When Melinda (Malka) Kieffer first traveled to Israel in 1969, she was elated by what she found. “I remember being so impressed that the garbage collectors were wearing kippot and that there was Hebrew on the mailboxes,” said Melinda. “It resonated with me that every single aspect of the country had something Jewish about it.”
During that trip, Melinda shopped with her parents in the Arab market, camped out with her brother on Gaza beach, used the Hebrew vocabulary that she had gleaned from her daily Hebrew school classes, and explored the places she had learned about through her involvement in the United Synagogue Youth (USY). She also met Sam, a New Yorker, who was leading a USY trip at the time.
When Melinda was presented with an opportunity to return to Israel to spend a year studying at Hebrew U, she knew that it was an opportunity she couldn’t pass up; but she was concerned about leaving Sam.
“He said to me, ‘If we’re together forty years from now, I don’t want you to resent me for not going,’” said Melinda. The two became engaged and, one week later, Melinda packed her bags and flew to Israel.
During that year, Melinda felt freer than she had ever felt before. She traveled the country, made friends whom she still considers some of her closest, and wrote aerograms to her fiancé about her love of Israel. When he visited during winter break, the two spoke about the possibility of making Aliyah one day.
Over the next forty years Sam and Melinda raised their children, cared for their parents, and built their careers in the Jewish community. Sam served as a rabbi in South Florida, and Melinda was the educational director at the same synagogue. Melinda also received a certificate in Holocaust education from Yad Vashem’s International School and began leading March of the Living trips to Poland and Israel.
Five years ago, Sam’s mother, their last living parent, passed away. The day that Shloshim ended, Melinda turned to her husband and said, “Now. We have to make Aliyah now.”
Chelsea Gober, 23, was born in Coral Springs, Florida. The youngest of three sisters, her family was very involved in the local Jewish community and she was raised to understand the importance of a Jewish homeland in both her home and schools.
Chelsea knew she wanted to live in Israel from the age of 12, when she came on a school trip. “The moment I landed, I felt this sense of belonging, that I didn’t have in the States – despite my family and friends being there,” she says. “I knew in my heart that I belong here.”
In 11th grade, she participated in the March of the Living, and it was one of the most powerful experiences of her life. She was accompanied by her mother and a holocaust-survivor relative – three generations of proud Jews revisiting the concentration camps. Chelsea says she was planning on joining the IDF anyway, but the experience “strengthened her resolve” and showed her how important it was for Jews to be able to protect themselves.
On the trip, Chelsea befriended her bus captain. The woman shared her feelings of belonging in Israel, but expressed that “there was always something going on” that prevented her from actually moving there. They sat beside each other on the bus and spoke about their shared desire to make Aliyah.
That bus captain was Melinda Kieffer. Throughout Chelsea’s college years they remained in contact, sharing their love of Israel. Fortunately for them, they, along with Rabbi Kieffer, were on the same NBN flight to Israel. They sat one row behind each other on the plane, and reconnected.
Melinda recalls how, at the end of the March of the Living trip, Chelsea stood up and announced that she would be moving to Israel. Melinda gave her a commemorative Yizkor pin – thinking the declaration was “cute” but that it probably wouldn’t actually happen.
Fast forward several years, to Yom Ha’atzmaut 2015. Chelsea received another pin – this the President’s Award for Outstanding Soldiers, awarded to a select group of individuals for outstanding military service.
After joining the army in August 2013, through Garin Tzabar, Chelsea fought hard to receive her dream assignment as a search and rescue instructor for the army’s home front command – she was initially rejected, and had to defer her enlistment by several months before she received the position. But she doesn’t regret it – she’s currently finishing her training in Bahad 1, the IDF’s officer’s training school.
Two Years Later
Melinda and Sam moved to Jerusalem, ten minutes away from two of their three children and their respective families. Rabbi Kieffer teaches at the Fuchsberg Center for Conservative Judaism in Jerusalem, officiates at Conservative Bar and Bat Mitzvahs at Robinson’s Arch, the egalitarian section at the Kotel, as well as on Masada, and leads Jewish heritage tours throughout Eastern Europe and South America. In addition to leading March of the Living trips, Melinda is involved in the USCJ Israel Committee and the Masorti Committee on Aliyah and Klitah, in which she develops programs to provide support and information to Conservative Jews who are considering Aliyah.
“We feel like we’re living in a dream,” said Melinda. “Sometimes I catch myself thinking, ‘When is my ticket to go back? It still hasn’t hit me that this is it, and that we’re finally here to stay.”
Chelsea and Melinda continue to be very much in touch since the Kieffers consider her an adopted daughter while being a Lone Soldier. Before making Aliyah the Kieffers knew Chelsea’s parents very well – Debbie and Frank Gober are influential leaders in the South Florida Jewish Community and both couples are continually in touch with each other. “She still worries about me,” says Chelsea, who knows she always has a place to go for warm food or a place to stay. And although Melinda is surrounded by her biological family in Jerusalem, she views Chelsea as another daughter. Last month the Kieffers drove to an army base in the Negev to be there for Chelsea’s Officer Training Course graduation ceremony – at a balmy 41 degrees Celsius!
Chelsea also feels that there is something unique about Olim who join the Israeli Defense Forces: “This is my life, this is my choice. For me, and my Olim friends who left our lives behind to come here, there’s a strong desire to give it our all.”