|Bound for Israel
Hundreds of Jews leaving NY for a new start in Holy Land
by Martin C. Evans, July 21, 2003
|Three times a day, Gregory Geller faces toward Jerusalem and murmurs in Hebrew, nodding in the rhythmic bobbing that has
been the practice of praying Orthodox Jewish men through the centuries.
It's a habit now, one ingrained deep within him by years of study at Uniondale's Hebrew Academy of Nassau. But after Tuesday, Geller will no longer simply face Jerusalem when he prays: Jerusalem will be all around him.
Geller, his wife, Chanie, and their five children are among hundreds of New York area Jews who will say goodbye to the United
States Tuesday, and fly off to new lives in Israel.
The mass emigation is being arranged by Nefesh B'Nefesh, an organization that encourages Jews to support embattled Israel by relocating to the troubled land.
"I'm Jewish and Israel is a Jewish State; I believe I belong there," said Geller, a Forest Hills computer consultant who grew up
"For thousands of years Jews have tried to get there. You don't have to go back too many years when people walked barefoot
through the snow to get there. But I'll be going there in a jumbo jet. My kids will grow up in Jerusalem."
In departing for new lives in the land of Abraham, Moses, David and other giants of Judaism, these American immigrants will leave friends, family and secure jobs behind.
Many of those who will see them off are torn between pride in seeing loved ones move to the cradle of Jewish culture, and the angst of losing the very closeness their shared heritage wrought between them.
"It's bittersweet," said Geller's mother, Karen Hittleman of Lido Beach, who usually sees her grandchildren at least twice a month. "I'm very proud of them and think what they are doing is courageous. Yet to know I'm not going to be seeing the little ones grow up, those everyday occurrences, it's heartbreaking. We're very close.
Nefesh B'Nefesh, founded two years ago by a Florida rabbi whose son was killed in a suicide bombing, is calling its operation an "aliyah," a word associated with the waves of immigration beginning in the 1880s that began the modern Jewish presence in Palestine.
Last year, more than 2,000 North Americans went there, according to the Jewish Agency for Israel, a government organization
that encourages immigration to Israel.
The rabbi who founded Nefesh B'Nefesh, Joshua Fass, last week asked the Jewish Agency for help in bringing 100,000 North Americans to Israel in the next five years, according to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.
But efforts to boost Jewish immigration to Israel angers many Palestinian sympathizers, who point out that Israel still bars as many as 4 million non-Jewish refugees displaced during various wars from returning to the land they claim as their own.
On July 9, the Israeli government rolled out the red carpet when an earlier Nefesh B'Nefesh flight landed in Tel Aviv with about 330 people aboard. Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon went to Ben-Gurion International Airport to greet the arrivals personally.
Abir Welhous, 45, plans to be on the next charter Tuesday, along with his wife, Rivka, their four children and another 300
An African-American who grew up in the Bronx, Welhous perhaps escaped death in Jerusalem 19 years ago when he chose to wait for a friend rather than board a departing bus later destroyed by a bomb. Welhous, who was raised Catholic, converted to Judaism two years later.
"Here in the U.S. we hear about all the things that are happening there, and it is frightening," said Welhous, who lives in Rego Park with his Israel-born wife. "No one wants to put themselves in danger, but I believe when our time is up, our time is up wherever we are. We don't have so much to say about the matter."
Welhous and his family are enrolled in Bayit Rishon B'Moledet, or "First Home in Homeland," which helps settle new immigrants.
The Israeli government provides cash and other incentives to encourage new arrivals often daunted by Israel's weakened economy. Homes range upward of $180,000 for a two-bedroom apartment. Jobs are difficult to come by for newcomers who cannot speak Hebrew, the official language.
Welhous hopes to settle his family on a kibbutz in the cooler, greener north where, during his first trip to Israel, he helped
cultivate oranges, grapefruit and persimmons. The Gellers will have a head start. Chanie Geller's father, Zeev Piro, built a house
in Jerusalem before he died in 1999. He had hoped to spend six months there each year during his old age.
"He was born there, he grew up there. His father fought in the war of independence," said Chanie Geller, a school teacher who moved here from Israel when she was 8, and graduated from Westbury's W. Tresper Clarke High School in 1990.
"We were brought up with a love of the land," said Chanie Geller, who gave birth to triplet boys in January, and now has five children, all under 4 years old. "Now it's our turn to help rebuild the State of Israel, the Jewish home."