They journeyed from the four corners of the earth- from Germany, the United States, Argentina, and Ethiopia- but their destination was the same, Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). In celebration of Israel's 55th birthday, BABAGANEWZ spoke with four Israeli olim immigrants). Although they traveled different roads to Israel, they share one thing in common: They're all convinced they've come home.
Joyous Laughter at the Birth of a Nation
In the fall of 1935, with war clouds gathering over his home in Germany, 8-year-old Yitzhak Bier stood on the deck of a ship steaming away from an Italian port. With his parents and siblings at his side, he watched his boyhood slipping away. Behind him lay a world filled with anti-Semitism; ahead of him lay Eretz Hakodesh (they Holy Land of Israel) and a new life of hope.
Once they arrived, Yitzhak's family settled in Jerusalem, across the street from what eventually became the prime minister's residence. Here, the Biers befriended leaders of the emerging state, including David Ben-Gurion, the country's first prime minister. They also formed a strong attachment to the Old City, going to pray at the Kotel every Shabbat Mevarkhim (the Shabbat before each new Jewish month).
One day in the fall of 1947, while British troops occupied the country, a trip into the Old City to purchase supplies for his small silver shop almost landed Yitzhak in jail. The young silversmith had tucked under his coat a long sheet of paper filled with designs scribbled everywhere. His bulky appearance drew the attention of several cautious British soldiers. "What are you carrying here?" they barked at him. "When they saw the drawings," Yitzhak laughs, "they thought they were plans for weapons or an attack." When the soldiers realized they had made a mistake, they let him go.
Two months later- on November 29, 1947- Yitzhak stood with a throng of people outside Israel's Jewish Agency, eagerly awaiting the results of a United Nations vote that would create a Jewish state. "We heard the UN vote over the loudspeakers, and then people danced and sang. There was a huge celebration," he remembers, a smile spreading broadly across his face. The laughter, though, soon gave way to practical realities; as war loomed on the horizon, Yitzhak joined the Hagannah, the fledgling Israel Defense Forces.
Today, he thanks God for the years he's lived in the Land of Israel. "It was the finger of God," says Yitzhak, that brought his family to Israel 68 years ago. He hopes that new olim will cherish each day in Israel as he has. Yakira, Uri, and Orit- whose stories follow- are fulfilling that hope.
A Precious Newcomer
When Yakira Weisel joined Raise Your Spirits, a summer stock theater group, she wrestled with more than just stage fright. The U.S. native also confronted her fear that terrorists would attack the Israeli troupe as it traveled to Jewish communities in the Gaza Strip, part of the Palestinian-controlled territory. But Yakira (whose name means "precious") and her friends in the group strongly believe that the show must go on. "If we don't go, who will?" she asks while preparing for the troupe's presentation of Esther and the Secrets of the King's Court.
As brave as she is today, 12-year-old Yakira admits that when her family made aliyah nearly four years ago, she was scared to move halfway around the world. It was definitely a culture shock coming from Silver Spring, Maryland, to Alon Shvut- a Jewish community in Gush Etziyon, located south of Jerusalem. "It took about a month to get used to seeing the armed guards," she says. And starting at a new school was tough too. "I was really nervous on the first day," she recalls. "I think I cried." But her fears soon melted away. Today, Yakira sprinkles her Hebrew with street slang, socializes often with friends, and has learned to live with Israel's daily security conerns. "The most important thing," she says, "is not to be scared."
The second most important thing for Yakira is helping others conquer their fears. In addition to entertaining embattled Israelis as a member of Raise Your Spirits, Yakira used the occasion of her bat mitzvah to comfort youngsters. She designed a beautiful Judaica paper cut and sold copies of it to raise money for a children's shelter.
Yakira knows that houses are "bigger and fancier" in the United States, but for her, the most precious thing about Israel is the spirit of the people. "There's a sense of connection here," she beams. "Becoming Israeli is my greatest achievement."
A New Light in Zion
Facundo Zalcman, now 14 years old, doesn't remember the armed guards who escorted him to school after terrorists bombed his local Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He doesn't remember the dark, difficult days after an economic meltdown in his country stripped his mother of her life's savings. What he remembers, however, is arriving in Israel on a cold February morning in 1997. He remembers the help that he and his mother received at the merkaz klita (immigrant absorption center) in Ra'anana- a suburb of Tel Aviv. And he remembers feeling confused and afraid as he started a new life in the Promised Land.
But, for Facundo, Israel didn't hold much promise. His mother had trouble finding a good job, and they struggled financially. Life at school wasn't much better; in fact, Facundo moved aimlessly from one school to another, stubbornly refusing to speak Hebrew. The future seemed no brighter than the gloomy days in Argentina.
And then something happened that changed everything: Facundo decided to choose a Hebrew name. "I chose Uri- which means 'my light'- because I wanted something that would symbolize starting over," he says. Changing his name was an important first step in discovering his Jewish roots and dispelling the bleakness that seemed to follow him wherever he went. The second step was becoming a bar mitzvah, which Uri describes as "the most special moment of my life." Suddenly, he realized that living in Israel allowed him to experience for the first time "what being Jewish was all about," and moreover, that he had a responsibility to help other newcomers find themselves, as he finally did. "It makes me feel good inside" to work with new immigrants, he says. "It's like I'm giving back everything I received."
Israel gave him a safe place to live a fulfilling Jewish life. "There's only one Israel," Uri says, "and as each Independence Day passes, I feel more and more Jewish, and prouder and prouder of this country."
A Dream Fulfilled
While growing up in the primitive farming village of Gharashkeh, Ethiopia, Enshudai Tesema shared her father's dream of living in a land where the family wouldn't feel like strangers- a land where it was safe to say you were Jewish. "There were people in Ethiopia who treated Jews badly, who didn't want us there," she recalls. "We wanted to go to a place where our lives would be more pleasant, to Eretz Yisrael."
The family realized its dream of aliyah in stages. First, her father and brother immigrated to Israel in 1994. Soon afterward, Enshudai- who was 8 years old- left her village with her mother and sister. They spent two weeks walking to Gondar, where they caught a bus to Addis Ababa. Once in the capital city, however, the plans went awry. The girls and their mother waited for two years before they received permission to make aliyah.
Permission to leave for Israel finally came in 1996, and Enshudai- along with her mother and sister- boarded a plane for a tearful family reunion. The plane ride terrified the young Ethiopian girl. "I was very scared," she recalls. "I didn't want to eat." She also worried about what she would find when she arrived, but her fears vanished quickly once the plane landed. "People kissed the ground and said prayers, because they had always dreamed of coming here," she remembers.
Enshudai, now 17 years old, is known by her Hebrew name, Orit. Sadly, her father passed away several years ago, but he would be proud of his daughter, who is pursuing her own dreams at the Sarah Herzog Educational Complex in Bnei Brak. She's working toward a career as a lawyer, an ambition far removed from what she once thought possible when she played hide-and-seek in the Ethiopian cornfields. "I wanted to come here so badly," Orit says, "to be part of everything."
Today, though they don't know it, Orit, Uri, and Yakira are part of Yitzhak Bier's hope for the future: the continued existence of a vibrant State of Israel, where, as Yitzhak says, "God gathers Jews from the four corners of the earth."