staff at their office in Jerusalem a few days after arrival. Rabbi Steven Wernick, United Synagogue’s CEO, and Rabbi Paul Freedman, Israel Committee liaison and director in Israel, were also there so that we could review the collaborative work that USCJ and Nefesh B’Nefesh are doing.

Josh was a bit sheepish and I asked him. “What’s up?”

“Well,” he said, “remember how we collected all the passports on the plane for processing and by the time we landed all the new olim were Israeli citizens?”

He continued, “It turns out the Interior Ministry made a slight error and recorded you two as having made aliyah also. Mazal tov to you and Debbie!”

And that, as they say, is a whole ‘nother story…

P.S. Last August, the 48th aliyah charter flight arrived at Ben Gurion – a jumbo Boeing 747 packed with 351 new Israelis, including five sets of twins and two sets of triplets. It was a long flight; the people had lots of time on their hands, apparently.

Howie Sniderman is international vice president of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta.