Former Californian residents (as of one week), Jolene Ilkay, 23, and Micky Jolles, 24, were among the 81 singles on the Nefesh B’nefesh charter flight to Israel on September 7—but they’re already taken. Jolles was on the flight with his girlfriend, Yaarit, and Ilkay was anxious to reunite with her Israeli boyfriend.
I could see both of them in commercials encouraging aliyah among post-college aged Jews. Both are highly attractive and genuinely passionate about Israel. With her All American blue-eyes, blond hair, Ilkay has the delicate features of a model, if only she weren’t so petite. I could see the athletic Jolles looking dashing in an IDF uniform. His bright-green eyes are made even brighter by his tan skin.
As part of the in-flight press, I chatted with them about the reasons for the move as we flew over the Atlantic on the El Al plane filled with 201 other olim making the move, and their respective journeys turn out to be very similar.
Born in Indianapolis but raised in San Diego in a Reform household, Ilkay first touched Israeli soil in 2004 as part of a Birthright-Taglit trip. It was love at first sight.
“Right when I landed, it was just a feeling I couldn’t explain,” she said. “I was connected to something, and I could choose to embrace it or not, and I chose to embrace it. Because I’m Jewish it’s a part of me.”
Jolles’ connection to Israel goes back to his parents. His New Yorker father and Brazilian mother met in Israel on a kibbutz. They got married and settled in Jerusalem, where Jolles was born, only to move back to America when Jolles was four years-old. He grew-up in Fresno, but his ties to the country of his birth never faded. He used up his bar mitzvah gift money to buy a ticket to Israel not long after he turned 13, a visit that solidified his connection.
“The biggest thing that put me over the top was when I did a year course with Young Judea right after high school,” he said, a silver Star of David pendant dangling over his light blue T-shirt. “That’s when I really grew attached to Israel, fell in love with it and started thinking in my mind that one day I’ll move to Israel.”
Ilkay and Jolles deepened their love to Israel while in college.
Following her free trip to Israel with Birthright-Taglit, Ilkay switched her major from nutrition to Jewish Studies at CalState Long Beach. She came back to Israel on JAM (Jewish Awareness Movement), spent a semester abroad at Tel Aviv University, and studied Judaism at the Neve Yerushalayim seminary in Jerusalem.
A student in agricultural engineering at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Jolles was very involved at the AEPi Jewish fraternity even when he decided to put his studies on hold. He led pro-Israel rallies to counter the anti-Israel ones. He eventually moved back to Fresno where he got a full-time job as a salesperson at Circuit City. When Circuit City closed due to bankruptcy, he knew it was time to follow in the footsteps of his older sister, who had made aliyah four years earlier.
Sitting next to Jolles on the plane was his girlfriend, Yaarit, who, like him, lived in Israel as a child. Her Israeli parents moved to California when she was ten.
“We both had a very strong connection to Israel and the idea that at one time or another we’d move back to Israel,” said Jolles. “It happened to be the time right now for both of us, and we’re both happy together. The whole experience of being together makes it a lot easier. We have each other to lean on.”
It was on Ilkay’s last trip in 2007 that she met her boyfriend, Dor Amit, at a bar in Tel Aviv.
“He was just staring at me, and I was kind of annoyed by it,” she said. “He was starting at me because he wanted me to make eye contact with him.” Finally, she took his cue, and they spent the rest of the evening hanging out and talking.
“It was the best day of my life,” she said. They were inseparable for the next six weeks. They maintained a long term relationship, both waiting for the day when they would be together in Israel.
“He wants to make sure that I’m making aliyah for myself as well as for him, and I am. I wanted to do this before I met him. He’s just the cherry on top,” Ilkay said. “Dor’s the most Zionist person I ever met. I really love that about him. He would never live outside of Israel.”
Ilkay and Dor plan to live together in Herziliya, where Dor is studying government at IDC-Herziliya. She plans to study Hebrew, get an MBA, and find a job.
Jolles signed up for ulpan (Hebrew language school) in Haifa and plans to finish his degree in engineering, deferring IDF service until he graduates.
“I’m most excited about getting back into Israeli culture—the food, the music, the lifestyle,” he said. “It’s what really drew me back to Israel and what I’ve enjoyed most when I was there.”
When I asked her how she felt at that moment, Ilkay began to tear-up, smudging her meticulously applied eye-make up. “I’m just so excited. I really can’t explain it, like I’m going to cry. I’m just so excited. It’s definitely a feeling you can’t explain.”
And just when the interview was over, she came back, adamant to add, her eyes still wet. “I think it’s so unbelievable and special that I get to live the dream of my ancestors, and it’s so special that we as the Jewish community can immigrate to Israel. This is that dream that people wish they could have done, and now they get to.”
Stay tuned for my upcoming interview with them to find how their first month in Israel progressed.