By Deborah Fineblum
Elie Schiff will tell you flat out that she was born into a family of Zionists. In fact, as far back as she can remember, her parents taught her to love Israel, and in 2014 both her brother and sister made aliyah in the middle of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip. While Schiff, too, has always considered moving to Israel in her future, just a few months after she learned of the brutal murder of mother-of-six Dafna Meir in the Jewish religious yishuv (village in Hebrew) of Otniel in Judea by a Palestinian terrorist in January of 2015, the recent nursing school grad decided she could no longer put off making Israel her home.
“I connected with her so fully, both of us being nurses, that I really needed to be [in Israel] sooner than later. I kept thinking, if I can continue her legacy and contribute to Israel as best I can, that’s what I want to do,” she added.
Schiff – who has graduated from Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women in New York, N.Y., and the completed her nursing degree from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., last December – then called off her job hunt in the U.S. and kicked her aliyah process into high gear. She also let Nefesh B’Nefesh, an organization coordinating aliyah for some 4,000 North Americans each year, know that she had decided to dedicate her aliyah to Meir.
“It just felt so right, and I hoped by honoring [Meir’s] memory in this way it might inspire others to make aliyah,” she said, explaining that she also asked the staff of Nefesh B’Nefesh to reach out to Meir’s family members to let them know how much Meir meant to her, and to ask if she could meet with them.
That meeting became possible when Schiff had only been an Israeli citizen for five days. She met Meir’s widower Natan Meir at the Kotel (the Western Wall in Hebrew) in Jerusalem’s Old City.
It was “the most special day of my life,” Schiff said, describing that hot July day.
“To actually meet the husband of the woman who had inspired me like no one else ever has was such an honor,” she said, adding that he later invited her to his daughter’s bat mitzvah the following week.
Meir’s murder has thrust her quiet family into the glare of the world’s spotlight through global media coverage of the terror attack, and through Meri’s 17-year-old daughter Renana‘s testimony before the United Nations in April, 2016.
“When I first heard that there was a young nurse dedicating her aliyah to Dafna, it was surprising and emotional for me and my children,” said Natan Meir, whose six kids range in age from five to 18, and include two foster children.
“It was beautiful that she was able to feel so connected to someone she never met and from so far away. But it also taught me something so important. If you open your heart this kind of amazing feeling will reach over to the other side, like when you throw a stone in the water, you see the ripple effect. That something wonderful could come from Dafna’s murder is itself amazing. When tragedy happens and someone you love is no longer with you, it’s very hard to find comfort, to find light. But when something like meeting Elie comes your way it pulls you up from the darkness,” he also said.
The grieving husband can also see that the blessing goes both ways.
“Once you do a good deed for your people, it elevates you, strengthens you. Since the word for nurse in Hebrew is achos – sister (in Hebrew) – when you are a nurse in Israel, you’re a part of a big family (both his own mother and his late wife’s biological mother were also nurses, he explains). “And though Dafna and Elie never met, now a deeper sisterly bond exists between them too.”
It so happens this is a fortuitous time to be a nurse in Israel, Debby Gedal-Beer, the coordinator of the women’s health and midwifery studies at Sheba Academic School of Nursing of the Tel Hashomer hospital in Ramat Gan, told JNS.org.
The field has come a long way in the three decades since Gedal-Beer, a New York native, made aliyah three decades ago.
“We’ve seen the emergence of nursing specialties, including surgical, intensive care, emergency medicine and nurse-practitioners, plus huge strides in our training programs,” she said, adding that flexible schedules for nurses in Israel tend to promote a healthy work-family balance and higher-than-average job satisfaction.
All of this makes it very appealing for trained young nurses to come to Israel. Indeed, more than a third of new olim are in their 20s, with many just graduating from college and looking to begin their careers on Israeli soil, Nefesh B’Nefesh reported.
Each incoming immigrant is a welcome builder of Israel’s future, says Nefesh B’Nefesh Co-Founder and Executive Director Rabbi Yehoshua Fass.
“Each and every oleh has their own personal trigger, something that drives them to make the life-changing decision to move to Israel, and Elie’s story is one that is profoundly inspiring,” he said, giving credit to Nefesh B’Nefesh partners Israel’s Ministry of Aliyah & Immigrant Absorption, The Jewish Agency for Israel, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and Jewish United Fund (JNF)-USA.
“To see that Jews everywhere, young and old, religious and secular, are determined to fulfill their dreams and build their future in the Jewish state is truly breathtaking,” he said.
For Schiff that dream is to continue Dafna Meir’s legacy of healing. Which is why Schiff keeps her role model’s prayer for nurses on her phone. The prayer’s final words ask for the praying nurse to get the power to alleviate suffering, and “to help [the patient] with all my ability every day and every hour using the tools that You have given me.”
“It captures the way I feel about [Meir] and our profession,” said Schiff. “I just hope I can contribute as much to Israel as she did.”