Strangers No More:
How One Olah and Her Daughter Greet New Olim
Aviva Zacks and daughter Nava, originally from Detroit and now living in Modi’in, make a point of attending at least one charter flight every summer to welcome new Olim.
When did you make Aliyah and what made you decide to come on a charter flight?
We made Aliyah from Detroit in the first charter flight of the summer of 2006. The year before Aliyah, I would watch the Nefesh B’Nefesh video “My Soul” again and again. The excitement on the plane – as they announced over the loudspeaker that they were landing as Israelis – seemed so amazing that I decided that I wanted that experience for my family. When I am nervous, my reaction is to have a big party. Excitement distracts me from something possibly traumatic. That was the charter flight for us.
How was the charter flight experience for you?
We flew with our three children who were ages 10, 7, and 4 at the time. We were seated next to other families whose children were similar ages to ours. One family went to Modiin and one went to Beit Shemesh. We spent the flight sharing our experiences with each other – and our hopes and plans for our future lives in Israel. That is the beauty of flying on a plane made up entirely of Olim. Before Nefesh B’Nefesh, you were alone in your experience and journey. On the charter flight, you are connected with others who knew exactly what you are experiencing.
I still well up in tears thinking about the moment when we flew over Israel’s airspace, and they announced, “At this moment you are Olim.”
My aunt and uncle, husband’s siblings, nieces and nephews were there to greet us, as was our Shlicha from Detroit. It was a positive and emotional experience. Even though we were dazed, exhausted, and overwhelmed, we couldn’t have been happier.
When was the next charter flight you attended – but as a guest?
Two weeks after we arrived in Israel, we were back at the airport greeting two of my parents’ closest friends who were making Aliyah. It wasn’t an easy time for us. We had landed right before the Second Lebanon war, we were dealing with bureaucracy, and our lift had not arrived. Going to the airport was such an amazing infusion of Zionism for me. It reminded me what I was doing here and put our problems into perspective. True, our lives were in disarray and we were waiting for our lift to come – but here were people making Aliyah during wartime! 25 people were heading north straight from the airport to their Miklat (shelter). Greeting this charter flight gave me just the boost I needed to remind me why we had made this enormous life move.
Another meaningful charter flight we attended two years after our Aliyah was when our former Rav and Rabbanit made Aliyah from Detroit. My oldest son, then 12, compiled a dictionary of all the important Hebrew words and phrases, for his 11-year-old friend arriving in Israel.
Even when I greeted my family and friends at the airport, I still made a point of greeting new faces and wishing them Mazal Tov. It was my responsibility and pleasure to welcome them to Israel.
It has been 12 years since you made Aliyah, and you are still attending charter flights as a guest. Can you explain why?
My 16-year-old daughter, who was a miserable exhausted four-year-old when she came on the charter flight, is now the impetus for us attending each charter flight together. She would ask me each summer if we could greet the flights. It has now become a tradition. There are plenty of people who make Aliyah with no family and have no one there to greet them. As an Olah, and having been a mother of young children, I tell these new Olim, who have just arrived and are overwhelmed and shellshocked, that it is going to be OK.
Planning a life move – leaving your job, your families, your community – is traumatic. As families step off the plane, I walk over to moms and dads at the airport and tell them that they have just done the best thing they can for their families, and that they will be so happy. The country is made for children.
What advice do you give Olim who have settled in your community?
Back in the US, school is the most important thing. But when you make Aliyah, don’t worry about your children’s academic progress. The most important thing is for your children to make friends and have a social life in Israel. Invite friends over, sign them up for a youth movement, and talk to your child’s teacher about easing them into school. Your kids’ emotional wellbeing is the priority. The rest will come in good time.
Have you made any new connections as a result of attending the charter flights?
During a charter flight last summer, we noticed a family sitting at the ceremony alone with no family or friends with them. My daughter and I went up to sit next to them, I introduced myself and wished them Mazal Tov, and we exchanged information and became Facebook friends. I wanted them to know that I was here if ever they needed me.
How would you describe the experience of greeting new Olim whom you have never met before?
Each charter flight that I attend with my daughter, I tap into the same emotions. When we get to the arrival area, we mull around, chat with people we know, and grab a coffee. Then the music starts, the plane lands, and new Olim start to disembark. Every single time, as the plane lands, and Olim touch Israeli soil for the first time, I look over at my sixteen-year-old daughter, and she has tears in her eyes and cries. That is an experience that we share together – and when you think about it, is truly amazing for a sixteen-year-old to get up at the crack of dawn, go to the airport with her mother, and feel such emotion, connection and inspiration. Every single Oleh who arrives becomes our family. I tell young mothers whenever I can that they have just made the best decision of their lives. Two young mothers in the last charter flight hugged me and thanked me so much for saying that to them. If I can make someone smile at the charter flight, that is the best possible gift.
Born and raised in Passaic, NJ, Aviva Zacks made Aliyah from Oak Park, MI to Modi’in, in 2006. She moved with her husband Arye and children Daniel (10), Ephraim (7), and Nava (4)—now 22, 19, and 16. Aviva worked as a teacher both in Michigan and in Israel and today, together with Arye, runs a digital marketing company called WriteHook.