NEW YORK – An a cappella choir singing Mashiach and Oseh Shalom; a group of men of a variety of ages quietly praying among billiard tables in a game room; masses of prospective olim huddled around various stands to learn the basics of the aliya. These were just some of the scenes that greeted approximately 1,500 olim at Nefesh B'Nefesh's 9th Annual Mega event at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan on Sunday.
Quite predictably, many attendees were young and fresh-faced, eager to embark on their new life in Israel. But for some attendees, there’s no age limit to beginning their aliya journey.
For Fran and Stan Urman from New Jersey, their journey was 40 years in the making.
“We were planning to make aliya in 1977,” Fran told The Jerusalem Post, noting that Stan already had a job lined up at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
In a tragic turn of events, however, Fran’s brother died, and his death compelled her to stay stateside to be with her mother. Forty years later, the couple of 46 years feels it’s finally time to go home.
“I’m like Moses in the dessert.
I’ve waited 40 years to go to the promised land,” Stan said, grinning.
For the Urmans, who have two daughters already living in Israel, the Zionist streak is a strong one. The couple made sure their daughters had their bat mitzvas in Israel and that they each took a gap year in Israel before making aliya.
Originally from Montreal, the French- and English-speaking couple sees their future home as being in Netanya.
“We want to be by the sea,” Fran said.
“We spent weeks and weeks traveling the entire coast,” Stan said, “and we decided on Netanya. It seems like that’s the place for us.”
The Urmans were just one couple out of the 600 retirees who attended Sunday’s event, which was designed to provide prospective olim with the basic tools they need before starting their life in Israel.
Workshops, seminars and one-on-one sessions on various subjects, from buying and renting a home to getting one’s finances in order, were offered.
The event, organized in cooperation with the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, the Jewish Agency, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund and JNFUSA, teaches “things you might not always think about, but should think about,” said Shimon Vogel, a high-school librarian approaching retirement.
“I’ve been to Beersheba [before], but I didn’t know anything about it as a place to live,” he said. “[Now I see] Beersheba as a real place, and [my wife and I] may want to go there.”
“Every year, our Aliya Mega Event becomes more of an integral tool for building aliya confidence,” said Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, cofounder and executive director of Nefesh B’Nefesh. “To see how the mega events have evolved in the past nine years and to watch the level of interest in aliya grow is truly remarkable.
“It’s also incredible to see that Israeli institutions and municipalities realize the impact olim have on the State of Israel and are eager to be a part of such a landmark event,” he added.
To that end, former Yesh Atid MK Dov Lipman, who made aliya in 2004, was on hand to talk to the attendees.
In a session titled “My Life in Israel,” he spoke about his experiences as an activist and politician in Israel and encouraged a packed room of retirees to take the aliya plunge.
“Aliya is not simple, it’s wonderful, but there are challenges along the way,” he said, recalling his experience on Nefesh B’Nefesh’s second flight. “We weren’t running away from something, but running toward something.”
Speaking of his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who eventually made aliya to join Lipman’s family (and vote for him in the Knesset), he said, “With all the challenges that there are there, it’s never too late to make aliya.”
New York City school teacher Penny Block would agree.
Block, who lives in Stanford, Connecticut, is patiently bidding her time until she can join her two sons, who served as lone soldiers in the IDF and then decided to stay in Israel.
“They’re living their dream and now it’s our time to live ours,” she said, adding that she and her husband are waiting for Block’s pension to kick in and hope to move to Israel in October 2018.
Her oldest son, Stanley, served in the 2014 Operation Protective Edge, and at one point he spent 16 consecutive days in the Gaza Strip. What would be a harrowing experience for any mother was exacerbated by an ocean separating her from her son.
“It was a very emotional and stressful time,” she said. “I’m sure it was for many people in Israel, but it’s harder when you’re so far away. When you go through that, and then your younger son goes into the army too, you get really emotional.”
Stanley’s vision of living in Israel was always a clear and inevitable one. And it’s a message Block recites as if it has become her own.
“He just thinks every Jewish person should be living in Israel,” she said. “We have a state; we’re a miracle. We have our own country; we don’t have to be in exile anymore.”
The writer was a guest of the organization.