When an El Al airplane filled with 245 people, 30 of them from New Jersey, took off from JFK on Monday, July 11, its passengers were really “going up.” The entire flight to Israel was reserved for new olim. It was the second of seven such flights from North America to Israel chartered during the summer of 2011 by Nefesh b’Nefesh, a nonprofit organization established in 2002 that helps Jews from North America and Great Britain make aliya, in concert with the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Among the July 11 passengers were 22-year old Elie Klein, a recent college graduate from Warren who plans to join the Israel Defense Forces, and Sean and Samantha Teaford, a married couple and recent converts to Judaism from Metuchen, who plan to make their lives in the Nahla’ot section of Jerusalem.
Klein and Sean Teaford spoke with NJJN just days before their departure about their decisions to make aliya, what they hope to find in Israel, and the challenges they may face.
Klein has never held a gun and never aspired to be a soldier. But he is smitten with Israel and believes joining the IDF will be the easiest route to integration into Israeli society. “When you meet people or interview for jobs, they don’t ask, ‘What college did you go to?’ They ask, ‘What unit were you in?’”
At 22, the newly minted graduate of The College of New Jersey recognizes that he will be older than most of his superior officers, since Israelis go into mandatory military service right from high school, and attend university afterward. “I’ll just have to get over the fact that 19-year-old commanders will be telling me what to do,” he said.
Klein has been to Israel “eight or nine times” and said he has wanted to make aliya since he graduated high school, but decided to finish college first. He does have family in Israel: His aunt and uncle made aliya 30 years ago, and they have four children. Every time Klein visits them, he is struck by how “gung ho” they are about Israel. “I love the way they love Israel and want to defend it.”
Language poses the biggest obstacle for Klein. Asked how good his Hebrew is, he answered, “Lo tov” [not good]. So what he’ll do first upon arriving will be to enroll in an ulpan, an intensive language school. His target date for joining the IDF is November. Until then he’ll live in the Talpiot section of Jerusalem with 200 other recent college graduates whose Hebrew is also “lo tov.”
The other major challenge he envisions? Klein is a standout hockey player who won a college scholarship from the New Jersey Devils Alumni Association. But hockey is not exactly a national pastime in Israel. “There are three rinks in Israel, and they’re very small,” he said. “But I’m going to try to bring my skates and borrow some equipment, and I think there are games in Metulla.” Does he realize that Metulla, Israel’s northernmost town, at the Lebanese border, is 133 miles away from Jerusalem, not exactly a short drive? He is unconcerned.
A Conservative Jew who grew up attending Temple Shalom in Bridgewater, Klein said he is most looking forward to the fact that in Israel “everything is Jewish. You don’t have to think about it! Even secular people walk around on Fridays and say, ‘Shabbat shalom.’”
‘Everything seemed familiar’
Sean Teaford spoke to NJJN during a break from the final cleanup of the apartment he and his wife Samantha have shared in Metuchen since getting married two years ago. He was getting ready for a final walkthrough with the landlord, in preparation for his departure.
The couple honeymooned in Israel after their June 2009 wedding. “As soon as we landed, we felt immediately comfortable and a sense of home,” he said. “When we got to Jerusalem, everything seemed familiar, though we had never been there. As soon as we got on the plane to leave, we started planning how to come back.”
It wasn’t long before they were asking themselves if they could live in Israel.
With “nonexistent” Hebrew and a Conservative conversion, the Teafords may face some significant hurdles. But for Sean, at least, earning a living is not one of them. An employee of the public relations firm Gutenberg Communications, which has its headquarters in midtown Manhattan, he will continue working for them from Israel, at least in the short term. Still, he said, “We’ll be doing ulpan in the morning, and Rosetta Stone at night,” referring to the popular language acquisition system. Samantha, a teacher, plans to retrain in Israel as an ESL instructor.
Although conversions undertaken outside Israel, even those overseen by Orthodox rabbis, often pose extremely thorny issues for new olim, the Teafords do not seem worried. He said he assumes that their approval for aliya is a sign that their conversions have been accepted. “If the State of Israel recognizes me as a Jew and an Israeli citizen, that’s enough.” When pressed, he added, “If we have to jump through more hoops, we have letters from rabbis stating our reasons for conversion and we have been very particular about getting documents for everything when we converted.”
Still, the reality is that in some cases, people who consider themselves Jewish have been forced to leave Israel when official challenges to their Jewish identity have proven too difficult to overcome legally or emotionally. “We have documents and people behind us,” Sean said, “and if we need to fight, we’ll fight for what we believe to be right.”
While both Sean and Samantha completed their conversions with a Conservative rabbi, they are now leaning toward Orthodoxy. Samantha, whose father is Jewish, has recently begun keeping her head covered, and both have increased their level of kashrut. He said they would “possibly” consider an Orthodox conversion, if necessary.
Originally from outside of Philadelphia, both retain close ties with family and said that leaving them behind will be the hardest part of moving. “We have young nieces and nephews, and we’re going to miss big portions of them growing up,” Sean said. “We have signed up for every conceivable method of communication and social media — Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and telephones — to try to provide as much access as we can.” The couple has even started keeping their own blogs to keep everyone up to date on their respective journeys.
While both their families are supportive of their decisions — both to convert and to make aliya — relatives do worry about how far away the couple will be. And Samantha’s father’s reaction really took them by surprise. According to Sean, upon hearing the news, he told them, “‘Oh, I wanted to move to Israel as a teenager but my mother would not let me.’” It was something Samantha had not heard until that moment. “We’re pretty sure he has already bought tickets to visit us,” said Sean.