Jul 26, 2016  By Yocheved T. Kolchin  Category: Travel,

My inspiration for aliyah: A new immigrant reflects on her journey home

The author being greeted by her JNF family.

My great-grandfather, David Asher, was born in Memel, a small German town that because of border changes is now part of Lithuania. He eventually left Germany and went to Scotland and lived there for several years before arriving in the United States. However, many years later, when he was in his late eighties, he made aliyah. 

His wife, my great-grandmother, refused to leave her grown children in New York, so alone, he boarded a boat to Israel. My great-grandfather had a history of heart problems, but when he arrived in Jerusalem he threw away his heart medications, saying, "The air of Jerusalem is all the healing I need." 

He lived in Israel for about a year, at which point he returned to the States to visit his wife. This time she was ready to go with him, and the two booked passage for Israel. The day before their boat set sail, my great-grandfather passed away.

As I made aliyah on the July 18 Nefesh B'Nefesh charter flight, I couldn't help but compare my aliyah experience with that of those who preceded me. There was my great-grandfather, who came on a boat that took weeks to arrive. And then my aunt and uncle, who made aliyah in 1974 and had no one to greet them at the airport besides their taxi driver. Beyond my own family members, I thought about the many experiences of the early immigrants to Palestine before 1948, and of the early pioneers who struggled to develop the land. Historically, aliyah has been a Jewish dream born of yearning and struggle.

In contrast, the atmosphere in JFK airport as 200 olim chadashim, or new immigrants, prepared to start a new life in Israel was celebratory and excited. Large pieces of cake were passed around, delighting the 103 children making aliyah with us. Family members hugged each other and promised to Skype. Young people discussed their inspiration for making aliyah and their plans for starting careers in Israel. 

Yocheved and JNF Chief Development Officer Rick Krosnick. 
My own inspiration for aliyah dates back several years. I come from a very Zionist family, and after spending a year in Israel in 2014, I was determined to come back. 

At a Nefesh B'Nefesh conference that November, I happened to meet a representative from JNF, and when I heard her describe JNF's work to develop the land of Israel and build American Jewry's connection to Israel, I knew I wanted to get involved. Several months later, I started working as JNF's Israel Advocacy and Education Director for New York, a position I held for the past year and a half. It was a privilege to help students learn about and develop a commitment to Israel.

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

So the experience of making aliyah, not only on a Nefesh B’Nefesh charter flight but on a flight that was also sponsored by JNF, was incredibly meaningful for me. Joining us on the flight was JNF's Chief Development Officer Rick Krosnick, who gave me an excellent piece of advice on making aliyah. "Wherever you go, make it small," he said, advising me to focus on building connections with a small group of people and creating a community for myself.

Rock star Yocheved steps off the plane!
We finally arrived at Ben Gurion Airport and I stepped onto the tarmac. I took my first deep breath of air as an Israeli citizen and I knew I was home. Minutes later, we were enveloped by the crowds of over 1,500 people who had come to welcome us home as new olim. I've never been a "rock star," but at that moment, surrounded by a cheering and clapping crowd, I certainly felt like one! (See the photos below for scenes from another Nefesh B'Nefesh charter flight arrival, last July.) 

Several of my JNF co-workers were there to greet me, and as I hugged them I knew that in America or in Israel, I would always be a part of the JNF-USA family.

I can't say making aliyah has been easy for me. My Hebrew is far from perfect, the bureaucracy here can be deeply frustrating, and I don't think I’ll ever understand the Israeli banking system. And of course there are people and places back home that I miss terribly. But when I think back to singing Hatikvah for my first time as an Israeli citizen alongside 1,500 others, I feel blessed. 

I know I'm living the dream of both my family and my people. I've finally come home.

Yocheved Kolchin served as JNF's Israel Advocacy and Education Director for New York until her aliyah this month.