Jul 24, 2016  By Vivian Grossman  Category: Travel,

Plane ride to a new life: Emotions soar aboard aliyah flight to Israel

Photo: Shahar Azran
New olim from North America disembark the first Nefesh B'Nefesh chartered flight of the summer last week. 

Every once in a while you're offered an opportunity you just can't say no to, and for me that happened last week. I was invited to be a guest on a Nefesh B'Nefesh chartered flight taking North American olim, or immigrants, to start their new lives in Israel. Nefesh B'Nefesh, a JNF partner, encourages and facilitates aliyah from the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, helping new olim navigate all aspects of the big move. 

I was fortunate to have been among those greeting Nefesh B'Nefesh chartered flights at Ben Gurion Airport twice over the last few years, and the images are still etched in my memory -- a few hundred people arriving after an overnight flight from JFK, laughing, crying, dancing, singing.

So many stories. I remember a grandfather running down the stairs to embrace his granddaughter, who had chosen to make Israel her home. They embraced and cried for what seemed forever, as if he was letting the world know his dream had come true. 

Being a guest on the flight was a life-altering experience. Upon arriving at the El Al terminal in New York Wednesday, I began to get the sense that something crazy and magical was about to happen. I saw a line that snaked around stanchions and lots of suitcases -- far more than what one would normally see. I saw people of all ages, the colors of the rainbow. Most looked excited, some scared. It became apparent that through this seeming craziness, Nefesh B'Nefesh had it all under control. The staff was cool, calm, organized, and excited. 

Photo: Shahar Azran
Former U.S. Marine Steven Rich of Los Angeles, one of the passengers 
headed to a new life aboard the Nefesh B'Nefesh flight
Once everyone checked in, we went downstairs for a ceremony. The usual gamut of politicians were there, but so were hundreds of friends and family members who had come to see people off. I was beginning to sense the magnitude of what was about to happen. There were tears of joy and happiness, and the sad tears of goodbyes. A full mix of emotions.

There were about 220 people on our flight, ranging in age from 4 months to mid-seventies, with around 30 of the new olim headed into the Israel Defense Forces. I noticed shortly after takeoff that about a third of those on the flight were asleep. A woman told me many hadn't slept in days. The anxiety, the nerves, the details...many were finally able to let it go and get some rest! Some had started putting their dream in action over two decades, some made the choice recently. In either case, the huge decision these people had made to fulfill their dream was now being translated into reality.

I met a guy who had been in the navy for 20 years, his retirement just official. He dreamed about making aliyah for 20 years and was finally able to make it happen. I spoke to a 26-year-old religious man who is gay, and looking forward to being able to celebrate both those parts of his identity living in Israel. A guy who carried the Torah as if it were his child touched everyone's heart, as did those wrapped in the Israeli flag. 

Photo: Vivian Grossman
Cheers and flags as the Nefesh B'Nefesh charter flight lands.  
Nefesh B'Nefesh is a well-oiled machine, and this became apparent as soon as the flight was in the air. Information that years ago would have taken months to process is now handled in the airport and during the flight. 

Nefesh B'Nefesh software allows the organization to process passports while in flight and upload it as soon as the flight lands and the new citizens can have their identification cards within days. Amazing, considering it used to take months. The employees worked through the night processing the information -- an incredibly fine-tuned operation that understands the magnitude of its responsibility.

Hundreds of people greeted the flight, singing, laughing, and dancing. Some new immigrants kissed the ground, and some cried. The emotion of an aliyah flight is an "only in Israel" moment. There's nowhere else in the world this happens -- where people cry, dance, dream, and sing when moving to a new country, or better yet, going home.

For more on what it looks like when a Nefesh B'Nefesh chartered flight lands in Israel, see the images below, taken last July at Ben Gurion Airport. 

Vivian Grossman is a member of JNF's national board of directors.