It's 4 p.m. "Erev Christmas," and 21-year-old Adam Bodenstein is still rushing around his home in the Pico-Robertson area. He has yet to take a shower before Shabbat comes. In four days time, the Modern Orthodox UC Berkley graduate, who grew up in a Conservative household, will board a flight at New York's JFK Airport that will take him to his new home -- Israel.
But this is no ordinary El Al flight. This is Nefesh B'Nefesh's (NBN) eighth flight (and first-ever winter flight) in three years.
NBN -- co-founded by Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, a dynamic, vibrant redhead from Florida who made aliyah, and fellow Floridian Tony Gelbart, president and CEO of CPM Worldwide Group investment company -- started out as a blip on American Jewry's radar screens back in 2002. The two set out to boost North American and Canadian emigration by providing financial support and helping alleviate the obstacles and burdens inherent in making aliyah. To date, the organization has brought almost 4,000 new immigrants to the country; more than 100 have been from the Los Angeles area.
Bodenstein will have to wade through ulpan and the Israeli army but will have the additional support of his Israeli wife (whom he incidentally met in Los Angeles) when they marry this summer.
Four days later, at JFK, 45-year-old Modern Orthodox convert Howard Posner, from the Beverly-Fairfax area, is wandering around slightly dazed, having taken a red-eye the night before. Orlie Dekel a 26-year-old from Culver City has spent the last five days with cousins in New York, but is still one of the last to arrive at the airport and hasn't finished packing. Two other Southern Californians are also taking the aliyah plunge: 62-year-old Modern Orthodox divorcée Danielle Schonbrunn of Valley Village and 22-year-old newly religious Dvora Nir.
The very fact that there are five Angelenos on this flight is a sharp change from previous flights, in which the majority of the new immigrants tended to hail from the East Coast. And unlike NBN's previous seven flights, this particular planeload boasts a significantly high proportion of singles.
At 62, Schonbrunn is retired and is finally realizing her aliyah dream by following in the footsteps of her sons and daughter-in-law who made aliyah with NBN in 2002. She'll live out her retirement near them and their six children in Ramat Beit Shemesh, just outside Jerusalem.
All the Angelenos speak of how much easier they feel it is to be taking the plunge without the burden of having to support and raise a family, and all believe that as singles they have the opportunity to reinvent themselves. Schonbrunn said she is looking forward to "going to ulpan and becoming a schoolgirl again."
Posner, who underwent an Orthodox conversion in 2002, made his way out to Los Angeles in 1997, clutching a feature film he had written, directed and produced, in search of the elusive Hollywood dream. But that quickly turned into "a Hollywood nightmare" and Posner became a mild-mannered paralegal. He said NBN has afforded him the opportunity to rekindle his artistic dreams.
Converted, married and divorced within the last three years, Posner made his first ever trip to Israel in April 2004, and after only two weeks was hooked on the country. When he returned to Los Angeles he worked feverishly every night to produce a book complete with photographs documenting his extraordinary experiences in Israel, which he hopes to publish.
"I want to use the tools Hashem gave me as a writer and a filmmaker to show how our people are living and doing good things in Israel," he said.
Oddly enough, during Posner's 13 months of marriage, aliyah became a major topic between him and his then wife. Financial constraints, including the couples' attempts to have a child, put those dreams on hold. The marriage didn't last -- but Posner's dream did. He is the first to admit that it's his newly single status that has allowed him to follow his heart to Israel, where he said his first job is to try and master Hebrew.
Dekel and Nir do not face such language barriers. Nir is a k'tina hozeret -- a returning minor, born in Israel who moved to Sherman Oaks with her Israeli father and American mother at age 8. And Dekel, although born and raised in Los Angeles, grew up in a Hebrew-speaking household, the child of Israeli parents, both of whom, along with her married sister, now live in Israel.
For Dekel, her life in Los Angeles has been anything but easy. Her entire family returned to Israel six years ago, and Dekel has been living in her own apartment, paying her own bills as a preschool teacher at Conservative Temple Isaiah and putting herself through college. Still, her independent spirit has prevailed. Instead of moving in with her mother in Neve Zedek or her sister in Givatayim, Dekel, who dreams of getting married and starting her life anew, has chosen to live at Kibbutz Be'erot Yitzhak near Ben-Gurion Airport.
She's also thinking of changing careers. She's interested in gourmet cooking and is considering studying culinary arts. The move, Dekel said, is an opportunity for "an extreme makeover," starting with an appointment at her sister's hair dressing salon the day after she lands, where she will bid farewell to her jet-black curls and become a brunette. She also loves Israeli clothes and can't wait to buy a new wardrobe.
At 22, Nir, who grew up in a secular household, became newly religious two years ago -- six years after her parents did.
"I just couldn't give up my secular lifestyle back then," she said.
Now, Nir is making her way to a Lubavitch seminary in Tsfat with a religious fervor that seeps out of her every pore.
"Tsfat is the place where you can hear your soul," she said, without a trace of irony.
A Birthright graduate who spent a year at the Neve seminary in Jerusalem, Nir said the catalyst for her took place two years ago when she put a note into the Kotel stating, "'God, I want to be with you.' And he said, 'OK,'" she said with a smile.
Yet despite her rose-colored visions, Nir said she has also been practical in her decision. For her, now is the time to leave Los Angeles, while she can still do all the things she wants to do and experience Israel before she is married with a family -- which she expects to be sometime in the near future.
"Jews in America talk about wanting to have their bodies shipped to Israel when they die," she said. "I say, why come to Israel just to be buried when you can live here?"
It is perhaps the most eloquent summation of the energy, fervor and commitment that all of these former Angelenos have to their new home in Israel. They all acknowledge the financial and economic hardships that await them, but refuse to let that dampen their spirits. They all have a philosophical attitude toward terrorism -- citing incidents of drive-by shootings in Los Angeles and the Western media's over hyping of the "matzav" or situation -- and said they need to just "live their lives" and hope they will be safe in Israel.
But most of all they acknowledge they couldn't have done it without NBN. Posner didn't tell anyone that he was leaving until his NBN grant came through six weeks before his departure. Schonbrunn becomes overwhelmed with emotion as she talks of the organization's generosity. Nir said NBN is "heaven sent"; Dekel is thrilled that after attempting the aliyah paperwork in Israel two years ago, NBN was there to help her through the difficult steps. Bodenstein -- who has a degree in religious studies -- pays the organization the ultimate compliment, hoping to eventually work for NBN or a similar organization "to do Zionist educational work for the Diaspora."
And that is why, in spite of jet lag and sheer exhaustion, when Fass ascends the podium at the hangar Ben-Gurion and tells everyone to phone home immediately and tell their friends, family and loved ones that it is "a precious gift to live in artzenu [our homeland], and you should all consider coming, because we'll have the planes ready," a deafening roar goes up from the latest group of "Jewish souls" who now call Israel home.
For information on Nefesh B'Nefesh, visit www.nbn.org.il.