Adam Talmud of East Brunswick “fell in love” with Israel after spending a year there following his high school graduation.
“I wanted to make it part of my life,” said the Binghamton University graduate. “It’s something I’m passionate about.”
Sarah Drill of West Caldwell also knew for several years she wanted to make aliya to Israel and “assimilate and do what all Israelis do: join the army.”
The two were among 127 young North Americans who boarded a flight at New York’s Kennedy Airport on their way to joining the Israel Defense Forces. Upon arriving at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport, they and 223 other new immigrants were greeted by Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The chartered El Al flight brought to 4,800 the number of new immigrants from the United States, Canada, and Great Britain by Nefesh B’Nefesh, an aliya-assistance agency celebrating its 10th anniversary.
Amid the flurry of activity and struggle for luggage carts at JFK — many new immigrants came with up to seven suitcases, two baby strollers, and a car seat — there were tearful goodbyes.
“I’m incredibly proud,” said Sarah’s mother, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill. “We raised our kids to be staunch Zionists. If you believe that, you can’t just go part way and say, ‘No don’t do it,’ if they want to make aliya.”
Adam’s mother, Shelly, began to cry when she was asked about her son’s decision. “We’ll miss him, but we think it will be a great experience and an important one,” she said. Adam attended Solomon Schechter Day School of Raritan Valley in East Brunswick, where his parents are active as volunteers.
Adam and Sarah Drill both graduated from Solomon Schechter Day School of West Essex and Union.
A send-off ceremony featured both Israeli and American leaders, including organization founder and Edison native Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, who praised the spirit that inspired the future soldiers to “serve our people and our land.”
The lone soldiers — those coming to Israel without family — are entering the Tzofim Garin Tzabar program, and will first live as a cohort on a kibbutz in preparation for their service.
One future soldier, Nehemiah Kivelevitz, 20, of Elizabeth is following his older brother, who made aliya the month before.
“I love it,” he said of Israel. “I think the culture is a little different. It’s a friendlier place than New Jersey.”
While Kivelevitz said his parents were sad to see him leave, they were supportive, adding, “I’m sure most parents who have kids going over feel the same.”
Jordanna Price of East Brunswick, who attended Machon Maayan in Beit Shemesh after high school graduation, had returned home at the request of her parents. Her mother, however, a schoolteacher, took a sabbatical to live with her daughter last year in Israel.
“I’m hoping she’ll eventually come join me,” said Price.
Friends of the Israel Defense Forces partnered with Nefesh B’Nefesh for the flight.
In a phone interview with NJJN, Major General Yitzhak Gershon, director and CEO of FIDF, called the new recruits “pioneers of the 21st century.”
“These brave men and women are acting as a bridge between the Jewish people worldwide and Israel,” said Gershon. “We must protect our homeland because no one will do it for us.”
Not everyone on the flight was a young soldier-to-be. Rabbi Alan and Linda Yuter were making aliya to join their daughter and her family.
“I’ve finished my work in America,” said Alan Yuter, who retired 10 years ago as leader of Orthodox Congregation Israel in Springfield. “This is the right time in our lives.”
Ariel and Shifra Penkower of Hillside wanted to raise their sons, Ilan, seven, and Matan, two, in Israel. Ariel, a psychologist, said living there felt “natural and practical.”
“We’ve gone in the winter and the mall is not decorated for Christmas; maybe you see a dreidel,” he explained.
They chose their new home in Efrat because of the “sense of community” that “reminded us of the community in Hillside.”
Once the plane landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, the new olim were greeted by more than 1,000 flag-waving Israelis. The immigrants were feted by a band playing Israeli and American pop hits before attending a ceremony with welcoming speeches from a number of Israeli officials, including Netanyahu.
“This is the land where we all come from,” Netanyahu told them. “This is the land where our ancestors lived. And this is the place where our identity as a people was forged. And this is the land where the Jewish people are building the Jewish future.”
He praised the new soldiers “for defending the Jewish future,” calling it “a great privilege” that “wasn’t accorded to previous generations of Jews.”