Monday, June 20, 2011

We Now Have Roots in Israel, Literally!

On Thursday night, I had the pleasure to attend an Olim Farewell Party at the Embassy of Israel in Washington, DC. It was a bit of a schlep, since I took the train from New York, but well worth it! Below are some of the highlights and, hopefully, this will give you an idea of what the experience was like.

My adventure started with a 2 pm Amtrak train from Penn Station to Union Station. 5 hours later (including a cab ride in rush hour traffic) I finally made it to the embassy.

iPhone picture taken upon arrival.
After checking in at the gate (only those on the list were allowed in) and getting my nametag at the front door, I headed in to the building just in time to grab a falafel (with humus of course) and schmooze a bit.

I think many will agree with this equation (especially Benji Lovitt): Falafel + Humus + Schmoozing = Good Time!

I was able to reconnect with a couple people from the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh whom I had met previously at the Mega Event in NYC and I was also able to speak with a few great people whom I was meeting for the first time.

Even as I was speaking with people, the surreal feeling of “I am at party at the Embassy of Israel” kept resurfacing and as that emotion was about to overtake me the program started. Of course, it took about ten minutes before the room quieted down and everyone took their seats (myself included).

Several people from the Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh started the presentations with moving personal stories and followed with many compliments for those of us in attendance (including a video message from Natan Sharansky). I don’t know about anyone else but I am not completely comfortable with all the compliments and praise that we have received for simply doing what we believe is right and moving home where we can have a better life, a better present, and a better future.

Monika Lev Cohen, Shlicha for the Jewish Agency (Photo Courtesy of Shmulik Almany)
Following these introductions, we all had the pleasure of a surprise appearance by Ambassador Michael Oren (surprising if you didn’t notice the sudden appearance of Mossad standing on either side of the stage). His honest, and sometimes humorous, story of making Aliyah was the kind of heartfelt address that we could only imagine coming from the mouth of an American politician. While the process may be different now than when he departed from New Jersey, he went through the same emotional and spiritual journey. He is one of us!

Ambassador Michael Oren (Photo Courtesy of Shmulik Almany)
While hard to follow the Ambassador, the next group of people to speak are the reason why we still have a home to return to. Oleh and IDF veteran Michael Pfeffer was first with his story of growing up in the US and quitting Law school because he wanted something different, he wanted something more so he made Aliyah and joined the IDF.

Michael Pfeffer (Photo Courtesy of Shmulik Almany)
IDF Major General Gadi Shamni followed. A career soldier, he spoke from the perspective of a Sabra and shared his thoughts about those who have decided to make Aliyah. The admiration he has for those of use returning home is something I had to hear to believe.

Major General Gadi Shamni (Photo Courtesy of Shmulik Almany)
Upon the conclusion of Major General Shamni’s speech, the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces asked all those joining the IDF to come to the stage. It was a small group but a very powerful moment to see all those who would be fighting for a land that they love, defending our home, defending me. Be'hatzlacha!   

What followed was something very different but very interesting. Shifra Tessler, who made Aliyah last year, addressed the audience and spoke of her experiences during her first year before filling the room with a beautiful song.  

Naturally, the perfect person to follow Shifra is her father, Rabbi Joel Tessler who spoke about the obstacles that continue to stand in the way for those making Aliyah (i.e. proof of Judaism). What happened next was an interesting twist that is usually reserved for fiction, Rabbi Tessler announced that he will be joining his daughter and making Aliyah next year. Mazel Tov!

Rabbi Joel Tessler (Photo Courtesy of Shmulik Almany)
At this point I took a look at my watch and noticed that the program was running about 30 minutes long. Usually that wouldn’t be a problem but I had a ticket for the last Amtrak train out of Union Station which left in an hour and, as I said before, it really is not a quick trip across town. I debated ducking out and calling a cab but, looking at the program and knowing we were near the end, I decided to stay. I am really glad I did!

Baruch Fellner from Jewish National Fund was the last to speak. Region by region, all of the olim were invited to the stage for a group picture and to receive our certificate from the JNF of the tree that was planted in our name. It may seem small but think about it… we now have roots in Israel! However small they may be at the moment we have the power to make them grow.

Group Photo (Photo Courtesy of Shmulik Almany)
The ceremony was concluded with the singing of Hatikva. I am certain that this is the last time I will sing that song without crying (although I was very close this time). After a deep breath and taking a few last minutes to absorb the experience I made the rounds and said good bye to those whom I spoke with earlier in the evening.

What happened next was quite surprising but very Israeli, one of the people I had just met a couple hours prior offered to drive me to the train station. I don’t know if I would have been able to make the train without his generosity. Todah!

So, that was my little trip to the Embassy. Even though I didn’t get back to New Jersey until 1:30 in the morning (and I had to get back on the train at 7:30) I am glad I went and I feel very privileged to be an Oleh (almost - three weeks to go).  

UPDATE: I just received a great slide show from Monika Lev Cohen containing pictures from the event and put to some catchy (and very appropriate) music and an article mentioning the party in Haaretz (as well as another event during the day which I may discuss in the future). Thanks Monika!

Additional photos from the event by photographer Shmulik Almany can be seen viewed at


  1. No one had a farewell party for us, that's for sure! Thanks for sharing it with us.

  2. The important thing is that we get to go home!

  3. I wish I had known you would be there. I was there too. It was a nice event. I thought the best speaker was General Gadi Shamni. I agree -- his admiration for those of use leaving the comforts of Ch'L was very touching -- and appreciated. I am not one much for this type of thing. I found the singing and the dancing to be too schmaltzy for my taste. I enjoyed seeing Baruch Fellner -- he and I had a brief email correspondence about the problems of Jewish organizations not providing Kosher food at public events -- but we had never met. I had no idea he would be there, nor he I -- so it was a nice surprise meeting. Thanks for sharing your POV. May you have a successful aliyah!

    Rachel Stern

  4. Hi Rachel,

    Thank you for reading and thank you for the well wishes. I should have checked to see who was going but, at the same time, it seemed like no one was talking about it (of course, I may have missed the conversations). It was a great event but, I am sure, nothing compared to the emotions of three weeks from now.

    Maybe we will have another chance to connect. Next time in Jerusalem! :)