On Monday, August 13th, Chana Schwartz will be taking a simultaneous leap into history and into the future, joining with her family and almost 400 other Jews on a Nefesh B’Nefesh flight to become olim chadashim, new immigrants to Israel.
Schwartz will be cheered and hugged by her former students, the graduates of Midreshet Shalhevet, before the flight, with the commitment to visit her in her home in Ramat Beit Shemesh when they arrive for their year in Israel, a few days later.
“I feel that I am on the verge of doing something great, larger than life, spiritual, holy, opening a new life,” contemplated Schwartz from her empty Far Rockaway home. She conceded that it is a “major financial undertaking” and that there is a “risk factor, just like other things in life.”
She said that Aliyah was initially “not my thing,” but it was always her husband’s dream. “It felt right then,” she said. “He was the initiator. It wasn’t on my radar screen but it triggered a very positive response.” She said that she went to a Zionist day school--Kushner, then called Hebrew Youth Academy. “It was already in my chinuch, in my schooling,” she noted. “It resonated with me.”
There were “a lot of things” that went into the calculations of Aliyah, she explained. “My husband (said) that when he is in Israel he is on a higher spiritual plane, he feels closer to Hashem. Our mission as an oved Hashem (servant of G-d) comes more clear because of the kedusha (holiness) of the land. It’s a higher mission. It’s more than just joining Israeli culture and giving up the U.S. comforts.” She also pointed out that it’s a “golden opportunity” to raise her youngest children there.
Her husband, Rabbi J. Yaacov Schwartz, will be opening a therapy practice attached to their home in Ramat Beit Shemesh. A licensed master in social work, he has been a therapist for ten years, marriage counseling, couples counseling, and a life coach for men. Prior to that he was a pulpit rabbi in Ohev Shalom in Manhattan for eight years and than Rav of the Young Israel of Oceanside for ten years. A musmach of Rav Pam, zt”l, he had a close relationship with Rav Pam who gave Rabbi Schwartz a bracha (blessing) because of his “gift for connecting with Jews on all levels and that he will be successful in kiruv (outreach).” Aside from the Schwartzs having an open home to visitors, Rabbi Schwartz is planning on opening the first Shuvu shul that will not only be an outreach center for Russians, as Rav Pam’s Shuvu organization was started for, but will also be for all “seekers of Torah” from unaffiliated or not yet frum to frum for seminars and lectures.
The Schwartzs waited to go on Aliyah till their two older sons graduated from high school and their daughter from elementary school. The two youngest, ages five and six will have an easier time adapting, noted Chana. The oldest, 19, will be learning in a yeshiva in New York this year. “As a parent, it’s difficult to leave a kid behind,” she said. She hopes that he will follow.
Chana Schwartz was involved with Chabad and kiruv and ran summer camps in Switzerland, Russia and did shlichut in Australia. She taught in many different schools and ran a fitness program for women in Far Rockaway for eight years. Mrs. Schwartz returned to teaching and taught in HAFTR one year. She taught classes in all grades in Jewish studies for three years and was also Mechanechet in Midreshet Shalhevet. Initially, she will be “a home mommy doing the mommy thing” since her youngest children will be home from school by 1 or 2 in the afternoon. She is hoping to also concentrate on her singing and composing on an “increased level,” she said, pointing out that she does women’s concerts for Harmony, Chabad, the Amen group, and a fund raiser in Manhattan.
Her impending Aliyah hit home the day the shippers came with seven men to pack up and empty her four-story house into a crate that took up half a block by the curb in front of her house. The shipping crate wasn’t big enough and another smaller crate completed the package. The crates, sent by boat, will arrive in Israel in two weeks, carrying the Schwartzs’ furniture, 220 volt appliances, a treadmill with a transformer, a piano, and a Sefer Torah for their new shul. “I’m so glad the packing is over,” she sighed. “It’s like labor pains. And there is no detail you can overlook. You are uprooting everything. You have to confront everything.”
Over 30,000 Jews have made Aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh (NBN) since its founding in 2002, with a 97% retention rate. Rabbi Yehoshua Fass started the organization in response to the murder of his first cousin in a terrorist attack in 2001. The name, a soul for a soul, was chosen to memorialize his cousin’s death and build from it. As executive Director and with chairman Tony Gelbart, a congregant and friend, the stated mission is to “revitalize Aliyah and substantially increase the number of olim from North America by removing the financial, professional and logistical obstacles that prevent many individuals from actualizing their dreams.” They succeed by providing “comprehensive support for Olim by directly interfacing with them, both in the pre-Aliyah and post-Aliyah stages” and offering “financial assistance, employment resources, social services and guidance through governmental absorption.”
A small ceremony at JFK will send off the olim, explained Yael Katzman, director of marketing and communications for NBN, and they will be greeted in Israel at the old terminal by 1,000 friends and family members with fanfare, music and emotion and a welcoming ceremony with the Prime Minister and other dignitaries. Most of the paper work has already been processed but the last bit will be done in flight and the olim will receive their citizen cards at Ben-Gurion airport. This flight’s passengers hail from 32 states and are settling all over Israel with 127 planning on enlisting in the IDF. Overall, planning took anywhere from a year and a half to ten years and 2500 olim will be coming over this summer.
Celebrity kosher Chef Jamie Geller will also be on this flight and she is documenting all stages of her Aliyah process on NBN’s website.
“I have been realizing that what we’re doing is not such a popular thing,” Chana considered. “It’s novel, ‘wow’ it’s not like a lot have done this, but people have the right reaction, they say they are jealous, that they wish they could do that and marvel at the step we are taking and think if we can do it they can do it. The community talks of Aliyah but there is not enough of it going on. It’s sad. For the most part, it’s financial or they have elderly parents.
“I hope in the near future it’s not a novelty. With technology it’s a lot easier but it’s not the same. Now you can count on one hand those who have gone. We can be an inspiration to others. It shouldn’t be such a shock; it should be familiar. People are getting too comfortable here in America, they have to step out of their comfort zone to make Aliyah. It’s bittersweet, leaving family, dear friends and neighbors; I’m holding back emotionally; we have to be strong to take that step.”
For more information go to nbn.org.il.