TORONTO — Shar Leyb has had his future mapped out since elementary school. “People have known ‘that kid’s going to the army.’ I’ve wanted to go into the [Israel Defence Forces] since I was very young,” Leyb said while on an Aug. 2 Nefesh B’Nefesh charter plane to Israel to make aliyah.
Israeli President Shimon Peres greets new olim, among whom are future soldiers, at Ben-Gurion Airport last week. [Rita Poliakov photos]
“My dad was an officer in the IDF for five years. My brother’s in the army… I remember my grandpa did it, my cousin did it. Since I don’t have to [serve], I feel like it’s more important almost.”
Israelis welcome olim at Ben Gurion Airport.
Leyb, a 17-year-old from Calgary, was one of 85 North American young adults on Nefesh B’Nefesh’s 43rd aliyah flight who plan to join the IDF, a record in the organization’s history.
Nefesh B’Nefesh which brought 234 new olim to Israel on Aug. 2, works with the Jewish Agency for Israel to help North Americans immigrate to Israel.
The group, which organized its first chartered aliyah flight in 2002, provides everything from help with forms and documents to financial support, assistance from an employment agency and post-aliyah checkups.
For Leyb, making aliyah means leaving his parents, his girlfriend and his Canadian life for a country that he has yet to live in for more than two months. But the recent high school graduate isn’t just leaving home. He’s also going home.
Shar Leyb, 17, has planned to be an IDF soldier since elementary school
“My dad was born in Israel. This will be my 11th trip. [It’s a] place where you almost feel like it’s another home,” Leyb said. “Where I lived [in Calgary], you can’t go out and find a synagogue around the corner or pray on the side of the road. People would think you’re crazy.”
Leyb will go into a kibbutz, brush up on his Hebrew and then enter the army in November. He hopes to become a paratrooper.
And he also wants to make friends.
“You meet people [in the IDF] who you talk to for life. It’s a friendship for life. You never see that anywhere in the world,” he said.
“I have my friends in Calgary, but the friendships in Israel, especially in the army, where you’re almost living and dying together, it’s something you’ll always remember.”
And Leyb has started his socializing early.
Sitting in the back of the El Al plane, in seat 27A, the future soldier was surrounded by his peers, who spent the last hour of the flight singing, clapping and dancing together.
Jenna Greenbloom, centre, who plans to join the IDF, poses with her sister and father at JFK airport.
Each announcement from the pilot that the group would be landing soon was met by cheers and applause. Amid the noise and blur of faces, it was easy for Leyb to forget his fears.
But they exist.
“I’m nervous to see how I’ll adjust. It’s always going to be a little hard. I’ve never lived [in Israel] for more than two months. I’m going on this plane, and I know I don’t have a ticket home.”
This is where Tony Gelbart, chairman and co-founder of Nefesh B’Nefesh, and his staff come in.
“Ninety per cent [of staff] are olim themselves. They know how difficult it is… You have to be prepared to make aliyah. It’s great to be a dreamer, but you have to be a realist as well,” Gelbart said on the plane.
“These kids going into the army. If they need a place to stay, a meal, our job doesn’t stop when they get off the plane.”
Gelbart has seen a rise in North Americans making aliyah since the organization started, he said, adding that the plane was filled with not just future soldiers, but also families, toddlers, young adults and elderly people.
“Look, you walk the plane, [the olim] are religious, not religious, right wing, left wing,” he said.
“The thing about this is very simple. You have here, for the last eight to nine years, an increase every year of people making aliyah from North America. Every state and every province. The trend will continue.”
Jenna Greenbloom is part of that trend. Like Leyb, the 17-year-old from Toronto has made aliyah and will join the army.
Along with most of the future soldiers on the plane, Greenbloom will be participating in Garin Tzabar, a course for lone soldiers that enables youths to stay on a kibbutz, learn Hebrew and connect as a social unit.
The teen, who wants to be involved in field intelligence in the IDF, started thinking about making aliyah in Grade 8, when she spent a year in Israel with her mother and sister.
“As soon as we got back to Toronto, I was like, ‘I want to live there.’ I really liked everything, the culture, the atmosphere. I felt like I had more freedom there,” she said.
In Grade 12, while most of her friends were applying to university, Greenbloom started the immigration process.
“I was always excited. I never had a moment where it was like, ‘What am I doing?’”
Greenbloom’s father, Todd, joined his daughter at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, where the charter flight took off.
“I’ll miss her. It’s a bit scary. She’s a 12- hour flight away, and there’s the army,” he said.
But he always knew that once the decision was made, nothing would change Greenbloom’s mind.
“Once Jenna makes up her mind, she’ll rarely, if ever, change [it],” he said. “She enjoys being in Israel so much. She feels a closeness to the people. She has very good friends there.”
After the flight, Greenbloom and the other olim were met by Israeli President Shimon Peres, dozens of journalists and, at the welcoming ceremony in Terminal 1 of Ben-Gurion Airport, a crowd of hundreds.
“Why are we so specially excited?” Peres asked at the ceremony, which was made up of the olim’s family and friends.
“All of you made [aliyah] of your own choice. You decided to change your life in order to change the lives of Jewish people in the future.”
And then, addressing the future soldiers, he said: “We’re going to build peace for us, for our nation. You will be soldiers and builders.
“You are coming to… an army with a human responsibility, an army that never wants to fight, but always fought what was imposed upon them. We are sincerely hoping for peace. In one word, when I look at you, I would say each of you is a hope for us.”
The reporter’s trip was partly subsidized by Nefesh B’Nefesh.
Future soldiers sing on the Nefesh B’Nefesh charter flight to Israel, where they have made aliyah.