Exactly two weeks ago today, on the first day of the beginning of the Israeli ground offensive in Gaza, Becky Kupchan left her home in Chicago to begin a new life in Be'er Sheva.
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The 26-year-old American new immigrant had decided, with her Israeli-born fiancé, to make a fresh start together in a place where neither had lived before. Be'er Sheva was a natural choice, since he planned to begin studying for his engineering degree at the city's Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
But neither Kupchan nor her fiancé imagined when they originally made that decision that they would find themselves on the front line, so to speak – based in the capital of the Israeli south and under a constant barrage of Hamas rocket fire.
On the upside, she notes now, the experience has provided them with an unusual opportunity to get to know their new neighbors.
“We all go down to the stairwell together, and they’ve all been pretty friendly,” she says. “So we don’t feel that alone and isolated here.”
Kupchan arrived in Israel on a flight organized by Nefesh b’Nefesh, the agency that handles immigration from North America and Britain on behalf of the Israeli government.
On the plane with her were another 63 new immigrants from the United States, ranging in age from eight months to 91, from nine different states: Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Virginia. Their destinations in Israel, aside from Be'er Sheva, were Beit Shemesh, Givat Shmuel, Hadera, Jerusalem, Carmiel, Modi’in, Nes Tziona, Ra’anana, Ramat Gan and Tel Aviv.
Like Kupchan, many of them had hardly unzipped their suitcases before the wails of sirens had them running for cover. The disruptions to normal life forced on them by the daily rocket fire have added even greater stress to the process of relocation, a challenging experience even in the best of times.
“I really have no way of comparing what life is like in Be'er Sheva during normal times,” notes Kupchan, "but one of the things that has been difficult for us is that the stores here keep shorter hours, and we have lots of shopping we need to do.”
Amanda Gamerman, a 23-year-old from Owing Mills, Maryland, was on the same flight as Kupchan. She decided to make aliyah on her own after participating in a program sponsored by Masa, the organization that brings thousands of young Jewish adults to Israel each year on educational, volunteer and internship programs. “I recently graduated from college, and I just wanted to start out life here,” she says.
For Gamerman, who is renting an apartment in Tel Aviv, this is not a first encounter with Hamas rocket fire: While teaching English in a school in south Tel Aviv in November 2012, Israel launched its previous operation in Gaza, and large swaths of the country came under attack then, too. “I definitely knew what to expect when I came this time,” she explains.
The dozens of immigrants who arrived on her flight will be joined Tuesday by another large group – 228 American and Canadian citizens, among them 100 children, on a special charter flight organized by Nefesh b’Nefesh.
At JFK airport in New York, they were provided with special instructions on how to respond in the event of a siren once they touch down. They were also equipped with special English-language manuals, prepared by the Israel Defense Forces' Home Front Command, providing guidance on how to talk to children about the situation. In a last-minute decision, and at the instruction of the command, Nefesh b’Nefesh canceled the welcome ceremony it had scheduled for today – the type it traditionally holds at the airport for olim arriving on its flights.
Neither have French Jews been deterred by the escalating violence of recent weeks, a group of 420 arriving on a special flight less than a week ago.
“Despite what’s going on in the country, they feel much safer here than they do in France,” notes Arielle Di-Porto, director of French immigration at the Jewish Agency.
In the first five months of the year, she says, the number of French olim rose by 300 percent, to total 2,254. The agency estimates that, by the end of the year, the number will reach a record 5,000.
“We’ve been in contact with all of them throughout this period,” says Di-Porto, “and they’re all doing fine. They like to joke that they prefer the rockets of Hamas here in Israel over the Molotov cocktails thrown at their synagogues in Paris.”
Among those on board the flight that arrived last week from Paris were Lauren Attelann, his wife and four children, ranging in age from 7 to 14. True, he says, these aren’t normal times, “but we knew exactly where we were going.”
Like many French newcomers, the Attelanns have moved to Ashdod, which has been a primary target for Hamas rocket fire.
“No, the kids aren’t scared,” says Attelann. “They see that my wife and I are calm, so that reassures them.”
On Monday, their container of household goods arrived at the port, and the family is now beginning to unpack. Only after the family is settled, says Attelann, will he begin exploring job opportunities.
Also on that flight was Simone Brami, a 68-year-old pensioner, who picked up and left Paris on her own to start a new life in Ashkelon, another hot spot for Hamas rockets. She’s already used to the sound of sirens from previous visits to Israel, she says, but had a bit of a surprise the other day when a Qassam rocket landed in the yard of the building next door. “It wasn’t traumatic,” she insists, “but I’d never seen anything like that before.”
At her age, Brami explains, she has no plans to look for employment and is looking for other ways to keep herself busy. “What I want to do is volunteer and help others,” she says.
Although life in Israel is not easy, acknowledges Kupchan, she finds it “comforting” to be in the country at times like this. “Because I’m here, I get to check in on friends and family and get a real sense of what’s happening.”