Jack and Riva Ben-Ezra and their three children, Patrick and Julie Zagdanski and their three children, and Bracha Leah Samet, who is college-age, have all arrived in Israel as new olim.
“There are so many reasons,” said Jack Ben-Ezra in a phone conversation Aug. 8, the evening before his departure. “It’s ideology, the whole concept of a Jewish homeland where we belong. Throughout the day in our prayers we pray for our return to the land of Israel. Throughout history it’s been our prayer and hope. Now it’s possible today. I feel that if it can be done, and I can do something, I should.”
Julie Zagdanski said her family had been mulling over the move for about 10 years since they visited Israel, but never thought it was realistic. Then, she said, “our friends made aliya about two years ago, and we heard how their life was.” The family realized it was possible for them, too.
The Zagdanskis and Samet left Aug. 15 aboard flights from JFK Airport in New York arranged by Nefesh B’Nefesh, a private organization allied with the Jewish Agency for Israel, which encourages North American immigration to Israel.
Yael Katzman, the organization’s director of communications, said 240 olim were on the flight that carried the Ben-Ezras. The flight carrying Samet was one of three landing at Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel at the same time. Flights from Toronto, London, and New York brought an additional 600 olim.
“It was a huge day, a record-setting day for us in terms of Western aliya,” said Katzman. “It started with an Aug. 9 arrival and culminated six days later with the Aug. 15 flight.”
She said despite the recent war in the North and the fragile cease-fire, there were no cancellations on any flights and, in fact, aliya in general is up.
“Since Nefesh B’Nefesh started in 2002, aliya has gone up tremendously,” said Katzman.
Rabbi David Bassous of Congregation Etz Ahaim in Highland Park, where all the new immigrants were congregants, said they are among nine member families who have made aliya in recent years.
“We are losing three very good member [families] — it’s a big loss — but for a very good cause,” he said, noting that while visiting his sister in Netivot several weeks ago, Israelis were talking about the flights bringing the hundreds of newcomers.
“They were really excited,” he said. “It gave them quite a morale boost, especially now with all the troubles. It was like a vote of confidence in the country. It says Jews around the world support Israel not just financially but are willing to forgo the luxuries and amenities of America to live there.”
Push and pull
Bassous said Israelis he met during his visit were unruffled despite the rockets being launched into the country.
“A Kassam [missile] landed down the road from my sister’s house while I was there,” Bassous recalled, and “everyone was pretty calm about it.”
The Ben-Ezras are living on Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in Beit She’an in the North, which Jack described as “being on the edge” of where the problems have been. Despite that, he said, his family had no reservations about the move. They include Isaac, seven, Renatya, four, and Chava, five months, as well as a dog and two cats.
“It’s something we started thinking about two years ago, but really got serious about a year ago,” he said. “We wouldn’t have planned it this way, but that’s the way it worked out, and we’re not changing our plans.”
The Zagdanskis are settling in Hashmonaim “in the middle of the country” with their children, Esther, 13, Charlie, nine, and Eliana, almost three, in the same community in which their friends live. The Zagdanski youngsters “are very excited,” according to Julie Zagdanski.
“It’s a Jewish country, run like a Jewish country so the Jewish holidays are the national holidays,” she said.
An educator who ran her own cooperative preschool program, she said she plans to establish a preschool in Israel. Although her husband has family in Israel, including a brother who previously made aliya, she has none.
“There are a lot of people who have helped us out, giving us a little push to go,” she said. “Others over there are giving you a little pull, so you’re not so alone.”
On the eve of her departure, Julie Zagdanski said she was not worried about the current violence in the Middle East, adding, “I wish I was there already.”
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