My Aliyah Day (a.k.a. the Most Intense Day of My Life)
JNS.org – It happened. I’m officially an Israeli and I have an identification number that will stick with me (and my future children, G-d willing) to prove it! What a week it’s been—definitely one of the best in my life.
I was on a special flight chartered by Nefesh B’Nefesh, the organization that helps new immigrants through the process of making aliyah. Every summer, Nefesh B’Nefesh charters flights through the El Al airline in which everyone on the plane is making aliyah together on a free one-way flight. (This is just one of the benefits that new immigrants receive when they make aliyah.)
The day of my flight, I woke up at 6 a.m., knowing it was going to be one long day. I arrived at JFK Airport around 8 a.m. for a 1:15 p.m. flight. Walking through the doors of the international terminal, a big sign directed me to “Nefesh B’Nefesh Aliyah Flight Registration.” Standing in line between the men, women, and children of all ages who were waiting to drop their bags, I schmoozed with the people around me until a Nefesh B’Nefesh staff member presented me with an iPad of documents to sign. “This one is saying you are now an Israeli citizen, so you can get your Israeli ID,” he said casually. (He must have done at least a hundred of these already.) I signed it and couldn’t help but grin. I looked up at him, and he grinned back and chuckled, understanding the significance for me.
After dropping my bags, I went down to the “farewell ceremony” that was arranged for us. Most people had family members to send them off, but my family was already in Israel for vacation, awaiting my arrival at the airport. Before the ceremony began, we were served cake, packed breakfasts, water, and soda. There was even a clown making balloons.
An elderly woman directed to the seat next to mine in the front row immediately struck me as “Holocaust survivor.” My guess was that she would speak to the group on the meaning of having a Jewish state to protect us in times of need. I was partly right. Turns out (get this!) she was from Germany and was the oldest immigrant on our flight at 90 years old! Her granddaughter was a member of the Israeli Knesset. When the ceremony began, we heard from Nefesh B’Nefesh founders, a Knesset member, and even Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Ron Prosor.
After the ceremony, we went through security and then waited to board the plane. I met some of the people who would be in my Hebrew class, and immediately felt relieved. We talked about how it didn’t feel real yet, and we wondered when it would finally sink in that we were moving to Israel.
On the plane, everyone was buzzing. After takeoff, we walked around the plane, meeting one another, asking each other where we were from originally, where we were headed to in Israel, and what our plans were upon arrival. It was like this the entire flight, and I’ve never stood and talked so much on a flight before! It’s normal to make polite small talk with your seat neighbor; but this time, everyone was genuinely interested in each other’s lives and plans, because we were united by our choice to move to Israel. Because that choice is so unique, it bred quite a compelling group. Many immigrants moved with their young children; some moved after marrying an Israeli, and others during a transition in life—after high school, college, or even divorce. One of the most amazing moments was a surprise during the first meal on the flight. Tucked into each meal was a special note wishing each oleh (new immigrant) happiness and success in Israel. Leave it to El Al to remind me of my Jewish mother who used to leave little notes in my school lunchbox.
When we finally landed in Israel, a sea of cameras captured the moment. Some people kissed the ground. Others cried. We boarded buses that would take us to the arrival ceremony, again with speakers and family and friends waiting for us. As the bus approached the ceremony, we heard loud music and cheering from all the people greeting us. They formed a human passageway through which the new immigrants would walk—a tunnel of Israeli soldiers. As I started moving through the tunnel of greeters, each one cheering and wishing me “mazel tov,” I immediately spotted my parents and grandma, who were front and center, waving Israeli flags. I made a beeline to them, seeing my mom’s red face from crying and laughing at the same time, my grandma tearing up, and my dad’s face that read both happiness for me, and extreme sadness that I was leaving home. Making peace between my emotions and their pride tinged with conflict made for an intense moment. My body shook as I hugged them tighter than ever before. After we greeted each other and hugged some more, they gave me the go-ahead to continue in the tunnel of people, toward the ceremony.
I want to stress this moment, because it might have been the most intense moment of my life. It’s a little cheesy, but bear with me, because I mean every word of it. I parted from my parents’ arms (albeit briefly) to be greeted by Israelis whom I did not know, but were cheering for me. This, for me, represented the essence of passage from the comfort of my parents’ arms into a world of the unknown. Even though the pain of saying goodbye to my loved ones (even just for a minute) was heart-wrenching, it was my choice to make aliyah. Unlike many Jews before me who sought refuge in Israel because they’d been exiled from their homes, my fellow travelers and I are here by choice, and I am a privileged and proud beneficiary of this reality.
As I made my way through the rest of the greeters, each soldier and Israeli in line looked directly into my eyes, greeting me more genuinely than I’ve ever been greeted before. The way they congratulated me was as if they were looking through my eyes, directly into my soul. That pushed my already emotional experience over the edge, and I immediately began to joyfully laugh as I burst out in tears at the exact same time. The result was the grandest of the ugly-cries I’ve ever experienced.
Since emerging from the end of the human tunnel, the bitterness of goodbyes and the sublime sweetness of the hellos have been etched into my deepest being, and I now have a feeling that this bittersweetness will become a theme of my aliyah journey to come.
L’hitraot, until next week,
Eliana Rudee is a fellow with the Salomon Center for American Jewish Thought and the author of the new “Aliyah Annotated” column for JNS.org. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied International Relations and Jewish Studies. She was published in USA Today and Forbes after writing about her experiences in Israel last summer. Follow her aliyah column at JNS.org and on Facebook.