By Cindy Mindell
WATERBURY – As the Ledger went to press this week, 228 new olim (immigrants to Israel) from the U.S. and Canada – 29 families and 54 singles – were scheduled to board a flight for Israel from John F. Kennedy International Airport. The Nefesh B’Nefesh “Children’s Aliyah Flight” is so called for the 100 children who are accompanying their parents to the Jewish homeland, a collaboration with the Israeli Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption, the Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, and Jewish National Fund-USA.
One Connecticut family is on the passenger list: Sarah and Zelig Bergman and their four children – Eliyahu, 10; Zev, 8; Azriel, 6; and Elisheva, 2. The Bergmans will relocate from Waterbury to Even Shmuel, a religious Zionist village in southern Israel, east of Ashkelon.
Miami native Sarah, 31, and New Yorker Zelig, 34, have been married since 2002. Each had spent a year studying in Israel during college.
“When we got married, making aliyah was something we both dreamed about,” says Zelig, a New York-based real estate investor. The couple first lived in Staten Island, and then moved to Brooklyn in 2007, until Sarah finished her nursing degree. Eventually, they settled in Waterbury.
For the past decade, Zelig has traveled frequently to Israel, where he and a few friends distribute money to wounded soldiers and victims of terror. The group, Israel Solidarity Fund of America, got to know the family of Gilad Shalit after his 2005 abduction by Hamas, and helped fund the family’s protest tent that sat in front of the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem until Shalit’s release in 2011.
During a trip in January 2013, Zelig visited victims’ homes from Sderot in the south to Nazareth in the Galilee, distributing some $30,000 of his own money. “I came back and said to my wife, ‘What do you think about aliyah?’ and she said, ‘I’m in,’” he recalls. The couple visited Israel and chose Even Shmuel over a community like Ramat Beit Shemesh, a city near Jerusalem with a high percentage of immigrants from English-speaking countries. Their new community is a more eclectic mix, Zelig says, with some 20 percent native English speakers and 80 percent native Israelis.
“We’re leaving behind a lot of good friends in Waterbury, but Israel is the right place for us,” says Zelig, who will manage his company remotely, making regular visits to the New York office.
The Bergmans’ three sons have varying reactions to the move. “The 8-year-old is super-duper excited and the 6-year-old and 10-year-old have expressed serious feelings about leaving their current environment, friends, and school,” he says. “Our kids are our number-one priority and we want to make sure they have as easy a transition as possible.”
Despite the current military conflict raging between Israel and Gaza, the Bergmans never thought of canceling or postponing their aliyah.
“Even though we’re flying into a war zone, we’re just as excited as we always were,” says Sarah. The couple has been preparing their four children for the move by watching videos and talking about the situation. “Our family is concerned, but this is where we’re going,” she says.
Zelig’s grandparents, who lost most of their family to the Holocaust, made aliyah in 1948 from a DP camp in Europe and immigrated to Brooklyn when Zelig’s father was 11. Zelig’s mother was born in Czechoslovakia and was raised in France and Santiago, Chile before the family moved to Los Angeles in search of a robust Jewish community. Zelig’s parents met in New York.
“My father always wanted to go back to Israel but my mother never wanted to leave New York,” he says. “So he’s thrilled that we’re doing this.”
Zelig is hopeful that, with the current pressure from the international community, a ceasefire will be in place by the time the Nefesh B’Nefesh group arrives in Israel.
“Most of my father’s family lost their lives in the Holocaust,” Zelig says. “Unfortunately, the Jewish nation will be persecuted until the Messiah comes, so you have to have faith and live your life. We’re not supposed to give in to terror; that’s not what we’re about.”