Six locals were joined by a few hundred fellow immigrants when they were received at the airport by recently sworn-in Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.
Jared Goldberg has been training day and night to be accepted into an Israel Defense Forces’ search-and-rescue unit that is so elite, it is simply known by its unit number, 669.
“I do two days a week of lifting, two days a week of cardio and then, in addition to those workouts, I do one day that is full core, and every lifting day I also do core,” said the 19-year-old from Cheltenham. “It’s like an hour, an hour and a half a day.”
Now, Goldberg will continue chasing this lofty ambition in Israel as part of Garin Tzabar, a program that provides Hebrew ulpan, army service support and a group dynamic for lone soldiers. He and 105 other soon-to-be soldiers were among 338 North American olim chadashim, Hebrew for new immigrants, who arrived in the country Tuesday. They traveled together on Nefesh B’Nefesh’s 52nd chartered flight, which took off from John F. Kennedy Airport on Aug. 11 and landed the following morning at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.
There, Israel’s newest citizens were treated to a presidential welcome. Just three weeks into his seven-year term, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was on hand, along with dozens of members of the media and hundreds of jubilant well-wishers.
“Welcome home, we are so proud of you,” Rivlin announced before shaking a few hands and posing for pictures.
In addition to Goldberg, five other young men and woman from the greater Philadelphia area were among the contingency of soon-to-be lone soldiers, a term used to describe Israeli soldiers without immediate family in Israel: Aliza Green, 23, from Philadelphia; Hadrielle Galfand, 19, from Wynnewood; Alissa Neubauer, 19, from Bala Cynwyd; Jillian Meltzer, 22, from Newtown; and Ran Chetrit, 18, from Cherry Hill, N.J.
“It didn’t really hit me when we landed, but then getting off the plane and all of sudden there’s press and everyone’s so excited to see us and the president comes,” Green said, marveling at the scene that greeted them on the tarmac at about 7 a.m. “I thought it was a really great honor to have him come meet us — he really showed that actions speak louder than words and that he stands behind us.”
Some 12 hours earlier, the new immigrants had gathered at Terminal 4 at John F. Kennedy Airport to file final paperwork and bid goodbye to family and friends. For some, such as Andrea Green, Aliza’s mother, the moment proved bittersweet.
“I think I’ve resigned myself to this; it’s her decision,” she said. “I’m proud of her decision.”
Her thoughts were echoed by Morris Goldenberg, who said he had “mixed emotions,” about his granddaughter, Alissa Neubauer, making aliyah.
“I’m proud of this girl, but I’m sad she’s leaving,” Goldenberg said.
At an official farewell ceremony, Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, addressed the new olim and their friends and families.
“Coming to Israel is worth fighting for, but it is also worth living for,” Prosor said. “Today, when I look at you and I look at the numbers — there are more olim flying to Israel than there there are rockets flying against Israel.”
Since its founding in 2002, Nefesh B’Nefesh has helped more than 41,000 Jews from North America and Canada make aliyah. That includes some of the 3,500 who made the move this summer from around the world amid an ongoing war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip that has so far seen about 3,000 rockets fired by Hamas, according to officials at the ceremony.
Others who spoke at the send-off event included Israeli KnessetMember Dov Lipman, himself an immigrant from Silver Spring, Md., and Elad Sanderovich, the executive director of Garin Tzabar.
“By the power invested in me as a member of the parliament, we are no longer calling you chayalim bodedim, which means lone soldiers,” Lipman said. “I have witnessed over the last few months in Israel — you are not lone soldiers, you are loved soldiers, chayalim ahuvim.”
Sanderovich told the group of future soldiers to “take care of yourself” and to “please call your parents,” which drew several smiles and firm nods from tearful parents.
Following the ceremony, the new immigrants proceeded to security check-in after final emotional hugs from their loved ones.
In flight, Goldberg, an involved member of the Young Judaea Zionist youth movement, reflected on Lipman’s assertion that the lone soldiers aren’t really alone.
“Since I decided to make aliyah, all of the Israelis I know have been more than welcoming,” said Goldberg. “Like he said, the expression is lone soldier, but you don’t feel that — that’s a powerful statement because it really is one mishpachah gedolah,” or large family.
He added that he considers himself to be a “total language nerd” and is very excited about being immersed in Israel’s Hebrew-speaking culture.
Sitting across the aisle from Goldberg was Chetrit, the South Jersey immigrant who, at age 18, was one of the youngest of the new soldiers. “My sister Noy made aliyah last year and she loved it,” Chetrit said. “I saw the motivation and I was like, ‘I have to do this.’ “
With Israeli parents and having spent previous time in Israel, the move was a natural progression, Chetrit said, adding that he hopes to join the Golani infantry brigade’s 51st battalion, which is known around Israel as a rough-and-tough unit.
Upon arrival to Ben Gurion Airport, pandemonium ensued as Rivlin, backed by the media and hundreds of welcomers, mobbed the olim with cheers and words of support.
Flying slightly under the radar during this greeting in the shadow of the Boeing 747-400 jumbo jet was Natan Sharansky, a Soviet-born Jew made famous by his 11-year stint in a Russian prison for his stance as a refusenik who demanded permission to move to Israel. Sharansky now serves as the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Upon learning that six Philadelphia-area soldiers were on the flight, the author of Fear No Evil, a powerful memoir of his time in prison, said he wasn’t surprised.
The Jewish community in Philadelphia “always played a leading role in the struggle for Soviet Jewry and I think also in solidarity with Israel,” said Sharanksky. “So I’m not surprised that such a big part of the soldiers are coming from there.”
Among the crowd of olim was an Orthodox family of six sporting T-shirts that read “Aliyah is my Protective Edge,” referencing the name tagged by the Israel Defense Forces to the operation in Gaza. Several people toted dogs and cats in portable carriers. The youngest immigrant on the flight was a month and a half old, while the oldest was 93.
After the speeches, the immigrants waited around to complete paperwork before catching their free taxi rides to wherever they wanted in Israel — be it to family, friends or their Garin Tzabar destinations.
Tony Gilbert, co-founder of Nefesh B’Nefesh, left the new olim, tired from the emotions, long flight and general excitement of the aliyah process, with powerful words.
“Today, for the first time in a long time, and tonight when Israelis turn on the TV when they come home, and tomorrow morning when they read the newspapers, they’re not going to be counting and thinking about how many missiles came, they’re going to be counting and thinking about how many olim came,” Gilbert said. “Each and every one of you are the good news.”
Amishai Gottlieb traveled to Israel as a guest of Nefesh B’Nefesh.