215 New Olim, 215 Dreams Fulfilled

Future Lone Soldiers at JFK airport thank Lou Cohen. (Shahar Azran)
Future Lone Soldiers at JFK airport thank Lou Cohen. (Shahar Azran)

Hadassah Bay

Ben Gurion Airport buzzed with fresh energy on Aug. 16 as 215 North American Olim stepped off Nefesh B’Nefesh’s 64th chartered Aliyah flight through El Al Israel Airlines, in cooperation with Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah & Integration, The Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael (KKL), Jewish National Fund-USA and Tzofim-Garin Tzabar. The diverse group, spanning a wide range of ages and professions, included a strong representation of health professionals, as well as dozens of future IDF soldiers, set to join the 3,500 young men and women from around the world in the Nefesh B’Nefesh Lone Soldiers Program.

Gregg and Rachel Levitan disembark in Tel Aviv. (Nethaniel Cohen)
Gregg and Rachel Levitan disembark in Tel Aviv. (Nethaniel Cohen)

Rachel Levitan of Baltimore, who together with her husband Gregg, had been contemplating Aliyah for several years and was elated to finally make the move. Her advice to all who are still in the dreaming stage: “No matter when you think you’ll be ready, start getting your paperwork together earlier rather than later. Then, as soon as you can make it happen, just do it!” With today’s digital landscape and the possibility of working remotely, Rachel emphasizes, “Aliyah is more achievable than ever before.”

The Levitans moved to Beit Shemesh where they are surrounded by a warm community of Anglo olim, including several Baltimore families whom they know from back in the US. Currently retired, they’re looking forward to touring the country, pursuing their hobbies and attending shiurim. While they’ll miss their daughters and grandchildren, Rachel says that they are not leaving them, but rather they are leading the way for them.

For Liam Asher of Pikesville, Maryland, returning to Israel was not a given, despite his American-Israeli parents. Before attending college, he opted to join a gap year Mechina program which proved to be transformative for him. The experience was a powerful one, to the extent where it led to his decision to move to Israel and contribute through serving in the IDF. “Growing up, I knew that my dad had served in the Israeli army; the idea of protecting those we love was always a subliminal message.”

Jesse Yishai Edberg of Bethesda Maryland, a fresh Tulane University graduate, said that for as long as he can remember he had wanted to make Aliyah. “It wasn’t a question of ‘if,’ but of ‘when.’” While friends from the JDS in Rockville fueled his inspiration to serve in the IDF, he added, “I see it as a moral and religious obligation to join the army and protect the Jewish people.”

Working behind the scenes to help make these dreams happen is Baltimore businessman and philanthropist, Lou Cohen, together with top-tier donors from the Jewish National Fund-USA.  Cohen, a Baltimore native who graduated City College and served in the Maryland National Guard, runs a successful car leasing business with children Alison and Marc. “It moves me to see these people embark on a journey that will impact countless generations to come,” he said.

Diane Scar, Jewish National Fund-USA National Campaign Director, Major Gifts, has seen the impact of Cohen’s game-changing giving over the decades. “Lou has achieved so much in business and for his community, yet he’s one of the most humble individuals you’ll ever meet,” she said. “He’s an extremely generous philanthropist, but never hesitates to share his time, expertise, and resources in a way that is truly inspiring.”

Scar discussed Jewish National Fund-USA’s vision to strengthen Israel by expanding the population in the developing northern and southern regions. “When new immigrants move to Israel, they can now look forward to building futures outside of the bustling, yet crowded cities like Tel Aviv, because we’ve created high quality of life opportunities in places like Be’er Sheva and Kiryat Shemonah. Together, we are building Israel for the next generation of pioneers.”

Doreet Freedman, Nefesh B’Nefesh’s VP of Development and Strategic Partnerships adds, “Lou Cohen’s generosity is an ongoing investment-with the dividends in people. He’s nourishing Israel by enabling individuals to bring their skills, idealism, and motivation to build and strengthen Israel. Simultaneously they are creating a living bridge of human connection and relationships between Baltimore and Israel which is the legacy that Lou is building!”

Freedman added, “Nefesh B’Nefesh took a Start-Up, holistic approach to Aliyah. We redefined the model with emphasis on excellent customer service coupled with  a strategic focus on addressing Israel’s critical national needs. We’ve effectively harnessed the potential of our North American Olim to serve as catalysts for the nation’s expansion and development.

Nefesh B’Nefesh boasts a solid 90% retention rate, thanks to its streamlined process and continuing support, ensuring that newcomers have a successful Aliyah experience. As a result, Nefesh B’Nefesh Olim become the country’s best PR ambassadors, encouraging others to make the move.  And, at the heart of it all, are trailblazers like Lou Cohen, who make it all possible.

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