March 7, 2007 / Adar 17, 5767
This year, Faces of Aliyah celebrates ten years of building bridges between Israel and Jewish communities abroad. The program is run in cooperation with the UJC Speakers Bureau. Since its inception in 1997, hundreds of immigrants have participated in the program’s missions as part of the Jewish Agency’s ongoing effort to strengthen personal connections between Israelis and Jews around the world.
“I felt really proud that I had an opportunity to see and thank all the people who have helped me and thousands like me to be in Israel and receive an education,” says Lora Yagudin, a Faces of Aliyah participant.
Young Israeli immigrants like Lora are traveling across North America to share the personal stories of their aliyah – the challenges and the triumphs, the hardships and the successes as part of the Jewish Agency’s Faces of Aliyah program. These young individuals come to Israel with a dream of rebuilding their lives in the Jewish homeland, many times all alone and often without any resources. They are representative of the hundreds of thousands of brave olim from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopia, South America and Europe who weave the unique and diverse tapestry that is Israeli society.
Programs like Faces of Aliyah enable audiences to hear first-hand how their generous support of the Jewish Agency is affecting lives and contributing to the growth and security of their homeland. The experience is transformative not only for those listening, but also for those telling the tale. “When I talk with people, a lot of times, there are moments I start to cry,” says Lora. "People in the audience start to cry with me. It’s really exciting and emotional.”
As part of the most recent Faces of Aliyah mission this past February, Chani Degahon spoke in several northeastern Jewish communities. Chani, 26, was born in Ethiopia’s Gondar region. Her father was a Hebrew teacher employed by the Jewish Agency as part of the underground movement to keep Judaism alive in the region. In the early 1980’s Chani’s father was imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to the death penalty.
As he stood in the execution line along with 12 other teachers, weapons raised in front of him, the telephone rang. The director of the prison walked over to Chani’s father and pulled him out of the line-up. The rest of the people were killed. “To this day we do not know why he was taken out,” says Chani.
In 1986, with the assistance of the Mossad and the Jewish Agency, six-year-old Chani and her family were brought to Israel. Today Chani lives in Tel Aviv and is taking a course in business entrepreneurship through MATI – the Small Business Development Center. “My dream has always been to start my own business…I want to open a pub that will serve as a center for Ethiopian young people and also introduce Israelis to our beautiful culture. I am going to work hard to make this a reality.”
Since the events of the second Lebanon war, the demand for speakers has grown significantly. Jews from around the world want to hear from young, Israeli immigrants about how they coped during the war and how they are surviving in their new homeland in the face of terrorizing external threats.
Lora visited communities in Michigan, Connecticut, Illinois and New York to speak not only about her aliyah story, but also her experience during the war. Ten years ago, Lora immigrated to Israel from the small Russian town of Sochi. When the Jewish Agency opened their offices there, Lora’s parents went to get matzah and wine for Passover and heard about the Na’aleh program which brings high school age students from the FSU to Israel. Lora’s parents felt that she would have better educational opportunities in Israel and signed her up for the program.
She was just 14 years old and all alone when she arrived. “I wasn’t nervous or worried,” she says. “I knew that I was coming to the Jewish state and that I would be taken care of.” Today she is pursuing a Master’s degree in urban planning at the prestigious Technion–Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.
Lora lives at the Jewish Agency’s Aba Houshi Student Absorption Center and remained there even as Katyusha missiles rained down upon the northern city. “Who ever thought that Haifa, in the heart of Israel, would be under attack,” she says. “In spite of the war, there was a special atmosphere at Aba Houshi. We were mostly all students with no family in Israel and no place to go. We were like one big family.”
One young audience member was so changed by the experience of listening to a Faces of Aliyah presenter that he wrote her a letter of gratitude. His words are a moving testimony to the effect of the program: "I believe we are destined to meet people who will have an impact on our lives. You, for what you do, and the passions that you have, and what you speak about, clearly have crossed my path for a reason; a wake up call if you will."
The next Faces of Aliyah Mission is scheduled from April 15th – 25th, 2007. For further information please contact Racheli Ben Lulu at RacheliB@jafi.org.