When Avital Avraham, 17, of Sherman Oaks arrived in Israel earlier this month with plans to make aliyah and join the Israel Defense Forces, she said she was “honored that Israel is opening their arms to me even though I wasn’t born here.”
She wasn’t alone. Avraham was one of 331 North American and British immigrants to Israel — including 12 from the Los Angeles area — whose arrival here was celebrated Aug. 13 during a ceremony at Ben-Gurion Airport. Israeli Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar was among those welcoming the olim, or immigrants under the Law of Return, with words of praise.
“You [make] the biggest and most important decision — to leave your familiar home in different places to immigrate to Israel,” he said vehemently. “This is the core of Zionism.”
The olim arrived from New York on a flight chartered by the organization Nefesh B’Nefesh, which supports aliyah efforts, and they were greeted by more than 1,500 supporters. The audience waved Israeli flags, cheered and even danced as they listened to notable guests. Singer Rami Kleinstein, himself an oleh, also performed.
Avraham, who speaks Hebrew and whose father is Israeli, said she chose to enlist in the IDF because she feels she should contribute — “just as every Israeli would.”
Danielle Tubul, 17, of Tarzana, who is considering remaining in Israel for college and beyond, said she believes it is her “duty” to complete her Israeli army service.
Like both women, Ofir Elkayam, 17, of Oak Park acknowledged the challenges they will experience as Israeli soldiers who are foreign-born. Still, Elkayam, who hopes to be accepted into Shayetet 13, Israel’s version of the Navy SEALs, said he believes the whole process of making aliyah is one big challenge.
“We left our jobs and our families behind, and what could have been a very successful college career,” he said.
This is not to say these teenagers are all alone. Israeli Scouts (Tzofim), for example, has a program called Garin Tzabar that is meant to create a support network for these teens. Tzofim offers lone soldiers, or soldiers whose families live outside Israel, the opportunity to be placed in a group together, or Garin. The idea is that a Garin becomes a surrogate family for each of the oleh soldiers as they are acclimating to Israel and the army together.
A West Coast branch of Garin Tzabar organized seminars in Los Angeles for these olim with the goal of mentally and emotionally preparing them for military service and life in Israel. Elkayam said these seminars created a familial bond among participants even before they left the United States.
“We all got to know each other at the first seminar we had. Everybody connected,” he said. “It’s been a family ever since. We’ve been hanging out every day.”
Noam Harari, 18, of Agoura Hills said he already feels incredibly close to his Garin. For the next three months, this group from Los Angeles will live together on a kibbutz, where they will acclimate to Israeli life, go through ulpan (a Hebrew study program) and begin being evaluated by the military. Once they are in the army, the kibbutz will continue to be their home, where they can be together on weekends.
It was through the West Coast branch of Garin Tzabar that Harari heard about Nefesh B’Nefesh. Not only does the latter organization charter flights to Israel for olim, they also aim to provide all types of support for them while they make aliyah and afterward.
Its founders, Rabbi Yehoshua Fass and Tony Gelbart, established the group in 2002 after Fass learned that many American Jews decided against making aliyah because of the financial, professional, logistical and social obstacles involved. Among its partners is the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Nefesh B’Nefesh isn’t just for immigrants who are enlisting. On this recent flight alone, it also sponsored physicians, lawyers and 41 families. There were physicists who are settling in the Negev.
Fass, during his speech at the Aug. 13 ceremony, said all of these olim are “heroic” for leaving their lives abroad to contribute to Israel.
“I saw a sign that said ‘Welcome Home Heroes.’ I think that encapsulates the whole day,” he said.
The event marked several milestones for Nefesh B’Nefesh, including this flight being its 50th.
Gelbart said afterward that making aliyah will not only benefit the immigrants personally. They, in turn, make Israel a better country.
“It sends a message to the enemies of Israel that people are always coming because they’re coming to Israel. To friends of Israel and people that love Zionism, it gives them adrenaline,” he said. “It gives them power to continue.”